Kathleen Cleaver

(1945 - )

Speech delivered at Memorial Service for Bobby Hutton

Merritt Park, Oakland, California - April 12, 1968

Kathleen Cleaver

Kathleen Cleaver was the first woman to become a highly visible leader in the militant Black Panther Party, and one of the few women to emerge as a nationwide symbol of the black power movement. From 1967 to 1971, Cleaver was the Panthers' communications secretary. She worked closely with her husband, Eldridge Cleaver, and other Panther leaders to expand the ranks of the party nationwide, while fending off a secret FBI campaign to destroy the Panthers.1

Kathleen Neal was born in Dallas, Texas in 1945. She grew up in a well-educated, middle-class family. Her father, a sociologist, joined the Foreign Service when Neal was a girl; she spent half her childhood living abroad. Neal attended a Quaker high school near Philadelphia and graduated with honors. She was a talented student, but in 1966 dropped out of Barnard College in New York to work full time on civil rights issues with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The black power movement was on the rise and Neal wanted to be a part of it. Like many young African Americans in the mid-1960s, she was fed up with what she considered the limited gains made by the civil rights movement. She embraced the potential of the black power movement to push African Americans toward full self-determination and to contest, as she said, "the remaining legacy of racial slavery."2

At a SNCC conference in 1967, Neal met Eldridge Cleaver, the radical intellectual who was on parole from California's Soledad Prison. Cleaver had been convicted of rape and served nearly a decade in prison. He was completing a book of essays on race issues he wrote while in jail. Cleaver's Soul on Ice was published to significant acclaim and became a classic of black power literature. Kathleen says that at the SNCC conference, Eldridge "was thrilled to be around those civil rights organizers whose courage had inspired him from afar, and the revolutionary atmosphere he encountered among us captivated him."3

Kathleen Neal also captivated him. Eldridge convinced Kathleen to join him in San Francisco to work for the Black Panther Party. He had begun to work with the party as minister of information shortly after his release from prison. "What appealed to me about the Black Panther Party was that it took th[e] position of self-determination and articulated it in a local community structure," Kathleen Cleaver told Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a 1997 interview. "[It] had a program, had a platform and an implementation [strategy] through the statement of how blacks should exercise community control over education, housing, business, military service."4 Kathleen and Eldridge married in December 1967.

As the most prominent woman in the Black Panther Party, Kathleen Cleaver was often asked about the role women played in the organization. She always responded that it was the same role as a man's. For Kathleen, the only relevant question was simply, "Where can I go to get involved in the revolutionary struggle?"5 According to Cleaver, her activism was built on the work of a long line of African American women who had come before. In a 2001 essay, "Women, Power, and Revolution," Cleaver writes that while growing up, she was inspired by women like Gloria Richardson, Diane Nash and Ruby Doris Robinson, all of whom led daring assaults on Southern segregation. According to Cleaver, "These women were unfurling a social revolution in the Deep South."6

Cleaver's mission was to unfurl a revolution in the rest of the United States. As she writes, "Those of us who were drawn to the early Black Panther Party were just one more insurgent band of young men and women who refused to tolerate the systematic violence and abuse being meted out to…blacks. When we looked at our situation, when we saw the violence, bad housing, unemployment, rotten education, unfair treatment in the courts, as well as direct attacks from the police, our response was to defend ourselves. We became part of that assault against the capitalist powers."7

Kathleen Cleaver was a skilled organizer and Panther spokesperson. She created the position of communications secretary based on what she had seen activist Julian Bond do in SNCC. As Cleaver writes, "I organized demonstrations. I wrote leaflets. I held press conferences. I attended court hearings. I designed posters. I appeared on television programs, I spoke at rallies."8

One of those rallies was held in honor of Bobby Hutton, a 17-year-old Panther killed by police in an Oakland, California shootout. In her speech, Cleaver describes Hutton as a martyr for black liberation and laments the tyranny of the criminal justice system. More than 1000 people attended the memorial service in Oakland's Merritt Park. As Kathleen spoke, her husband Eldridge was in jail in nearby Vacaville. He had fought the police alongside Hutton and had been wounded. He was arrested for violating his parole.

The gunfight was part of an escalating series of confrontations between Panthers and law enforcement officials.9 Beginning in August, 1967, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ordered a wide-ranging counter-intelligence program designed to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" the Black Panther Party and other black liberation groups.10 The code name was COINTELPRO. Enlisting local law enforcement agencies nationwide, the FBI "declared war on the Panthers."11 Their tactics included infiltrating the party, sowing mistrust and conflict among members and planting false and misleading stories in the media.12 In 1968, alone, the police killed at least eight Panthers in Los Angeles, Oakland and Seattle. The next year they arrested 348 Panthers "for a range of offenses, among them murder, rape, robbery, and assault."13 In 1969, the police and FBI killed at least 10 other Panthers, including two in Chicago who were shot in their sleep.14

Eldridge Cleaver continued to have his own troubles with the law. He was released from the prison in Vacaville in June 1968, but was ordered to return to jail at the end of November to serve out the rest of his original prison sentence. On November 24, 1968, Eldridge disappeared, fleeing first to Cuba and then to Algiers. Kathleen joined him there in June of 1969, just in time to give birth to their first child, Maceo. The next year she gave birth to a daughter, Joju. The Cleavers lived in exile until 1975, when they decided to come home. Eldridge had undergone an enormous conversion, abandoning his revolutionary principles and embracing Christianity. He was ready to surrender, serve time and move on.

