Witness to History : The time was the ‘60s. The nation was in tumult. Kathleen Neal Cleaver--diplomat’s daughter, civil rights organizer, housewife, attorney . . . revolutionary--recalls her years with Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers.
Friends warned her about the hazards of walking alone in the pedestrian tunnels that connect the New York subway. It’s dangerous down there, they said, forgetting--if they ever knew--that for years, Kathleen Cleaver lived with threats on her life; “the fact,” she once remarked offhandedly, “that you might be killed any minute.”
Still, it came as a rude shock when a young punk--a kid no older than her son, Maceo--put a gun to her temple. Cash , he hissed. Give it to me. And that ring. The money, she handed over willingly. The ring, she paused over. As a girl her father had placed it on her right hand. When she married, her husband slipped it on her left.
Her assailant cocked his weapon. She gave him the ring. She parted, at that moment, with her only tangible link to the two most influential men in her life. But later, as she mulled over the significance of the loss, she realized she had gained the opening to the memoir she had been struggling with--trying and trying to write--for more than a decade.
Here at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, where she is spending the year writing full time, Kathleen Neal Cleaver tells this story as one chapter in a life of extraordinary witness. Diplomat’s daughter, civil rights organizer, full-time revolutionary, suburban housewife, single mother, part-time cleaning lady, high-priced attorney, professor of law: Fifty years old last month, she has simmered in the caldron of contemporary history. Her book, “Memories of Love and War” (under contract to W.W. Norton & Co.), will cover the years from 1954 to 1984; from Brown vs. the Board of Education to her own education, a summa cum laude diploma from Yale and a juris doctorate from Yale law school.
“I’d say in the time frame I’m covering, the United States was going through a transformation the level of which had not gone on since the Civil War,” she said. “And it was tied to the Civil War, all the unresolved issues.”
Until now, the autobiography has remained uncompleted because Cleaver was enmeshed in what she calls “the tyranny of the everyday,” ordinary events that swallow every breathing moment. There were two kids to raise, Maceo--now 25 and researching the effect of stress and the environment on African American youth in Atlanta--and Joju, a 24-year-old Sarah Lawrence College graduate who hopes to become an actress. When the children were still in elementary school, Cleaver left her husband, the celebrated militant Eldridge Cleaver, and headed East to resume her education. Having left Barnard College in 1965 to work for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she entered Yale as “an older” student--that is, older than 30.
Among the jobs she held to finance her schooling was one cleaning houses. That shows up on her three-page resume, along with her current position as assistant professor of law at Atlanta’s Emory University and two years as an associate at the kid-gloved Manhattan law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. Her job as communications secretary for the Black Panthers in Oakland does not.
The organization was young then, founded in 1966 to combat what its members believed was a pattern of police violence against the African American community.
When the Panthers traveled en masse, their very presence made a statement, remembers DugaldStermer, the former art director of Ramparts magazine. He recalled Kathleen Cleaver as a formidable figure who “didn’t want anyone accusing her of being nobility.”
She adopted “a more-radical-than-thou kind of personality,” said Stermer, who is on the board of directors of the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco. “She was saying ‘right on’ a few more times than she had to.”
Pictures from that era show Cleaver with a giant black Afro and an expression of intense determination. Today her hair is a mass of golden brown braids, Pre-Raphaelite style.
It was in 1967 that she met Eldridge Cleaver. He was handsome and he was charismatic. “The other thing was that he was so smart,” his former wife recalled. The fact that he was also on parole from Soledad Prison was not a concern.
Cleaver had spent part of her childhood in India, where her father was in the Foreign Service. “Nehru had written a book in jail. To be with people who had been in jail had no stigma to me.”
Besides, she thought of Eldridge as a writer not an ex-con. “Soul on Ice” had just been published, and he was working for Ramparts, the now-defunct journal of 1960s leftist politics.
