Exclusive: Emory acquires papers of former Black Panther Party leader and scholar

The leading university highlights the life, legacy and activism of Kathleen Cleaver.

Credit: Kathleen Cleaver

Credit: Kathleen Cleaver

A young Kathleen Cleaver looked at newspaper photographs of little Black girls singing protest songs in Albany, Georgia, as they were forced into police paddy wagons. She saw possibility.

The movement to desegregate the town was in full flower in 1961. Arrests of the child protesters made headlines across the country. At the time, Cleaver was a 16-year-old student at the George School, a private Quaker boarding school outside Philadelphia. While the arresting officers treated the children’s protests as a threat to racial segregation and white supremacy in Albany, Cleaver saw inspiration in the girls’ faces.

“I wanted to be like them,” she told an interviewer for a 2011 Smithsonian oral history project recorded in her Atlanta home.

Credit: Kathleen Cleaver

Credit: Kathleen Cleaver

Not quite two years after the Albany Movement, Cleaver yearned to join the March on Washington. Her parents forbade it, believing the march could spiral into violence. But within five years, Cleaver’s desire to join the civil rights movement was more than fulfilled. She joined the Black Power vanguard and quickly rose to become one of the most iconic members of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

Now, amid political division and racial reckoning not seen since the 1960s, Cleaver’s legacy is in the spotlight. Emory University formally announced late Monday it has acquired the papers, photographs, manuscripts and ephemera of Cleaver, who recently retired after being an attorney and senior lecturer at Emory’s law school since 1992. Her collection is one of the last obtained by Pellom McDaniels III, curator of African American collections at Emory’s Rose Library, before his death this spring.

Credit: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.co

Credit: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.co

The university declined to say what it paid for Cleaver’s papers but considers them to be one of the most significant acquisitions in its African American collections. Because the library is closed to the general public because of COVID-19 concerns, the collection isn’t accessible in person.

Yet, when considering the breadth of the African American collections, Cleaver’s papers join those of groups that used disparate tactics to achieve similar goals of justice: ending racial segregation, Black voter disenfranchisement and police killings of Black people. Among the holdings are the papers of Elaine Brown, a fellow Panther member who became the first woman to lead the party; the archive of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and those of several members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

“When the civil rights movement took on Jim Crow head on, they had to strategize; they had to think through, ‘What are the strengths and weaknesses, and how do we hit those weaknesses to topple the system?’” said Carol Anderson, chair of African American Studies at Emory and author of the bestseller, “White Rage: the Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.” “The Panthers were looking at a larger system, too, a system dealing with economic oppression as well as political oppression. What level of analysis did it take for them to say, ‘The self-defense of our community is not just self-defense against the police,’?”

How power is gained

Through the lens of now, Cleaver’s papers take on even greater weight.

“When you talk about Ms. Cleaver’s papers, I can’t think of too many more that are relevant to what we’re going through right now as a country,” said Randy Gue, curator of political, cultural and social movements at the Rose Library.

Cleaver’s family declined an interview with Cleaver on her behalf, citing health concerns. Yet, the more than 2,000 photographs and the 100 boxes in her collection speak for her. They tell a story of family activism that begins a century before her involvement in the Black Panther Party; of her birth in Texas and girlhood in Tuskegee; her adolescence as the child of a foreign services officer stationed in the Philippines, India, Sierra Leone and Liberia; and her time in New York and Atlanta as a secretary for SNCC.

Common interest in her life is often confined to her years as chief communications officer for the Panthers, who emerged in 1966 as a collaboration between Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. The men met in college in Oakland, California. They formed the Panthers as a direct response to police violence against Black people in and around the city.

But before that, before Cleaver’s marriage to Eldridge Cleaver, one of the Panther’s most pivotal leaders, before the couple’s years in exile in Algiers after a shootout with police left an early Panther member dead, Cleaver spent her early life in the Jim Crow South. Given the time, she had advantages. Her parents had college degrees. Her father was a professor at Wiley College and later ran an outreach program for black farmers at then Tuskegee Institute.

In the Smithsonian interview, Cleaver said though she didn’t realize it as child that the experience of living in a country beginning to govern itself after 200 years of British colonial rule was formative. She learned more lessons about how power is gained and wielded as her family moved on to posts in the Philippines, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

“You feed them”

Helping to organize images from that period with a team of seven other scholars was a high point for Leigh Raiford, an associate professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Raiford, author of “Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the Black Freedom Struggle,” said she met Cleaver several years ago at Yale, where Cleaver earned her law degree. About three years ago, Cleaver asked Raiford to come to Atlanta to organize her photo archive.

“We see her growing up in these decolonizing Black and brown nation-states around the world,” Raiford said. “We see her parents, grieving the president of Sierra Leone or at the Christmas party of the president of Liberia or her father riding bikes in India. We see her growing up in these various communities and nations throughout the world.”

That period of Cleaver’s life isn’t as well-known as her time with the Panthers. Neither is the image of her as a teenager in 1961, her hair pressed and curled like the girls’ arrested in Albany. Just five years after that portrait was taken Cleaver, who attended Oberlin and Barnard colleges, became a secretary in the New York office of SNCC. Soon after she transferred to the Atlanta office after Stokely Carmichael displaced John Lewis as the organization’s chairman. Carmichael shouted the new liberation cry, “Black Power!” at a rally in Greenville, Mississippi, in June 1966 with Martin Luther King Jr. by his side. Months later, “Black Power!” rang out during the uprising in Atlanta’s Summerhill neighborhood after police there shot a black man to death.

Credit: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.co

Credit: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.co

Cleaver met her future husband while organizing a SNCC conference. She left Atlanta and moved to San Francisco to be with him. She wasn’t yet 23. By then, Eldridge was a member of the Black Panther Party. She joined as well, drawn to the idea that change would involve armed resistance. She’d already seen what non-violence could and couldn’t accomplish. Equally compelling was the Panthers’ 10-point program addressing basic community needs, among them nutritious food and health care. The Panthers’ free breakfast program for children and health clinics were early staples of the movement.

“The community can’t be a force, if they are worried about their next meal, so if you feed them, they can focus on other things,” said Gue.

The image of her in the late 1960s speaking around the country on behalf of the party is indelible: her shoulders sheathed in a black leather jacket, her piercing blue eyes shielded by sunglasses, her Afro luminous. Depending on the viewer, she was a vision of Black womanhood to be either emulated or feared.

Credit: Kathleen Cleaver

Credit: Kathleen Cleaver

“Very much the same”

That period of her life, through the Panthers’ demise from constant FBI surveillance and infiltration as well as power struggles within the party, are what will make her collection valuable to scholars. Included are her correspondences with Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Fred Hampton, Stokely Carmichael and others. So too are photographs of her, her husband (whom she divorced in 1987) and their two children, Joju and Maceo, while they lived in exile.

But her life post Black Panther Party, where she became a lawyer, author and professor, is equally represented.

Jina Duvernay is a collection development archivist who helped pack up Cleaver’s papers. She’s hopeful the lesson of tenacity and resistance contained in them might be of service in this moment in the nation’s history.

“It’s not like police violence is new,” Duvernay said. “For me, the similarity is the drive to hold police accountable for the killing and racist violence against Black people. Though the time feels different now, it’s very much the same.”