One of the central figures in the history of the Black Panther Party is Kathleen Cleaver, the first communications secretary for the organization until 1971, when she went into exile in Algeria with her husband, Eldridge Cleaver.
Kathleen Cleaver is one of the many voices featured in filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s new documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which hits select movie theaters starting Sept. 2 and debuts on PBS next year. Nelson says he wanted “to tell the story of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, a little-known history that hadn’t been told in its entirety.”
Now 70 years old, Kathleen Cleaver—who is finishing her memoir, Memories of Love and War—is a law professor at Emory University and co-founder of the Human Rights Research Fund. The Root spoke with her about the Panthers, Black Lives Matter and Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, the party member who is exiled in Cuba.
The Root: Why should people see the documentary Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution?
Kathleen Cleaver: It tells the story of the Black Panthers, both its international history and its origins, as well as its conflicts. It can’t, of course, tell every story, but it’s very well-made. I think it’s very significant that you could make a movie about a group of young black people whose organization was destroyed; about 22 of them were killed, mostly by the police.
The Black Panthers had a very intense existence at the beginning, until the politics changed and it became a different type of organization. Many people don’t know that, and it covers that; it’s an excellent story.
TR: How did you become a Black Panther?
KC: In 1967 I was a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worker and invited Eldridge Cleaver to a conference we were holding. That’s where we met and fell in love. He went back to California. After [Panthers co-founder] Huey Newton was shot, [Eldridge] said, “You’ve got to come out here and help me.” That’s because the Black Panther Party structure was pretty much in collapse. So I became involved immediately and took on the role of communications secretary. The rest is history.
TR: What are some of your most memorable moments with the Panthers?
KC: Just about every other moment is memorable. But I would have to say the most memorable moment was when I was set up to be shot by police in San Francisco. It was August 1972 and I was asked to come to someone’s home with two other Panthers. By the time we got there, the whole basement was filled with police, and I realized it was a setup. The idea was the men that I came with would be armed and there would be a shoot-out. I was supposed to be shot, but it was an incompetent arrangement.
TR: Any chance there will be a resurgence of the original Black Panther Party?