Eldridge Cleaver, the son of a nightclub piano player, was born in Wabbaseka, Arkansas, in 1935. The family later moved to Los Angeles. As a teenager he was sent to reform school for stealing a bicycle and selling marijuana.
Soon after his release he was arrested for possession of marijuana. Found guilty he was sentenced to 30 months in Soledad Prison. While in prison Cleaver became interested in politics and read the works of Karl Marx, Tom Paine, William Du Bois and Lenin.
Cleaver was released in 1957 but the following year he was arrested and charged with attempted murder. Found guilty, he was sentenced to a term of two to fourteen years in prison. While in San Quentin he began reading books on black civil rights and was particularly influenced by the writings of Malcolm X.
After leaving prison in 1966 Cleaver joined the Black Panther Party (BPP). Soon afterwards he was appointed the organization's minister of information. Cleaver was now a committed revolutionary and called for an armed insurrection and the establishment of a black socialist government.
Cleaver married Kathleen Neal on 27th December, 1967. The following year he published his memoirs, Soul on Ice (1968), established him as one of African American's the most important political figures.
The activities of the Black Panthers came to the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Hoover described the Panthers as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country" and ordered the FBI to employ "hard-hitting counter-intelligence measures to cripple the Black Panthers".
On 6th April, 1968 eight BPP members, including Cleaver, Bobby Hutton and David Hilliard, were travelling in two cars when they were ambushed by the Oakland police. Cleaver and Hutton ran for cover and found themselves in a basement surrounded by police. The building was fired upon for over an hour. When a tear-gas canister was thrown into the basement the two men decided to surrender. Cleaver was wounded in the leg and so Hutton said he would go first. When he left the building with his hands in the air he was shot twelve times by the police and was killed instantly.
Cleaver was arrested and charged with attempted murder. He was given bail and in November, 1968, he fled to Mexico. Later he moved to Cuba. He also spent time in Algeria.
While in exile Cleaver had disagreements with Huey Newton and in 1971 he expelled him from the Black Panther Party. Soon afterwards Cleaver formed the Revolutionary Peole's Communication Network and Kathleen Cleaver returned to the United States to establish the party in New York.
Soon afterwards Cleaver underwent a mystical conversion to Christianity. He now rejected his former political beliefs describing the system in Cuba as "voodoosocialism". He also wrote an article for the New York Times where he argued "With all its faults, the American political system is the freest and most democratic in the world."
Cleaver returned to the United States in 1975. Tried for his role in the 1968 shoot-out, Cleaver was found guilty of assault. The court was lenient and Cleaver, now a born-again Christian, received only five year's probation and directed to perform 2,000 hours of community service. David Hilliard, on the other hand, charged with the same offence, had received a one to ten year prison term.
After his trial he ran the Cleaver Crusade for Christ. Later, he came up with a plan for "Christlam," a plan to combine Christianity and Islam. He published Soul on Ice (1978) and for a time he advocated the religious ideas of Sun Myung Moon and became involved with Mormonism. During the 1980s he became a supporter of Ronald Reagan.
Cleaver, who for a time worked as a tree surgeon, divorced his wife, Kathleen Cleaver, in 1985. He continued to struggle with drug problems and in 1994 was seriously injured when he was knocked unconscious while buying cocaine from a drug dealer.
On his release from hospital he worked for the Black Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco . He also taught at a Bible college in Miami. However, in 1998 he was placed on probation in 1998 after convictions for burglary and cocaine possession.
Eldridge Cleaver died at Pomona Valley Medical Center on 1st May, 1998. His family requested that the hospital did not reveal the cause of his death.
After I returned to prison (in 1958) I took a long look at myself and for the first time in my life admitted that I was wrong, and that I had gone astray - astray not so much from the white man's law as from being human, civilized. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered. That is why I started to write. To save myself.
You don't have to teach people to be human. You have to teach them how to stop being inhuman.
Waves of rebellion spread across black communities with the news of King's killing. Memphis, Birmingham, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and a score of other cities erupted that weekend. Washington, DC, went up in flames. In the Bay Area, police cars flooded black neighborhoods, and the National Guard was put on alert. Garry got the arrest warrant for Bobby Seale withdrawn, and they held a press conference at the courthouse on Friday. Bobby had shaved his mustache and beard to disguise himself, and his face took on a young, innocent look. Bobby emphasized that the Black Panther Party opposed rioting as both futile and self-destructive, for black neighborhoods were always the worst harmed. He spoke on radio, television, and at rallies in a marathon effort to staunch the disaster splattering around us. Eldridge told me that it was all the staff could do to explain how senseless it was to the hundreds of people who rushed to our office clamoring for guns to vent their rage in a disorganized manner.
On Saturday, Eldridge and I met at the entrance to Sproul Plaza at Berkeley to go to the rally he was speaking at on campus. Standing on the sidewalk, I looked up at him, his black leather jacket gleaming in the sun. With his black turtleneck sweater, black pants, black boots, and black sunglasses, he seemed cloaked in death. I shuddered. The thought flashed through my mind that I would never see him again. I pushed it away - anything might happen - but I didn't want to think about it now. A wave of tenderness swept over me, as I thought of how casually Eldridge was risking his life to keep Huey out of the gas chamber.
Eldridge gave an electrifying speech. He didn't want to remain at the rally, but instead insisted on rushing back to the Panther office. "Isn't there someplace I can take you for a few hours?" he asked. "I don't want you at the office today, and I think it's too hot for you to go back home."
"Drop me off at Kay's house," I said. "I haven't seen her lately, and she lives near the campus."
Kay was a graduate student at Berkeley. She and I had been friends since we were children in Tuskegee, where her cousin Sammy Younge was murdered for his involvement in the civil rights movement. After he was shot, I had dropped out of college and joined the movement. That evening at her house, Kay and I talked about our lives until her husband, Bill, got home.
