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Kathleen Neal Cleaver: Communications Secretary

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Cover Photo: Courtesy of Jeff Blankfort

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) embodied the “pinnacle” of what Kathleen Neal Cleaver wanted to do and their former headquarters at 360 Nelson Street in Atlanta is now a vacant lot.

Before joining SNCC in 1966, Kathleen Neal had been keeping up with reports on the unrest taking place across the country. She was now a sophomore at Barnard College in uptown Manhattan and completely enamored with SNCC and the Civil Rights Movement after spending her childhood in India, the Philippines, Liberia and Sierra Leon. “Indians ran India, Philippine people ran the Philippines…I couldn’t accept white supremacy. It didn’t make any sense.”

Photo: Leila Wills
Photo: Leila Wills

Her father, Ernest Neal, was part of the Economic Council of Sharecroppers who were resisting harsh practices and unfair policies in Texas before becoming the director of the Rural Life Council at Tuskegee University in Alabama. He later joined the United States Foreign Service which required him and his family to live abroad. Kathleen became a teenager and she returned to the States to attend boarding school.

In 1966, her father was paying $800 a semester for Kathleen to attend Barnard before she persuaded him to give her the money so she could “get a real education” by joining the Civil Rights Movement. He agreed but with a caveat, “for one year only.”

Between February and May of 1966, Stokely Carmichael and students from SNCC were in Lowndes County, Alabama. The black population of Lowndes County was an 82% majority but eighty-plus white families owned 90% of the land and amidst voter fraud, suppression and intimidation, blacks lose all political contests. In organizing, they first seek help through a Christian civil rights group but soon decide that unless they take control of the political process itself, they would continue to “ask” that their rights be upheld. Most are completely illiterate and cannot read nor write so political parties must use symbols to ensure votes.

Lowndes County Freedom Organization, 1967   lowndes county

Under the direction of SNCC, the people form an independent political party,  using a black panther as their symbol, calling it, “The Black Panther Party of Lowndes County Freedom Organization. The opposing campaign’s choice is a white rooster with the slogan, “White Supremacy for the Right.”

It is the summer of 1966 when Kathleen Neal serendipitously meets Ivanhoe Donaldson in New York, a new SNCC director, who asks her, “What’re you doing?” She says, “I’m looking for a job.” He says, “Well, I’m looking for a secretary.”  She joins the very group she has been idolizing but what she does not realize is that SNCC is falling apart.

The headquarters building at  360 Nelson Street was bought for them “by a white millionaire from Chicago” and SNCC had numerous white donors. To the disagreement of some of their donors, supporters and members, the organization is now moving away from the policies and practices of nonviolence and headed toward a more militant stance. The previous chant, “What do we want? Freedom Now!” is now, “What do we want? Black Power!”  Ivanhoe Donaldson, Kathleen’s new boss, supports this new direction for SNCC even though Stokely Carmichael himself is now being referred to as “Starmichael.”

But Kathleen sees Black Power in the context of the  international movements of Africans and Asians to free themselves from European Colonialism and joins the movement. She wanted blacks to declare themselves independent of segregation and white supremacy. In the least, a radical shift in the socio-economic relationship black people had with the power structure. It is the, “most important thing I can do with my life.”

By October of 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seal are confronting police brutality in Oakland by setting up patrols of men who watched the police in black neighborhoods. They write out the program for their new organization but do not have a name or symbol.

They see the political party started in Lowndes County and Huey Newton reportedly writes the organization to ask permission to use the symbol. They are focused on defending black people from the police and are not intending to run political candidates so, instead, they call themselves, “The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.”

In 1967, Kathleen Neal, working for SNCC in New York, is given the task of organizing a student conference in Nashville and invites Eldridge Cleaver. Their meeting is “love at first sight.” At least for him. (Ironically, he introduces Kathleen to his white female attorney but leaves out the tidbit that they were engaged to be married.) Nevertheless, Kathleen ignores his advances for a while but then begins to pay attention.

Eldridge returns to California and, in October, Huey Newton is involved in a shootout with Oakland Police Officers John Frey and Herbert Heanes. All three men sustain gunshot wounds. Officer Frey succumbs to his injuries and Huey Newton is arrested.

With Huey Newton in jail, the newly formed Panther Party is in crisis and Eldridge calls for Kathleen to come help and they marry while she is in California. Kathleen suggests having a demonstration for Huey and although Bobby Hutton, the first BPP recruit, and the others were opposed to marching, he says, “I don’t believe in no marching…but I’ll march for Huey.”

Kathleen sends out press releases with the idea that media coverage of the demonstration would be some sort of protection against the police.

Realizing she must identify herself in the releases, she signs, “Kathleen Cleaver, Communications Secretary of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Metropolis

Kathleen Neal Cleaver was the guest speaker at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture on April 21st. For video excerpt, visit metropolisnewspaper.com.