Kathleen Cleaver On Activism and How We Can Uphold MLK Jr.’s Legacy

 Kathleen Cleaver at San Francisco news conference (August 24, 1972)

Kathleen Cleaver at San Francisco news conference (August 24, 1972)

On January 11th, Kathleen Cleaver, longtime social justice organizer, former communications secretary of the Black Panther Party, and Senior Lecturer at Emory University School of Law, visited San Antonio to deliver this year’s MLK Jr. Commemorative Lecture—an event hosted jointly by Trinity University and The City of San Antonio MLK Jr. Commission. Cleaver focused on her experience with activism as a child and young adult, the goals of groups she participated in (such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party), the question of what the liberation efforts of the ‘60s and ‘70s achieved or did not achieve, where things stand now in terms of social justice, and her view of best practices to continue the struggle to create the change we need. 

Where Things Stand, and What We’re Up Against

Cleaver argued that the civil rights, Black Power, and anti-war efforts she was involved with achieved vital breakthroughs, but she observed how the powers-that-be have altered conditions in ways that make many people feel less urgency, even as injustices persist. With the restructuring that has occurred, movements today, like Black Lives Matter, prison abolition, and anti-deportation movements, are, as Cleaver describes it, “more sophisticated; it’s more specific and less immediately comprehensible than ‘we want the vote,’ and ‘we want to end segregation,’” though just as important. “The things happening are more hidden than those issues were, even though they are still about this violence. It’s the issue of what feels like a crisis to enough people.”

“There’s no time to even do the struggling. It’s a more suppressive system we live in now.” - Kathleen Cleaver

She discussed how the Vietnam War was a large influence on that sense of urgency: “Many people thought, ‘I don’t want to die in Vietnam—I would rather die here fighting for change if I have to die now.’” One audience member asked whether Cleaver thought activists had stopped making connections and organizing internationally at the scale they were in the ‘70s, and Cleaver replied that she still sees that work getting done, but that so much of organizing is more difficult now. “The times make a difference. Communities were more intact. Cost of living was much, much lower, so there was more time for the struggle—you could have time to both work to support yourself and contribute to the movement. Now we have to have more imagination about how we can get things done, and have to engage even more in that struggle. Funding is a huge constraint.” She discussed specifically how practices of our time like grant writing and non-profit paperwork eat up all the time organizers have. “There’s no time to even do the struggling. It’s a more suppressive system we live in now. The media is another element—it’s more disconnected and censored today.”

 Kathleen Cleaver addresses audience at this year’s MLK Jr. Commemorative Lecture

Kathleen Cleaver addresses audience at this year’s MLK Jr. Commemorative Lecture

Tactics For The Movement

“Do you know the story of how the Black Panther Party was founded?” Cleaver asked the audience. “Two men, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, met at college—one a veteran of the U.S. Military, one a law student—so they had skills they could really put to use. They talked about issues, made a plan, and started telling people about their project. They were prepared. They were energetic.” 

In keeping with this example, Cleaver throughout her presentation emphasized several tactics: 1) form small groups, 2) get involved in the movement while you’re young—when you, generally speaking, have fewer financial obligations and more energy, and while you have a fresh vision, 3) study history (learn from past events and strategies), and keep an eye to the future, and 4) aim to share movement work broadly. The movement has to be structured so that lots of people put in a little work toward the cause. A few people doing a lot of work inevitably leads to burnout—it isn’t sustainable, and a movement needs to be sustainable—to build and build, slowly and surely.

“When the threat doesn’t feel threatening enough that people want to huddle together, we see that divide happen. The powers that be want that—they don’t want us to huddle together.” - Kathleen Cleaver

Several audience members had questions about intra-organization discrimination or disrespect based on different positionalities, and failure in general to unite across positionalities for the cause. Cleaver’s take was to first always consider why that unwillingness to join together occurs: ”It’s the question of how to get on the same page. Look at why: when the threat doesn’t feel threatening enough that people want to huddle together, we see that divide happen. The powers that be want that—they don’t want us to huddle together. They find ways to foster and support those divisions. MLK joined people together. He knew he’d give his life, even.” Second, once you think about that, and maybe discuss the question of who the divide serves, power through the dynamic for the bigger cause—change it from within: “I think you just have to roll with it and do it anyway. Challenge it—that you-are-less-than attitude/mindset—you have to just challenge it. Again, it’s a way in capitalist culture to divide within, and we have to break past that.”

In summation, as many stars of past social justice organizing do today, Cleaver focused on the importance of looking at such leaders as elders, with knowledge of history to share, but not as the leaders of what needs to be done now; young people will direct the movement where it needs to go. Don’t go to your star looking for the plan of action, but rather look for tools and knowledge to mix in with those you’ve already got, and get together with your fellow youth, and start building. Her parting words for us: “Dare to struggle—dare to win! Power to the people!”