After dinner, we all watched the late news in the living room. Scenes of local memorial rallies for Dr. King and riots breaking out around the country dominated. Kay and Bill went to bed after the news was over, and I pulled the telephone over to the coffee table that faced the sofa, wondering why Eldridge was taking so long to come pick me up.
A bulletin flashed across the screen about a shoot-out involving the Oakland police - no location or time was mentioned. I recalled my earlier premonition about Eldridge's death, then blanked out there on the sofa, waiting for the phone to ring. I slept so soundly that none of the calls stirred me until around five the next morning. I answered the ringing telephone.
Alex Hoffman, one of Huey's attorneys, was saying in his low, tired voice, "I suppose you've heard by now, Kathleen, but Eldridge is in San Quentin."
Alex went on to say that Eldridge and seven other Panthers had been arrested last night after a shoot-out near David Hilliard's house, and that Bobby Hutton had been killed.
I went numb with shock.
"I'll take you to see Eldridge in prison as soon as I can get the details worked out," Alex said. "Always leave a number where I can reach you."
By the time I saw Alex on Sunday, Eldridge had been shuttled off to the prison in Vacaville, some fifty miles north of the Bay Area, isolating him from the rest of the jailed Panthers. Alex and I were waiting in a drab cubicle reserved for attorneys' visits when I spotted Eldridge being pushed down the hallway in a wheelchair. He looked like a captured giant, cuts and scratches on his face, the hair burned off the top of his head, his foot covered by a huge white bandage. When the guard wheeled him into the room, I could see that Eldridge's eyes were swollen, his face puffy, and his beard matted.
The sight left me too dazed to cry. Now I understood the glazed expression I'd seen in photographs of the faces of people whose homes or churches had been bombed, as if they couldn't believe what they were looking at. Anticipating or reading about terrifying violence does not prepare you to accept it. I felt too scared of what might happen to Eldridge in that notorious prison to dwell on how close he had come to being killed the night before.
Since I'd last seen him, he'd been trapped in an Oakland basement where he and Bobby Hutton had run for cover after gunshots flew between two Oakland police and several carloads of Black Panthers. A fifty-man assault force pounded bullets into the house where they hid for ninety minutes. When a tear-gas canister that had been thrown into the basement caught fire, Eldridge and Bobby agreed to surrender. Eldridge was not able to walk because a bullet had hit his leg. He told Bobby to take off his clothes so the police could not accuse him of hiding a weapon, but Bobby only removed his shirt. When he walked out into the floodlights in front of the house with his hands in the air, a hail of bullets killed him on the spot. Only the shouts from the crowd drawn by the gunfire saved Eldridge from an immediate death when he crawled out of the basement behind Bobby.
Eldridge Cleaver, the 1960s Black Panther activist and fugitive who later swung to the other side of the political spectrum to become a Republican, died Friday at the age of 62.
Cleaver died at 6:20 a.m. at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center in suburban Los Angeles. Citing a family request for privacy, hospital spokeswoman Leslie Porras declined to provide a cause of death or any details about his hospitalization.
At the time of his death, Cleaver was working as a university diversity consultant. Last month, he appeared at an Earth Day conference in Portland, Oregon. "I've gone beyond civil rights and human rights to creation rights," he said.
When I heard Eldridge Cleaver was dead, I realized for the first time why he put himself outside the orbit of people, like myself, who were once his friends and comrades.
It came to me that everything meaningful he had done since leaving prison and writing "Soul On Ice" - aside from marrying and starting a family - had been in support of the Black Panther Party. In the early days of the Party he and Huey P. Newton were nearly inseparable. When Huey went to prison, it was Cleaver who organized the "Free Huey" campaign and designed the coalition politics which got the white left to support it.
In 1975, Cleaver, then in exile in Algeria, split with Newton. The widely accepted explanation of the break - irreconcilable differences regarding revolutionary violence - is simplistic, irrelevant. They fell out because Cleaver believed the Party leaders in Oakland were living decadent lives, betraying the Panthers.
This breakup, I now realize, sent Cleaver into another form of exile - this time a spiritual exile. Talk about soul on ice! His essence went into deep freeze. Cleaver became his own opposite, banished himself into the ideological land of his former enemies.
History and the Current Context
"Ex-Panther Eldridge Cleaver: 'I Just Wish I Could Be Born Again Every Day'"
by Donn Downing from 1976-10-25 "People" magazine V.6 N.17
Eldridge Cleaver was once considered the most impassioned black militant of all. He was "Minister of Information" of the Black Panther party during its rampaging heyday. His 1968 book, Soul on Ice, was probably the definitive expression of black rage—a searing account of rapes he committed, prisons he endured and ghettos that taught him violence. But that Eldridge Cleaver is no more. Eleven months ago he returned from seven years of fugitive exile in Cuba, Algeria, China, Russia, North Korea, North Vietnam and France. He faces six counts of assault with intent to kill, arising from a shootout in 1968 with Oakland, Calif. police. Now 41 and living in the Bay Area with his wife, Kathleen, and their two children, Cleaver has made a remarkable political and personal turnabout. He says he had a powerful religious experience in the South of France last year that led to his return. One night he saw faces in the moon—his own, then Castro's, then Chairman Mao's and, finally, the face of Christ. He began to weep uncontrollably and recited the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. Cleaver talked recently about his transformation with Donn Downing for PEOPLE:
People magazine: Would you describe yourself now as a born-again Christian?
Eldridge Cleaver: The label doesn't bother me. I just wish I could be born again every day. The Lord showed me the way back home. I had a stereophonic experience, and I was not the same. From being confused I knew clearly what to do. From being depressed I was elated. I saw my way out of a blind alley.
