Kathleen Cleaver was born Kathleen Neal on May 13, 1945, in Memphis, Texas. She came from a well-educated family, with her mother holding a master’s degree in Mathematics and her father a sociology professor. Her father joined the Foreign Service, which meant that she had the opportunity to broaden her perspective and outlook through travel and residence in such countries as the Philippines, India, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
From an early age, she was active in the fight for civil rights, engaging in protests alongside her parents in Alabama beginning in the 1950s. In 1963, Neal graduated from a renowned Quaker school, subsequently enrolling in Oberlin and Barnard Colleges. In 1967, she left school to join the mainstream fight for Civil Rights, taking a position in New York City as a secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
As an organizer at Fisk University, she met Eldridge Cleaver, the then-Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The two got married in December 1967 in Oakland, California, after already having joined the Party a month earlier. She joined a group of prominent revolutionary women within the party, including such people as Ericka Huggins and Elaine Brown. Involvement with the Black Panther Party meant that Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver were constantly harassed. Several raids were conducted on their apartment and numerous attempts were made on their lives.
The Cleavers were forced to go into exile in 1968 after Eldridge was accused of attempted murder, moving to Cuba, Algeria, and North Korea (where their child was born). Kathleen eventually returned to the United States via New York City to promote a new organization after the International Section of the Black Panther Party, to which the Cleavers belonged, was expelled from the greater Black Panther Party.
Kathleen Cleaver returned to academia in 1981 on a full scholarship from Yale University, graduating summa cum laude with a B.A. in History and subsequently getting a law degree from Yale Law School. Currently, Cleaver is a senior lecturer at Emory University School of Law.