Evolution of A Black Panther (1/2)

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TRNN Replay: Kathleen Cleaver discusses her parents’ influence on her political activism and her work in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Story Transcript

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: My family history is quite atypical and unusual for any person in America, not just because of being in a black family, in that my father was a college professor. He and my mother met in graduate school in Michigan at a time when University of Michigan was one of the places that would allow blacks to attend graduate school, but not live on campus. Whereas many Southern states repudiated, many state schools in the South running by segregation repudiated the idea of graduate education, and very few black colleges offered it. So they met among a handful of black students at University of Michigan. And so my parents were both educated, both teachers. And both active, my father in Texas and my mother in Virginia, both active in civil rights, notably in the Smith v. Allwright challenge to the all-white primary, something my father was part of.

So I was born to an activist family. Parents who were educated. We lived in Tennessee–we lived in, I’m sorry, North Carolina, Michigan, Texas, and settled in Alabama when I was three years old. My father was hired to teach at the well known Tuskegee institute and to be in charge of something called the Rural Life Council, which was an outreach to the black rural farmers to benefit from all the government programs and the facilities of Tuskegee. So this was community development outreach kind of activism that he was involved in.

In the 1950s my father was taken on a Ford Foundation fellowship to India to demonstrate these techniques of community development, and subsequently was hired by the United States government to run that type of program in its foreign aid, at that time called technical cooperation mission. So when I was nine I moved with my parents and my brother to India to live in New Delhi, and we went to very small American schools. We lived there two years. And then the following term, following assignment was to the Philippines. So we moved to Manila. We had maintained our home in Tuskegee in Alabama, but we were living in Asia.

And the manner in which the American mission in a dark-skinned country like India, they couldn’t maintain segregation. They couldn’t maintain segregation among black and white in the American missions or American schools in Asia. And so from the time I was, up until the time I was nine, I lived in a world that was racially segregated, and after that I didn’t. I lived in a foreign world. Came back to the United States. Went to boarding schools, and to go finish high school in Pennsylvania.

Now, there was very few black students, but it wasn’t–I went to the same Quaker boarding school that Julian Bond had gone to. So my schooling was encouraging me to focus on social change and challenging nonviolently injustice. And I was a high school graduate in 1963, the same year that the Birmingham bombings, the same year that President Kennedy was assassinated. So I came of age at a time in the United States when the black struggle, the civil rights movement, was very captivating and I was drawn to it.

And my parents, since they had been in that struggle, even though they were probably somewhat hesitant about my branching off, because I dropped out of college in 1964, taken up by this struggle. And got deeply involved by 1966. They were–they were not able to say this was something I shouldn’t do. Because we had been living in Alabama. We had been living in Tuskegee.

Tuskegee was just outside of Montgomery, and the same people planning the Montgomery boycott were planning a boycott in Tuskegee, which was not a boycott of buses. Our town was too small to have buses. We boycotted the businesses, because the town drew a boundary that prevented any black person living within, living there, from voting in an election for the city council. So it was perspective. When that time came you were going to make sure this famous case in Alabama.

So I grew up in the movement, in a certain sense. I grew up in Asia, in a foreign [service] and environment. And so this is my formation and my family and my consciousness, just as the Vietnam war breaks out in the United States.

My mother was quite unusual. She was sort of a child prodigy and had finished college by the time she was 13 or 14, and by the time she was 16 had earned a master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Michigan, and was teaching full time as a high school teacher to support her family because her mother had passed away and her stepmother was poorly educated, she had younger brothers and sisters. She became the support of her family. And she married my father, whom she met at the University of Michigan graduate school. And I was born when she was 26. So my mother’s unusual. I had a mother who was not only older than many, 26, and she also had a master’s degree in mathematics and had a career as a teacher.

So I would say that having a mother like that during the ’40s and ’50s was unusual for anyone, but in particular in a black family. And she was quite a feminist and progressive, and challenged racism. And when my father would say he thought I should go to college so I could find a husband she would say she thought I should go to college so I could have a career. So we had a different set of standards in my family than I’d say many, many families of that era.