People magazine: Are you referring to your life with your family in exile?
Eldridge Cleaver: Yes, my whole life was at a dead end. As far as children and family were concerned, the stresses and strains of our life abroad were intolerable.
People magazine: In what way?
Eldridge Cleaver: At first I was trying to force Kathleen to leave me. I knew it would be better for her and the children in the U.S. I could only deal with that if I got mad at her. And it was the same with her. She couldn't do it unless I drove her to it. So I was doing that, but it was not something I wanted. That is where the depression came in. I really felt trapped.
People magazine: It's been reported you were disillusioned with life in Communist nations.
Eldridge Cleaver: I found the bureaucratic arrogance in those countries tyrannical. Members of the Communist party were the most disgusting, hypocritical, phony, see-through kind of people—bureaucrats playing the same little games of power, juice and connections that you find everywhere. But they are worse in those countries because they aren't accountable to anybody except their own little clique.
People magazine: Some of your old friends denounce you as a right-winger. How much have your politics changed?
Eldridge Cleaver: I have the same criticisms of this country. I think my criticisms are even more to the point, more surgical. But I am interested in resolving any differences that can be resolved with people on the right. One of the things I agree with them about is the need for a guaranteed defense. The Russians are dangerous. They've got rockets that can reach Mars too. We cannot fall into a slumber that assumes there can be no more Pearl Harbors.
People magazine: Where do you think your old political allies have gone wrong?
Eldridge Cleaver: A lot of people were born into a situation of criticism, of strife and anti-Americanism. They went through grammar school, high school and college when their parents and peers were talking about the United States as the worst place in the world. Well, I think that's going overboard. There are still people running around this country with the red book [Quotations from Chairman Mao]. You don't even see much of that in China anymore. People here are talking about Fidel Castro as some revolutionary god. The Cuban people call him a big fat pig. The left have to disabuse themselves of some of their political icons.
People magazine: How do you feel about your alienation from the political left?
Eldridge Cleaver: I'm glad to be able to give people on the left nightmares. Last time it was people on the right.
People magazine: You recently met with Charles Colson, the White House aide who helped wage the Nixon administration's war on the left and who has since had his own spiritual conversion. How did that go?
Eldridge Cleaver: Before the meeting, I was sure that I would not like him. But then I read his book [Born Again] and I was impressed. The guy is really okay. He comes through as a human being. I've seen him a couple of times, and I consider him a friend and a brother in Christ. Billy Graham was another one of those people I never particularly wanted to meet. But I was happy and honored that he took the time to talk to me.
People magazine: How do you account for all this mellowing toward Establishment figures?
Eldridge Cleaver: I used to have the attitude that people were out to do me in on a physical level. That is why I used to relate to guns a lot. But I tell you, ever since that strange experience, I haven't met a person I didn't like. I haven't. It might be some kind of failure. Maybe some tubes and fuses were blown.
People magazine: And what about your future? Are you going to undertake some sort of Christian activist crusade?
Eldridge Cleaver: I have no plans like that. I picture myself as a writer and speaker and that is what I will do. If that constitutes a crusade, then it's just another of what must be a million crusades in this country. I just participate in the whole marketplace of ideas.
"Black Panthers No More, Eldridge & Kathleen Cleaver Now Lionize the U.S. System"
by Lynne Baranski, Richard Lemon from 1982-03-22 "People" magazine V.17 N.11 [http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20081725,00.html]:
Some in the audience at Yale's Afro-American Cultural Center last month were dismayed. Here was a top black militant of the '60s—ex-Minister of Information of the Black Panthers, incendiary author, ex-fugitive and current parolee—and he was talking like the Establishment. Dressed in a three-piece suit, guest speaker Eldridge Cleaver was calling the U.S. "the most democratic country" and urging blacks to work within the system. There were groans in the SRO crowd, but Cleaver's wife, Kathleen, once a Panther herself and now a student at Yale, applauded fervently.
If the author of the 1968 polemic Soul on Ice and the 1978 autobiography Soul on Fire were to write a new book, it might be Souls in Mainstream. On his return in 1975 from seven years of self-exile in Cuba, Algeria and France, Cleaver faced multiple criminal charges (including attempted murder). Today, at 46, the onetime revolutionary no longer walks on the wild side. Says Earl Anthony, an ex-Panther who is now an L.A. playwright: "Eldridge changed from one of the most vicious dudes against the system into a person who is reaching out. He's become a nice human being." Anthony rejects claims by other ex-Panthers that Cleaver's change of heart stems from a deal struck in return for leniency in the courts. (He was convicted on an assault charge only and sentenced to 2,000 hours of community service, since cut to 1,200 hours.) "Eldridge believes what he says," Anthony insists. Henry Gates, an assistant professor working on Yale's Eldridge Cleaver Archives, which will contain the ex-Panther's writings, adds: "He has the sophistication to shed his skin when it's worn out."
Kathleen's evolution has been equally dramatic. In her Panther days, she says, "The party line was all I wanted to talk about." But at 36, she is a relaxed junior with an A average and plans for law school. Her new philosophy, she says, is the one she was raised on—"that you should be generous and kind, you shouldn't shoot and steal, you shouldn't lie." She adds: "All revolutionaries lie."
Since Kathleen moved to New Haven last August with the couple's son, Maceo, 12, and daughter, Joju, 11, Eldridge has been baching it in San Jose. He works for a Mormon who operates a tree service, and lives in a house shared by nine other employees. Cleaver himself has become a Mormon investigator—which means he's learning about the church, but hasn't yet been baptized. He's writing a book about evangelicals, building a business of design flowerpots, and fulfilling his sentence by, among other things, helping the handicapped.