In the late 1970s, Eldridge became well known as a politically conservative, born-again Christian. Kathleen, meanwhile, retained her radical views. The two separated in 1981 and she moved with her children to New Haven, where she earned her BA and law degrees from Yale University. Kathleen went on to practice law and to teach at several schools, including Emory University in Atlanta. Despite her own move into the ranks of the middle-class, Cleaver has remained deeply critical of capitalism.

The Black Panther Party was all but dead by the end of 1971, destroyed in part by the FBI, in part by internal disagreements and confrontations. As the scholar Ward Churchill writes, "Both the relative inexperience of its leadership and the obvious youthfulness of the great majority of its members helped prevent the Party from mounting a mature response to the situation it confronted." However, Churchill continues,"The scale and intensity of the repression to which it was subject…make it doubtful that even the most seasoned group of activists would have done better."15

Kathleen Cleaver says another reason the Panthers failed to incite revolution in the United States has to do with capitalism itself. According the Cleaver, too many Americans had a financial stake in maintaining the status quo. "When you have people who are revolutionaries," she told Henry Louis Gates in 1997, "they repudiate the commitment to making money, and say, 'We want justice. We want change. We want truth. We want freedom.' Well, that's not going to work if the structure [of society] is based on financial rewards and financial incentives. So we were at odds with the way the system worked. We had a different idea. We said, 'Power to the people.'"16

Listen to the speech

My first reaction upon finding out about the attack upon the leadership of the Black Panther Party April 6, was that I was glad that I was not a widow for black liberation.

Here I have a message, a telegram that I think I'd like to read, from the widow of our greatest spokesman for black liberation, Malcolm X. It's to the family of Bobby James Hutton, in care of myself.

The question is not will it be nonviolence versus violence, but whether a human being can practice his God-given right to self-defense. Shot down like a common animal, he died a warrior for black liberation. If the generation before him had not been afraid, he perhaps would be alive today.

Remember, like Solomon, there's a time for everything. A time to be born, a time to die, a time to love, a time to hate. A time to fight, and a time to retreat. For brotherhood and survival, remember Bobby. It could be your husband, your son, or your brother tomorrow. Crimes against an individual are often crimes against an entire nation. To his family: only time can eliminate the pain of losing him, but may he be remembered in the hearts and minds of all of us. Betty Shabazz.

Whatever path we seem to take, it always has one end: a racist bullet. A racist bullet murdered Malcolm X, murdered Martin Luther King, murdered Bobby Hutton. Attempted to murder Huey Newton; attempted to murder Eldridge Cleaver. From the streets, from the flying of this bullet in the air into the flesh of a black man, a whole structure proceeds: walls of courthouses, bars of jails, locked keys, billy-clubs, police.

Everywhere you turn you're encaged. The same police force, the very same police force that murdered Bobby Hutton in cold blood, deliberately, provided a funeral escort to the cemetery. The very same police force that attempted to assassinate Eldridge Cleaver is lining the highways from here to Vacaville, stacked deep. The town of Vacaville is closed down. There's double security on the penitentiary. Machine gun guards in the church.

One bullet in the flesh is not enough; 50 policemen in the streets of West Oakland is not enough for them. Right over there in the parking lot they've got 700 policemen, waiting.

Huey Newton – there on the 10th floor of the Alameda County Courthouse – Huey Newton held the key to liberating the black people. He stated if the racist-dog policemen do not withdraw from the black community, cease their wanton murder, and torture and brutality of black people, they will face the wrath of the armed people.

For the simple demand – basic human liberty – Huey Newton is in jail, charged with murder. Bobby Hutton is dead. Eldridge Cleaver is in jail, charged with three counts of assault with attempt to murder. David Hilliard, national captain of the party is in jail, three counts of murder. And a series of other brothers in the Black Panther Party. This is only the first. They move against every leadership as it extends itself. As each group of leaders rises up their [inaudible], but they cannot stop [us] by wiping away our leaders. For every leader that's shot down, more spring up, until the people rise up as one man and fight and gain their liberation, and this is what this one man, Bobby Hutton, died for.

We lost something very precious when we lost Bobby Hutton. But Bobby Hutton didn't lose anything. Bobby Hutton took his stand; he gave his life. And here we are, we have our lives. He added something to them. It's up to us, to whether we can treasure that and carry that forward, or if we'll allow the walls of the jails and bullets of the racist dog police to increasingly intimidate and encircle and murder us until we degenerate into a state maintained purely by brute police power. This time, this day, is not far off. We have very little time. We are in a race against time.

Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Hutton. Thank you.

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