Kathleen Cleaver looks at then and now on PBS’ ‘Black America Since MLK’

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The outrage following Beyoncé's Super Bowl 50 performance paying homage to the women of the Black Panther Party earlier this year proved that the "black power" organization co-founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, Calif., triggers high emotions even today. And Kathleen Neal Cleaver, a professor at Emory Law School for over two decades now, was in the thick of it all.

As the first communications secretary for the Black Panther Party, Cleaver, who also married the organization’s controversial minister of information Eldridge Cleaver (who brought her into the fold), came to national and international prominence during Newton’s high-profile court appearances surrounding allegations of killing a police officer in 1967.

She emerged as the first prominent female member of the Black Panther Party. And, in his latest PBS series, “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise,” which explores the last five decades of African-American history in this country, Henry Louis Gates speaks with Cleaver about the Panthers’ lasting impact. Even today, her passion for the work in which they engaged cannot be contained.

“It was a wonderful, an amazing coming together after 50 years of a movement that has in fact impacted the world,” she says via telephone about attending the Black Panther Party 50th Anniversary festivities in Oakland in late October. “Not just black people in the United States but the world,” she adds. “There are many groups in other countries that have modeled their resistance to the same type of racial or economic or ethnic exclusion such as the Maori in New Zealand.”

Cleaver, born in Memphis, Tenn., was introduced to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) while a student in New York and worked in its fundraising office there as a secretary before becoming a secretary in the Atlanta office. While helping to organize a conference, she met her future husband Eldridge Cleaver and moved from Atlanta to Oakland. Even though her history in the city is long, she insists that “I’m not really the person to comment much about Atlanta. It’s a very pleasant place to live and I enjoy living here.”

Teaching at Emory Law School has been particularly pleasant for the Yale Law School alum. “You work with people who are smart, who are young, who want to accomplish something. They have a lot of energy and you’re teaching them different aspects of the law,” she says.

Her experiences with the Panthers, particularly raising awareness around their co-founder Newton’s legal battles spearheaded by attorney Charles Garry, inspired her to go to law school. And many of those concerns influence her work to this day.

“The area I’ve been teaching in is legal history and areas of law and citizenship and law and race,” she explains. “This is an area that academically and politically that’s interesting to me so I get to teach about things that are interesting to me.”

She also finds today’s political landscape interesting in how it has and has not changed. “The United States is a very intriguing country in that it has a lot of flexibility. You can make a lot of changes and, guess what, things kind of end up in the same place. Maybe not the same way but the same place,” she says.

“The fundamental issues when we came into existence was the Vietnam War, racial domination and economic exploitation,” she explains, referring to the Black Panther Party. “So the only one not on the top of the list is the Vietnam War. We still have a lot of economic exploitation, a lot of racial domination, not necessarily in the same patterns, not necessarily to the same degree, but there is plenty of work to do to reach what folks used to call the Promised Land.”

Cleaver sees echoes of the past all around us. “We’re in a mode the puts Donald Trump in the role of George Wallace, Bernie Sanders in the role of McGovern and Hillary Clinton in the role of Richard Nixon,” Cleaver explains, citing an observation by a journalist whose name she cannot recall, just hours before Trump’s surprising election as president. “I find that very useful. So that shows some things change, some things haven’t.”

And, in the wake of it all, some would argue that Black Lives Matter is as high-profile today as the Black Panther Party was then. Yet Cleaver admits to not being intimately involved with that movement. "I'm an observer of Black Lives Matter," she explains. "I'm not a participant and I really don't have any close ties to make any comment other than what I read in the paper.

“What I will say is, when I first read about them, they said that they took their model from Ella Baker, who was a very wise and important figure in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which is the organization that I was in in the late 1960s. So that’s a wise choice.

“That means that they’ve committed to social justice and nonviolence and they have some sort of structure that allows the members to form their own chapters and basically choose the path that they want.”

Fifty years later, she, like many others, remains curious as to why the government chose to attack the Panthers. “It’s not the only organization, but it’s the most attacked organization. Therefore it’s been one of the best known,” she says. “I think the government needs to answer for it. Why was it the most attacked? It was attacked because obviously the FBI and the federal government and many other state governments and police departments thought that this was not something that they wanted to deal with and they set out to destroy it.”

Still, there have been unexpected highlights in the journey from then to now. “We have had a black president in the White House for eight years, which is something most people couldn’t even have imagined, particularly black people, but it happened. And it has had its effect. Its effect culturally. It’s also had its effect politically,” she says.


“Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise”

GPB, 8 p.m. Nov. 15 and Nov. 22