Kathleen is less bothered by their separation than Eldridge. "Marriage is more interesting if you spend some time apart," she claims. She is also busy studying (on a full scholarship) for a B.A. in history, writing her autobiography, working at the Connecticut Afro-American Historical Society, and caring for the kids. Often she labors in her kitchen past midnight writing course papers. "Being a single parent is a negative," she admits. "But Yale is everything I wanted." While she will graduate in 1983, Eldridge will have a commencement of sorts this June when he completes his sentence. "It will be the first time in 33 years he's not been embroiled in the California criminal justice system," Kathleen notes.
Eldridge was born in Arkansas, moved to Phoenix when his father, Leroy, became a dining car waiter, but essentially grew up in L.A. His parents separated when he was 13. He went to a reformatory a year later for bicycle theft, and was soon sent back for selling marijuana. Then, at 18, came a two-and-a-half-year term in Soledad prison for possession of marijuana. That was his first felony conviction, and one of the few past episodes about which he remains bitter. Possession of small amounts of pot was later made a misdemeanor in California.
He resumed hustling drugs and, as he once wrote, became a rapist who "started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto." A 1958 conviction for assault on a white woman got him nine years in prison, where he wrote the impassioned essays on black pride and power that were published as Soul on Ice. After his 1966 parole he joined the fledgling Panthers.
Kathleen's road to radicalism was far different. Her father, Ernest Neal, was a sociology professor at Tuskegee who became a Foreign Service officer. She grew up in India, the Philippines, Liberia and Sierra Leone. "I was happy and protected," she recalls. She spent a year at Oberlin, went on to Barnard, then dropped out to become an idealistic volunteer worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It was at SNCC's Nashville office that she first encountered Cleaver in 1967.
"It was a meeting of the spirit," Kathleen says. "I was becoming a revolutionary and I was impressed by his statesmanlike quality." She was also awed by the galleys of Soul on Ice that he let her read. For Cleaver it was "love at first sight." Her family objected, but they married nine months later.
Cleaver was so angry in those days that he was even scorned by the Panthers' Supreme Commander, Huey Newton, for antagonizing the black community. Eldridge concedes he felt "there was no hope of effecting real freedom within the capitalistic system. I was the guy who demanded we go down shooting." Kathleen recalls how "the Panthers were serious and meant to die"—as at least 19 did in the '60s. She adds: "It was exhilarating in a way, believing what we were doing would alter history. But it was also terrible—people getting killed."
Four months after the wedding, Cleaver and two policemen were wounded in an Oakland shootout in which another Panther was killed. Eldridge fled to Cuba, Algiers (where Kathleen joined him), then Paris. Maceo was born in Algiers and Joju on a visit to North Korea. From Hanoi, Cleaver urged U.S. soldiers in South Vietnam to assassinate their commanders. Through it all, Kathleen fondly called him "Papa Rage." But gradually they found Marxist solutions both oppressive and ineffective. Eldridge derides Cuba's system as "voodoo socialism," and says North Korea and Algeria are "even worse, because they have been doing it longer."
Though Kathleen found exile "awful," the marriage survived. "Boredom tears apart more marriages than pressure," Eldridge says. Kathleen adds, "If you can handle the fact that you might be killed any minute, you can handle a lot." There were storms over Eldridge's affairs in his Panther days. "He had groupies," she says. "In a revolutionary situation it's hard to follow Christian morality. Now he's a reformed husband." To which Cleaver responds, with a laugh: "Kathleen is beautiful, sincere, very intelligent—and a little too moral for me."
Cleaver's legal bills totaled more than $350,000, much of it paid by donations. "It's cheaper to be conservative," Kathleen jokes. "I decided to go to law school to make use of the experience I had gained dealing with lawyers." Eldridge has tried to make ends meet by writing, lecturing and—at one point—designing men's pants with a codpiece (they didn't sell). He has vigorously pursued religion before embracing Mormonism, he led a Cleaver Crusade for Christ and was baptized by a lay evangelical in a California pool where Esther Williams once performed. He enjoys "rescuing" copies of Soul on Ice from secondhand stores to give to friends, and strongly denies he's "mellowed." "That implies your ideas have changed because of age," he says. "I've changed because of new conclusions."
As for his kids, "I want them to educate themselves," the onetime Papa Rage says. "I would like Maceo to be a lawyer or a general, a revolutionary in the sense that he will continue to do the work that has been done from generation to generation, improving the conditions of people and being a source of freedom."
"Former Panther Eldridge Cleaver: A Relic With A Cause"
by John Hughes from 1998-05-03 "The Orange County Register" newspaper [http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19980503&slug=2748475]:
The flames, it seemed at the time, would burn forever. And so even now, you look for the fire in Eldridge Cleaver's eyes.
You look for the torch that set ablaze Oakland and Watts and Detroit and Newark under the salute of black fists above faces that would become famous from FBI posters.
The face of the black militant movement was the face of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale - the Black Panther Party - and their minister of information, Eldridge Cleaver.
In 1967, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the Black Panthers "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country."
The leather-jacketed, beret-wearing Panthers were white America's nightmare and a stark reality that threatened the pastoral, down-by-the-riverside dream of Martin Luther King Jr.
In their volatile times, Cleaver and his comrades advocated arson, robbery, rape and even murder as means of balancing the scales against white hegemony.
And so, even now, you listen for the inflammatory rhetoric that made "pigs" of law enforcement and "devils" of white people.
You remember the voice from news clips. It screamed a battle cry when the more popular message of the day was for pacifism.
It is not a voice you ever expected to hear say this:
"Can you treat me to lunch? I don't have any money."
From radical to conservative -
In a loft apartment in what used to be the newsroom of a Pomona, Calif., daily, Eldridge Cleaver's life, from '60s radical to '90s conservative, is revealed in scattered detail.
