Get to Know These 3 Fearless Female Leaders From the Black Panther Party

What do you think of when you hear about The Black Panthers?

Before Beyonce's Super Bowl performance featuring dancers styled in Black Panther-inspired outfits, you might imagine a group of men. But by the early 1970s, the majority of the Panthers were women contradicting the perception of a militant and revolutionary group dominated by only black men fighting for black rights and power.

On Tuesday night, PBS aired a special documentary now available for streaming titled, "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution."

The film highlights some of the lesser known facts about the organization, including their initiative piloting a free breakfast program for inner-city youth. Other lesser known facts include that women worked to change the notion of gender roles in the party.

"The Panthers are kind of thought of as these... big strong black men but it was really important for us to talk about the women in the party," said director of the film, Stanley Nelson Jr., in an interview last fall with HuffPost Live.

Since the television premiere, the hashtag #BlackPantherPBS became the number one Twitter trend worldwide Tuesday and the feature continues to gain accolades from the black community.

Today, in honor of Black History Month we are reflecting on the great strides these three women made as Panthers:

1. Elaine Brown

Brown rose up the ranks in the Black Panther organization and later became the first woman to head an organization dominated by men at the time she became a member. She chaired the organization from 1974 to 1977. Before gaining the prominent position as chairwoman, she worked as editor of the party paper. She also helped organize the Free Breakfast Program in Los Angeles.

Brown attended an elementary school in Philadelphia that was predominantly white, providing a stark contrast from the black neighborhood where she grew up. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the imprisonment of Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, Brown attended her first Black Panther Party meeting.

In a memoir she describes what it was like to be in the Black Panther Party, which often appealed to young urban black men and how her membership conflicted with the feminist movement:

"I was denounced from some of the women's groups because the question of feminism seemed to not allow for this element, this return to the community of the black male," she wrote.

Brown authored "A Taste of Power," where she describes her experience and journey as a Panther. Today, Brown continues her activism advocating for criminal and juvenile justice reform as well as prison reform.

2. Angela Davis

Davis was one of the most prominent leaders of the Black Panthers although she ultimately left after battling with chauvinism and misogyny within the party. Davis was born in the "Dynamite Hill" area of Birmingham, Ala., which was nicknamed because the Ku Klux Klan bombed black middle class homes in the neighborhood. She was compelled to join the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 after four girls died in a bombing of a Baptist church in her hometown.

By 1967, she became a part of the black power movement and the Black Panther Party. At the same time, she was pursuing an M.A. from the University of California at San Diego and later joined the American Communist Party. Davis's alignment to the left hindered her teaching career and dismissed her from an assistant professorship at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1969. She soon pursued prison reform advocacy, leading initiatives to free black prisoners and Panthers.

The journey proved tumultuous for Davis as she was the prime suspect in a trial alleging she assisted a Black Panther break out of a jail after guns were found registered in her name. Davis was soon placed on the FBI's most wanted list. The incident led to a campaign to "Free Angela Davis" and she was eventually acquitted of all charges.

While Ronald Reagan, who was the then governor of California, called to prevent Davis from teaching in the state's universities, she eventually became a lecturer at San Francisco State University in 1977. Today, Davis is Professor Emeritus of history of consciousness and feminist studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She continues to work as an activist and scholar. 

3. Kathleen Cleaver

Cleaver became the Black Panther Party's national communications secretary and helped organize a campaign to release the party's leader, Huey P. Newton, from prison.

Before her involvement in the party she attended a desegregated Quaker boarding school and later dropped out of college to move to New York City. There she became a full-time worker in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a pipeline for the civil rights movement. Cleaver also met her husband, Eldridge Cleaver, in the committee and married him soon after. They both joined the Panther movement and during her time she joined the foreign service and traveled to countries like Sierra Leone and India.

Cleaver later fled to Mexico and later Algeria. She describes her journey escaping to Algeria, leaving her marriage and being under constant surveillance in her memoir, "Memories of Love and War." In 1984, Cleaver graduated with a B.A. in History from Yale and received a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1989. She then became an associate at the law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore, and later clerked for the late Judge A. Leon Higginbotham of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia.

In 1993, she served on the Georgia Supreme Court Commission on Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts. She also spent more than 30 years working to free imprisoned freedom fighters, including Geronimo (Pratt) ji Jaga and Mumia Abu-Jamal. From 1999 to 2003, Cleaver co-founded and produced the International Black Panther Film Festival based in Harlem and is currently a senior lecturer at Emory Law School. 

We hope these leaders continue to inspire women to be agents of change in their communities and to work for justice and equality for all people.

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