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HomeINSPIRATIONOn the Shoulders of Giants: Kathleen Cleaver

On the Shoulders of Giants: Kathleen Cleaver

On May 13, 1945, Kathleen Cleaver was born in Memphis, Texas to college educated parents who helped set a foundation for a successful life. Her father was a professor of sociology at Wiley College, while her mother held a master’s degree in mathematics. Kathleen’s father accepted a job as the director of the Rural Life Counsel of Tuskegee University moving his family to Alabama. Soon after their move, her father began working with the Foreign Service. During this time the family lived in India, the Philippines, and Sierra Leone. Kathleen Cleaver would eventually return to the United States, where she would graduate high school with honors in 1963.  After graduation she would attend Oberlin College and later transferred to Bernard College before dropping out in 1966. Her next step was to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

While attending Fisk University, Kathleen organized a student conference, there she would meet her soon to be husband, Eldridge Cleaver. In 1967 she moved to San Francisco and joined the Black Panther Party. Kathleen and Eldridge would become husband and wife in December of 1967, and Kathleen would begin to rise in the ranks of the Black Panthers. She became the communications secretary and the first female of the Panther’s decision making body. She would also serve as the spokesperson and press secretary for the Party. Kathleen was the initial organizer of the national campaign to free Huey Newton from jail. In 1968, she ran for the 18th state assembly district, she received 4% of the votes and finished third out of four candidates. The Cleavers became a target of police investigations which led to a raid of their home in 1968.

Kathleen would move to Algeria following a confrontation between Eldridge and the Oakland Police Department. Eldridge Cleaver fled the United States for Cuba before reuniting with Kathleen in Algeria. In 1975, Kathleen returned to the United States and continued her education. She would receive her B.A. in history from Yale in 1984, and earned a Phi Beta Kappa election. In 1989, Kathleen would receive a law degree from the Yale Law School, as well as became an associate at the law firm of Cravath, Swain and Moore. She would later become a clerk for Judge A. Leon Higginbotham of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. She served on the Georgia Supreme Court Commission for Racial and Ethnic Bias, and served as a board member of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. Kathleen has used her position to help former Black Panther Party leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt gain his freedom, after a 27 year prison sentence for a crime he did not commit.

Kathleen Cleaver is a Senior Research Associate at Yale Law School and she is the executive producer of the Black Panther Party Film Festival. She has won numerous fellowships for her writing from institutions such as the Bunting Institute of Radcliff College and the W.E.B. Dubois Institute of Harvard University. Kathleen Cleaver is beautiful, brilliant, relentless, and a true agent of freedom and change. Miss. Kathleen Cleaver, we proudly stand on your shoulders.


J.A. Ward.

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