One corner of the room holds a magazine rack stuffed with pamphlets such as "A Course in Miracles" and "Search For Healing Affirmations."
In another corner an assortment of river rocks lines the concrete floor near a table and a bag of cement mix.
"That's what I'm going to do when I retire," says Cleaver, 62. "See, I make these flower pots. I'm going to sell them."
A computer sits in the middle of the room. A disc in it holds Eldridge Cleaver's screenplay, a story about two Vietnam veterans - one black, one white - and their disparate lives in the town Cleaver calls "Bezerkeley."
There are two office chairs from which the backs are missing, and a draftsman's chair on rollers that he uses when he's at the computer. Two small tables are the only furniture he'll take when he moves out at the end of the month. He can't afford $625 rent.
A banister holds two suits of clothing on a stairway meant to lead to a bedroom. But when he lies down, alone except for his thoughts, Cleaver's 6-foot, 2-inch frame rests on two vinyl couches he pulls together near a table where photocopies of his FBI "wanted" poster are stacked.
"I autograph those when I go on speaking trips," he says. "People like to have me sign them. They're unique because they're actually signed by J. Edgar Hoover."
Revolution over, Eldridge Cleaver marches to the cadence of evolution. Times change. Dreams dim.
And so the aging radical is mainstreamed into academics (he's a consultant at LaVerne University) and makes his meager living on stages where, if he is a prophet, he is first a history lesson.
But even here and even now, ideas flourish, ideals flourish.
The menace to society passed. Welcome the relic with a cause.
"Why is it that politicians can lie and get away with it?" Eldridge Cleaver asks, his big voice filling the loft. "We have developed a political culture of mendacity."
That was the message he took to a group of political consultants who asked him to address their meeting.
And the message in the message is this: Just because he is no longer a militant, don't think Eldridge Cleaver has run out of things to say.
"We ought to require politicians to do two things," he says. "One: When they register to run for office they should take an oath that their campaigns will be run subject to the penalties of perjury. And two: They ought to be required to write their own speeches.
"You'll see a brand new day in America when those two things happen."
A fatal shootout -
In 1968, Cleaver's quest for a new day in America found him behind a gun in a shootout with Oakland police, in which Black Panther colleague Bobby Hutton was killed.
Cleaver was arrested, then fled the country while his trial was pending.
For eight years, Cleaver traveled mostly in communist countries, observing the lives of the people whose governments he saw as preferable to capitalism.
His first stop was Cuba, where he was regaled as an example of the evils and repression of capitalism.
And from Cuba, panhandling and stealing his way on forged passports arranged through Communist Party connections, he went to Algeria, to Uganda, to Egypt, to Czechoslovakia and finally to North Korea.
Before leaving the United States he had become a Marxist and had expected his journey "in exile" to be an affirmation of all that was wrong with the democratic way of doing things.
But: "The more I got a balanced perspective, the more I began to see that, while the U.S. had its problems, it was not the devil," Cleaver says. "It was like shock therapy to me.
"I had invested so much in the communist ideology, I wanted it to be true. But I began to see that there was a direct relationship between the ideology and (corrupt) practice."
The genesis of the Black Panther Party was a reaction to police brutality toward blacks.
"But after seeing the police departments in Algeria, in North Korea, in Czechoslovakia," Cleaver says, "it made me miss the Oakland P.D., even though they were a bunch of rats.
"It made me take a second look at what I was shooting my mouth off about."
Further looks coincided with Cleaver's renewal of "my spiritual roots" (both grandfathers were Protestant preachers), and he soon decided to turn himself in to the FBI and start over.
A man transformed -
Cleaver gave himself up in New York in 1975. He returned home as a man whose beliefs had been reshaped but whose reputation was still that of "Soul On Ice," a book he wrote in 1968 that, among other notions Cleaver now regrets, advocated raping white women as retribution for political inequality.
Now, when he speaks, as he did last summer at the Redlands Adult School graduation, he says this:
"We have got to get back to some of the oldest ideas in the world, and that is that God is love. We have got to stop being partisan and political and start being human. Start being loving."
The kinder, gentler Eldridge Cleaver is a contradiction to the face of the FBI poster.
Never was the contradiction greater than in 1984, when he ("to the consternation of everybody I knew") endorsed Ronald Reagan for president.
"When I came back from my journey through the communist world," he says, "all my left-wing friends were in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party raided the Black Panther Party. (In the early '80s) all the black Democrats could say was, `Ronald Reagan is a racist.' Well, who gives a (flip)? Who ain't a racist, if we're going to play those games?
"Rather than just accept what was happening, which is not how I function, I decided I was going to take another look at things."
Over time, vindication -
Cleaver (who endorsed Bob Dole in 1996) says time vindicates his position on welfare, which he opposes, and on affirmative action, about which he said: "I don't understand people when they would say, `Here is a white man who wanted to be a doctor, but because of the sins of our fathers, they are going to kick this man out of the class and give his seat to a minority.' To me that is asinine. It is not the American way.
"The solution would be to put another seat in the room, because we could use two more doctors. This approach to affirmative action sucks. I also think that the opposition to it sucks, because it is all being done in old-brain terms."
Such talk leaves former supporters such as NAACP director Julian Bond wondering which Eldridge Cleaver to believe - the radical or the reformist.
"He disappointed me," Bond said recently from his office at the University of Virginia. "I like ideological consistency even when it's ideology that I don't agree with. Anybody who dances around as much as he does, you have to wonder about.
"It raises the question about what his beliefs were back then. Was it the fashion of the time and he just put it on?"
In the late '70s, when Cleaver was imprisoned in San Diego, Bond, then a Georgia congressman, went to visit Cleaver.