Being in SNCC was, in my opinion, a dream come true. From the time I read in the papers about those girls in Albany who were going to challenge the voting restrictions and racial restrictions in Georgia and got arrested, and I saw their pictures riding the back of a paddy wagon I said, this is amazing. They are so brave. I wanted to do what they were doing. And I got all involved in my school in challenging and organizing. So this is my, you know. It’s some kid’s dream they want to go to the theater, I wanted to go on the front lines, I wanted to go in the movement. But I was in Pennsylvania, and I didn’t quite know how to get there.

Long story short, by 1966 I was a student in college in New York City. And I was attending Barnard. This was the summer of ’66, and when Stokely Carmichael proclaimed black power as the new slogan of the movement. Freedom now was set aside, and black power was the new call. In a march in Mississippi, I knew, I had met Stokely. I had close friends who were, had worked in SNCC. Long story short, I knocked on the door at the SNCC office for a job interview two weeks after black power. It was very exciting. The movement, I had no idea, was in a state of not only transition but collapse. Moving from an integrated financial base to a black power orientation.

I was gung-ho with black power. I loved the movement, I loved everybody I met. It was my–oh, I could talk to, you know, James Forman, who I’d admired since I could read about him. And I could see Stokely Carmichael come into the office. And I was–I was just with these people who were amazing, extraordinary. I was asked to come down to Atlanta and work directly with the campus program, which was what I had wanted to do. I wanted to be an organizer of college students. And I became involved with planning events and coordinating with the concepts of black power, the notions of black liberation, sort of the political education of students to further this movement.

It was the most exciting and challenging and dramatic thing, and I never, ever worked so hard in my life. I think the first–seemed like the first time I moved to Atlanta I was at a meeting that lasted, it seemed like three days, with no sleep. I was just constantly taking notes with people. I was in the most exciting position to me, and being with people who I admired and I looked up to and I’d read about. And now here I was in this movement, having no idea when I first got there, it was about to explode.

It directly led to my connection to the Black Panther party. Very quickly. I got to SNCC in New York in June. Moved to Atlanta in January of ’67. And we were planning a conference for black students that was going to be held in Nashville, and it was called Liberation Will Come From A Black Thing. So I would say this was one of the very earliest black student conferences around the theme of black liberation. And the student organizations that affiliated or worked with SNCC or were focused on these issues were all coming, and people from Atlanta.

And my group was called, the group I worked with was called, the campus program–the coordinators were coming. Guess what. Such an uproar in Nashville over the fact that a conference, a student–white student group at, at Vanderbilt had invited Stokely Carmichael to come to a conference. Now, it’s not connected to our conference, but Stokely Carmichael is for black power and we’re SNCC, so Fisk said, you can’t have the conference on your, our campus. And so then there was a blizzard on the East Coast, and none of the speakers we’d invited except for Eldridge Cleaver who are adults and well known writers could come. So we had no ground and we had no speakers. But we were rescued by Fr. Woodruff, of a small church, who gave us a facility and Eldridge Cleaver who flew in from California and gave us a speaker.

So that’s how I met Eldridge Cleaver, and he was part of the Black Panther Party, except it was underground. So he knew about the Black Panther Party. We didn’t. Stokely soon found out about them, I’d say, within–conference was in March. Within a few months. He was drafted as a field marshal, came back. And the first document I saw about the Black Panther party was this draft of Stokely Carmichael as field marshal east of the Mississippi of the Black Panther Party. And within a summer I went out to visit Eldridge Cleaver. We had fallen in love. I met all the Panthers that there were to meet in July of 1967, which was the office. And then in October Huey Newton was wounded in an altercation and a shootout with Oakland police. One Officer Frey was killed. Another one was wounded. Huey was wounded, and then he was arrested and faced the gas chamber for murder.

At that point Eldridge asked me if I’d come out to California again and help him organize around Huey’s case. And I did. And so I moved to California to immediately handle this emergency of the pending death penalty, the case. The death penalty case facing the leader of this brand new movement that we were so excited about called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

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