They married nine months after they met. Four months after their wedding, her husband was arrested following a shootout involving some Black Panthers and the Oakland Police. Initially he was released, but when he was ordered to return to court, he left the country. His wife followed on what turned into a six-year sojourn in Algeria, Cuba and France.
It was a political whirlwind that saw the Cleavers expelled from the Panthers in 1971.
“By the time I’m 22, I’m married,” she said. “By the time I’m 24, I’m in Algeria and pregnant. By the time I’m 25, I have two kids. And I’m tired.”
While working for a photojournalism agency in Paris in 1974, Cleaver began outlining a book about their four years in Algeria, “an experience so bizarre that the only way I knew how to make sense out of it was to write about it.” But the story was complicated, and the complexities continued to confound her as she endeavored to put pen to paper.
Four drafts--and 20 years--later, Cleaver is still into a book she now intends to complete by next year. Starling Lawrence, Cleaver’s editor at W.W. Norton, remains convinced that Cleaver’s “unique, to say the least, perspective” will be an asset in recounting this period.
“Here is someone who was involved in some of the great issues of our time, up to her eyeballs,” Lawrence said.
The recent film “Panther” reflects another dimension of public fascination with the topic. Directed by Mario van Peebles, the movie is based on a novel by his father, Melvin, and bills itself as a story, not a documentary. Still, some critics charged that the movie painted an excessively rosy image of the Panthers as urban do-gooders, running such programs as free breakfasts for schoolchildren.
But Cleaver, who had no role in making the film, views the movie as not unlike a Western--not entirely historically accurate, but “just a movie, after all.”
By contrast, Cleaver’s book envelopes actual events and individuals. And in so doing, Cleaver said, she is attempting to record the black power movement as it took its place alongside the anti-war movement and the women’s movement.
Cleaver viewed herself as “a revolutionary,” a role that was a logical progression, she said, of her involvement in the civil rights movement. Her work in the rural South was not so different from what the Panthers were up to in the Bay Area, she said. “They weren’t talking about some abstract notion of justice, but dealing with the welfare of masses of black people,” she explained.
While Cleaver has been known to liken the Panthers to Minute Men, a group of armed citizens defending their community, the fact is that shootouts between the police and the Panthers were not uncommon. Cleaver insists that the Panthers were not advocates of violence.
Still, metaphorically and literally, “blood on the ground” was among the legacies of the Panther period, Cleaver said, which makes her switch to the legal aristocracy somewhat puzzling. Far from practicing poverty law, Cleaver went straight to one of this country’s most prestigious groups of attorneys, a firm described by one of Cleaver’s acquaintances as “the white Panthers.”
Cleaver dismisses such notions. “They are very smart people,” she said of her former legal colleagues. The pay was good, and she had two children and “a lot of legal education bills” to pay off.
But Cleaver has by no means disassociated herself from her previous life. She remains involved, for example, in an ongoing effort to free imprisoned former Panther leader Elmer (Geronimo) Pratt, who is serving a life sentence in California for a 1968 robbery and murder.
In 1987, she got divorced. By that time the procedure was a formality, ending what had become an unhappy, abusive union. “It wasn’t the divorce that was acrimonious,” she said. “It was the marriage.”
Cleaver said her children are in touch with their father, who lives in Berkeley, but she has no contact with her ex-husband. Today she keeps company with a New York filmmaker, St. Clair Bourne.
Cleaver hopes her book will rekindle interest in what she sees as the positive pillars of the old Panther philosophy: “conviction, determination, commitment.”
In the Sturm und Drang of the 1960s, Cleaver said, “everybody was talking. You couldn’t shut them up. There was all this commentary, but there was also a resonance.”
Then again, she pointed out, “If you know someone is listening, you’ll say something.”
Cleaver balked at the image of herself as a prism through which some of this history might be filtered. “I don’t know if that’s the right word,” she said, pausing to search for another description. Finally, she said, “I’m a witness.” Her face lit into a smile. “And I have a big mouth.”