Bond says he went to offer spiritual support to Cleaver, whom Bond, as a '60s activist himself, had seen as something of a hero.
"Now," Bond says, "I'm not sure what he is out to achieve."
Same thing, different method, Cleaver will say.
Now, he sees himself as being to Martin Luther King Jr. as the biblical Joshua was to Moses: One prophet leads the people to the Promised Land, another leads through it.
"I want to be part of the forces that help America choose the Promised Land," he says. "The present leadership in the black community is still talking about a `black movement.' But (issues facing the future) are about all America. Those guys are still playing the race card and talking protests, but that's passe."
Before his "exile" and after it, Cleaver served a total of 15 years in prison for crimes that included attempted murder and possession of narcotics.
Coming out of prison in the mid-'80s, Christianity in his heart but mischief on his mind, Cleaver discovered crack cocaine and was nearly killed trying to get it in 1994.
A divot in the right side of his skull is a reminder of a February night when a drug dealer laid an iron pipe into Cleaver's head, leaving him to die on a Berkeley sidewalk.
He was unconscious for two months.
Today, the scar is all that's left. No craving for drugs, he says. No need.
This year, the University of LaVerne took on Cleaver as a consultant to its Coalition for Diversity.
The university gives Cleaver an office and access to its library in exchange for occasional lectures and classroom visits. His income is from outside speaking engagements (recently at the University of Oregon) and Social Security.
("If they were selling Pomona for a nickel," Cleaver jokes, "I'd have to run for the border to keep from being sold.")
`An elder' -
Richard Rose, associate professor of religion and philosophy at LaVerne, says Cleaver's role is that of "an elder."
"In the tribal life of African Americans, elders are respected for that life they have led," Rose says. "I think that's where he is right now. We can learn a lot from his history.
"Those experiences now put him in a place where he speaks with the authority of one who has traveled. Mr. Cleaver really has become one who has taken a different view on life and on how to change the circumstances of those who are oppressed. We don't have to make the same mistakes the Black Panther Party made to achieve the same goal."
Eldridge Cleaver says he has two regrets: One, that he is alone except for occasional contact with his three children (ages 10-29). And two, that in some ways he is still living on the run, place to place, until the bills become unpayable or a relationship turns sour.
He has no phone, no car and, soon, no apartment in which to store those dusty rocks and photocopied "wanted" posters.
No, there is no fire. Not like you remember.
There is a smolder, though a warmth that survived the flames.
"People started saying `Eldridge has become patriotic,' " he says. "Well, yes. Because I love my country.
"It's time to forget the American Revolution and fulfill the American Dream. I have grown my heart to where I am not talking about `my people.' Because my people have grown to include all the human family."
Published Clarification Date: 05/03/98 - This Article On Eldridge Cleaver Was Printed Thursday, The Day Before Cleaver Died. Because Of Press Capacity, Several Feature Sections Of The Times Are Printed Before The Rest Of The Sunday Paper.
Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998) is a name not well known to many Americans today, not even to today’s disaffected youth in our universities and the culture at large. This is a surprise, although there are also reasons for it, because Eldridge was, at various times, an admitted criminal and “insurrectionary” rapist (rape as a way of striking back at “white” society), a member of the Black Panther Party, a “Black Muslim,” and one of the leading socialist, communist and Marxist revolutionaries of his time.
His book, Soul on Ice became the Bible, so to speak, of the Black Power movement. It also led Cleaver to become, for a time, the favorite black radical of American intellectuals. Eldridge was obviously highly intelligent. He was, in fact, a truly remarkable man. He did, it is true, have his demons right up to the end not surprising, given his brutal start in life. But his life, taken as a whole, is a testament to the ability of a person to learn from his experiences. Indeed, that is precisely why he is out of favor today, when conformity to the script is the most prized quality.
Eldridge Cleaver was born on August 31, 1935 in the tiny town of Wabbaseka, Arkansas. His father, Leroy Cleaver was a nightclub entertainer and a waiter, and his mother an elementary school teacher. His father was reported to be a violent man who beat his wife. Eldridge stated that he wanted to grow up to be tall and strong like his father, but “bigger and stronger,” so that he could “beat him to the ground the way he beat my mother.”
His father was offered a job in the dining car of a train that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. During this time Eldridge’s family moved to Phoenix Arizona and later, in 1946, to the Watts area in Los Angeles. While a teenager Eldridge got into petty crime and was sent to reform school for stealing a bicycle and selling marijuana. In 1954 he was convicted for marijuana possession, which was a felony at the time, and incarcerated at the California State Prison at Soledad for 2 ½ years. It was at this time he began reading widely and earned his high school diploma.
Despite this promising turn around, a year after his release, he was arrested for rapes, convicted of assault with intent to murder and sent to San Quentin prison first, and later to Folsom for a term of 2 to 14 years. In these years, Cleaver voraciously read the works of Karl Marx, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Vladimir Lenin and W.E.B. Du Bois. For the record, Du Bois (1868-1963) was an American sociologist, historian, author, editor and activist and probably the most important black activist in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. Cleaver also began to engage in serious self-reflection and criticism. In Soul on Ice, the product of these self-reflections, Cleaver describes himself at his most depraved:
“I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I started out by practicing on black girls in… the black ghetto where dark and vicious deeds appear not as aberrations or deviations from the norm, but as part of the sufficiency of the Evil of the day – and when I considered myself smooth enough, I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey. I did this consciously, deliberately, willfully, methodically — though looking back I see that I was in a frantic, wild and completely abandoned frame of mind.
Rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man’s law, upon his system of values, and that I was defiling his women — and this point, I believe, was the most satisfying to me… I felt I was getting revenge.
“There was little doubt… that if I had not been apprehended, I would have slit some white throats.
