Black Panther Party secretary speaks at Wooster

Men of Harambee members, pictured with Cleaver, organized the event along with Women of Images and the Black Women’s Organization (Photo by Meonyez Goodwin).

Meg Itoh
Editor in Chief

Kathleen Cleaver, perhaps best known for her previous role as communications secretary for the Black Panther Party between the years 1967-1971, spoke at The College of Wooster on Thursday, March 29. Her visit was organized by the Men of Harambee (MOH), the Women of Images (WOI) and the Black Women’s Organization (BWO).

Despite standing on the left wing of the stage against the wall, as she opted to stand behind the podium rather than sit in the chair placed center stage, Cleaver’s presence commanded the attention of every person in attendance.

Her talk was less of a speech and more of an intimate conversation shared with participants, in which she recounted her lived experiences related to the Black Panther Party. Cleaver’s visit gave the College community a rare moment to learn about the Black Panther Party from someone who had been directly involved and had, quite literally, lived with the movement. She is a hero to many who were in the audience and listening to her experiences — which she told with minimal structure, choosing to narrate with an informal storytelling style — provided a valuable opportunity of active education for all.

One dimension that Cleaver highlighted regarding the establishment of the Black Panther Party was the timing of events. The Vietnam War characterized the 1960-70s. The potential of being drafted for the war exacerbated decisions to either die in Vietnam or fight for liberation in the United States, particularly among people of color. She explained that many party members had joined after asking themselves, “Why should I go die in Vietnam? If I have to fight, why wouldn’t I just stay here? Stay here and fight for freedom for black people?”

Her words, coming from the mouth of a woman who had been on the frontline of the Black Panther Party during the height of the movement, gave a gritty realness to the events that audience members had only learned about through secondary sources. Hearing Cleaver speak candidly about assassinations, murders and police shootings directly from her own memory provided an unfiltered reality to processing history.

Derrius Jones ’18, president of MOH who played an integral role in organizing Cleaver’s visit to campus, affirmed the impact of listening to Cleaver’s first-hand account of events. “To read about it still, but then to hear about it,” he said. “It was amazing.”

One instance in which Cleaver’s personal insight reframed a narrative was the death of Bobby Hutton, who was the first Panther to be murdered by the police. According to Cleaver, his death became a “radical focal point” of the movement.

She explained that when the Panthers were surrendering to the police, they removed their clothes to demonstrate that they were unarmed. However, Hutton was 17-years-old and embarrassed to take off all his clothes.

“He came out with his hands up, no shirt but with pants, and they killed him,” she said. “He didn’t even get a chance to walk down the steps.” It was this transparent tone, rife with passion but also unabashed honesty, that struck the minds of listeners.

Jones was particularly impressed by her openness with the crowd. “She wasn’t reserved; she was engaged in conversation,” he said. Jones also explained that he was impressed by Cleaver’s ability to “keep the crowd vivacious.” He recounted looking around the room during her talk to see if everyone else was as enthralled with her as he was.

Meonyez Goodwin ’18, co-contact of WOI, certainly was. She explained that as a black woman, there was an immeasurable value in having a black woman activist speak on her experiences and provide deeply personal advice. “She said to always fight for the cause, fight for the movement … she definitely [also] mentioned to take care of yourself. Always remember what you’re doing and the people you’re doing it for,” said Goodwin.

Cleaver’s advice stems from what motivated the Black Panther Party movement during her active days, which was also for the people. “We want the power to determine the destination of our own black people,” she said. “Who doesn’t want the power to determine their destiny?”

Although Cleaver’s talk focused on her own experiences, she did not speak much on herself. However, her answer to one audience member’s question — asking what it takes to be a Black Panther — seemed to be most revealing of her values, beliefs in fundamental principles related to the Black Panther Party and humorous personality.

“First of all, it takes imagination. It takes energy. It takes commitment,” she said. “You have to want to liberate the people … and you have to be able to get by with a little bit of sleep.”