I took a long look at myself and, for the first time in my life, admitted that I was wrong, that I had gone astray – astray, not so much from the white man’s law as from being human, civilized — for I could not approve the act of rape… I lost my self-respect. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile moral structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered.”
After his release from prison, seeking a more moral and disciplined life, Cleaver joined the Black Muslim movement and became friends with Malcolm X. But after the assassination of Malcolm X, he denounced the Muslim faith. He did, however, retain a determination to realize Malcolm X’s dream of African Unity.
In 1966 he began writing for the Ramparts magazine, a glossy expensively produced and illustrated magazine associated with the New Left, and met the leaders of the young Black Panther Party, including Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Eldridge joined the Panthers believing that Newton would carry on Malcolm X’s dream of African Unity and became the party’s Minister of Information and leader of the “Free Huey” movement.
While a member of the Panthers, he called for an armed insurrection to overthrow the United States government and its replacement by a black socialist government.
On April 6th of 1968 Cleaver, with 14 other Black Panthers armed with M16 rifles and shotguns, was involved in a shootout with police, which the Panthers blamed on the police, and in which the seventeen-year-old Panther, Bobby Hutton was killed.
Cleaver was charged with attempted murder and ordered back to prison. However, a judge ordered him released from prison two months later, and Cleaver gave a series of lectures at the University of California at Berkeley. The Governor of California at the time, Ronald Reagan, attempted to prevent Cleaver from speaking at Berkeley. In addition to calling Reagan “Mickey Mouse,” Cleaver once challenged Reagan to a duel:
“I challenged Ronald Reagan to a duel and I reiterate that challenge tonight. . . . And I give him his choice of weapons. He can use a gun, a knife, a baseball bat or a marshmallow. And I’ll beat him to death with a marshmallow.”
In the Reason interview, Cleaver also admits to plotting to kill Reagan. Cleaver’s parole was revoked and he was ordered back to prison. But, on Nov. 24, 1968, three days before he was due to turn himself in to the authorities, Cleaver fled to Cuba. He then spent the next seven years travelling through various socialist and communist countries, including Algeria, North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union, before, finally, settling down for a period in France.
Although Cleaver was initially treated to a life of luxury in Cuba, relations with Castro soured and Cleaver left Cuba for Algeria. Elaine Klein got him an invitation to attend the Pan-African Cultural Festival, which temporarily rendered him safe from prosecution. His work in the Festival enabled him to meet revolutionaries from all over Africa to discuss the evils of white supremacy and colonialism.
Cleaver again called for violence against the United States and stated his mission to “position the Panthers within the revolutionary nationalist camp inside the United States, and as disciples of Fanon on the world stage”.
Fritz Omar Fanon (1925–1961), born on the island of Martinique under French colonial rule, is difficult to classify. Fanon had an eclectic range of influences, including French Marxist and “Existentialist” Jean-Paul Sartre and French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. But it is fair to say that he combined Marxism, black existentialism and critical theory in his struggle against “Atlantic colonialism.”
During his travels through various socialist and communist countries, Cleaver even developed a curious alliance with the communist government in North Korea, and his Black Panther Party began publishing excerpts from its strange reclusive leader, Kim Il Sung.
Although Americans were forbidden to visit North Korea at the time, Cleaver and several other Panthers made two visits to the country in 1969-1970 to determine whether North Korea’s “juche model” could be adapted to the cause of black liberation in the United States.
Juche deserves a longer discussion but this is the basics: It was described as a program of national self-reliance, as a means of getting rid of Soviet domination of North Korea, which sounds positive enough, but it was actually used as a justification for the creation of the bizarre North Korean closed-door policy to the outside world and, internally, to justify getting rid of Kim Il Sung’s political rivals and achieve total dictatorial control of the country. After being taken on an official tour of North Korea, Cleaver expressed his admiration for North Korea’s “stable crime free society which provided guaranteed food, employment, and housing for all, and… had no economic or social inequalities.”
By 1975, however, after experiencing the joys of socialism and communism first hand in multiple countries around the world, as opposed to celebrating them in the comfy confines of a Berkeley sociology lecture, or while sitting cross-legged in a circle passing around the “peace pipe,” Cleaver had reversed his opinions.
In the interview with Reason magazine, he explained that in the United States he had sought to “fight against what I saw as the evils of our system.” But when he went “to a country like Cuba or Algeria or the Soviet Union and [saw] the nature of control that those state apparatuses had over the people – it was shocking to me. I didn’t want to believe it, because it meant that the politics that I was espousing was wrong.”
In that same interview, Cleaver also addresses Marx’s idea that after the glorious socialist revolution a “dictatorship of the proletariat” will be necessary for some temporary period until the state “withers away” and everyone achieves complete freedom. After his actual, real-world experience of these regimes, Cleaver begged to differ:
“The communists teach you that the dictatorship is a transient phase—that once capitalism is eliminated, then the state will wither away and you will have freedom. Well, when you look at those governments up close and see how they treat their own people, you can’t believe in that. You see that people are using that preachment of the withering away of the state as their excuse to justify their own dictatorial power.”
When asked in the Reason interview why so many American “intellectuals,” like Barbara Walters or George McGovern, visit these socialist and communist regimes and come away impressed, Cleaver stated that this was because they just “scurry” right though quickly, while getting the red-carpet treatment. That is, they are enormously gullible. By contrast, Cleaver said, “I lived in those kinds of places and I got to know people and made friends. I got to know the governments, the people in the military, people in the Communist Party or whatever they called it. That gives you a different perspective.” Indeed, this one-time communist told Reason magazine that he now thought stopping communism is “a noble cause.”
Since leftist accusations against the police are once again the most useful cause du jour to manipulate the public and get their way, it is significant that in the interview with Reason magazine, Cleaver also addressed the gunfight with the police in which Bobby Hutton was killed – but describes those events entirely differently than he had during his days as a Panther:
“We went after the cops that night, but when we got caught, we said they came after us. We always did that. When you talk about the legacy of the ’s that’s one legacy… [I]t helped to distort the image of the police, but I’ve come to the point where I realize that our police department is necessary.”
Whereas in his days as a Black Panther, Cleaver had accused the police for the gunfight that killed Bobby Hutton, he now admitted that it was his group that provoked the violence so that they could blame it on the police: “We always did that.”
This duplicitous strategy continues to the present day. “Protestors” still chant the “Hands up, don’t shoot!” slogan from the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri even though the Obama-Holder Justice Department, after a thorough investigation and testimony from six black witnesses, cleared the police Officer. Truth is not of major concern to leftists when dictatorial control of a whole country is the goal.
In the Reason interview Cleaver also returned to the night while living in France when he had his political and spiritual turnaround. He describes how, sitting with a gun in his hand, he was contemplating suicide, when he suddenly had a vision, in which his former Marxist heroes disappear in smoke and a blinding light led him to Christianity.
Disillusioned with the socialist and communist worlds, indeed, “shocked” by the way they treated their people, and homesick for the United States, Cleaver returned to America, even though a murder charge and a charge for skipping bail were still hanging over his head.
In 1977 he surrendered to the FBI under a deal in which the he pled guilty to the assault charge and was sentenced to 1,200 hours of community service in exchange for dropping the attempted murder charge. Facing a murder charge in the United States is, apparently, preferable, and not by a small margin, to being given the red-carpet treatment in the various socialist and communist paradises around the world.
In a 1998 article in the New York Times titled, “Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther Who Became a G.O.P. Conservative, Is Dead at 62,” John Kifner describes how Cleaver continued his evolution, after returning to the United States. Having witnessed the devastation wreaked by socialism and communism with his own eyes, he became an entrepreneur (apparently realizing that capitalism, far from being evil, gives individuals the freedom to turn an idea and some hard work into a good, even a great, way of life, creating jobs for others along the way), and marketed a new type of men’s trousers called the “Cleaver Sleeve” featuring a codpiece.
Cleaver became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) for a time, before becoming a Christian conservative, a member of the Republican Party and a supporter of Ronald Reagan, the man he had once plotted to kill. What a difference growing up makes! He even ran for public office as a Republican but lost. Cleaver had come full circle.
As a result of his real education living in socialist and communist countries, he went from being a Marxist revolutionary who called for the assassination of Ronald Reagan to being a Christian conservative Republican Reagan supporter.
At the time of his interview with Reason magazine, Cleaver lived in a modest apartment in Berkeley California where he was working on a book on the history of the 1960s. A large American flag, testimony to the fact that some people are actually willing to learn from their experience, flew from his front porch. With his prominently displayed large American flag, the former Marxist was clearly trying to send a message.
Cleaver’s turnabout was not, predictably, appreciated on the Left. The same New York Times article describes a case in the 1980s when Cleaver demanded that the Berkeley City Council begin its meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, a practice that they had once followed but had abandoned several years earlier. The Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport responded: “Shut up Eldridge. Shut up or we’ll have you removed!”
Cleaver might be forgiven if he thought he was back in one of his other former socialist or communist paradises. Further, at the time of the writing of this article, Wikipedia, which is sometimes, perhaps in a poor attempt at humour, described as an “encyclopedia,” has a reasonably sized article of about 630 words, not counting the footnotes, for Cleaver’s youthful angry anti-American book, Soul on Ice.
Since, however, Cleaver’s later book, Soul on Fire, which describes his conversion to being a Christian conservative, pro-American Republican is much more positive and hopeful, and most unforgivably, his conversion to support Ronald Reagan, it does not merit a Wikipedia article at all, not even a brief one, and is not even mentioned in the Wikipedia article about Soul on Ice.
Despite Cleaver’s remarkable evolution, it must be admitted that some of his demons remained with him in later life. In 1990 and 1994, he had police issues over the use of crack cocaine. But that is not why he is criticized and rejected by the Left where self-destructive drug use is just a part of life.
Cleaver’s mistake, for the Left, is that he had actually allowed himself to learn from his experiences over the years and see though his youthful leftist follies – for the ability to learn from experience is precisely what the Left cannot abide.
Richard McDonough is the author of two books, numerous articles, encyclopedia and dictionary entries, and book reviews. He has taught previously at Bates College, the National University of Singpaore, the University of Tulsa, the University Putra Malaysia, the Overseas Family College, the PSB Academy, the University of Maryland, the Arium Academy, and James Cook University. In addition to philosophy, he has taught psychology, physics, humanities and writing courses.
The featured image shows, “Unite,” a color screenprint, by Barbara Jones-Hogu, printed 1969.
Leroy Eldridge Cleaver was born in Wabbaseka, Arkansas on 31 August 1935, and he was raised in Phoenix, Arizona and Los Angeles, California. He was a petty criminal as a teenager and was sent to Soledad prison in 1953 for a drug charge and to Folsom and San Quentin prisons for rape and assault in 1958. While in prison, he became a communist, and he was released on parole on 12 December 1966. Cleaver became a writer for the Ramparts magazine, and he became Minister of Information (spokesman) of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, supporting armed struggle. In 1968, he ran for President of the United States as the Peace and Freedom Party candidate, winning 36,571 votes (.05%). On 6 April 1968, he took part in the ambush of Oakland police officers which resulted in Bobby Hutton's death, and he was charged with murder. Cleaver jumped bail and fled to Cuba in late 1968, and he received a luxurious treatment by Fidel Castro's government until Castro discovered that the CIA had infiltrated the Panthers. Cleaver then fled to Algeria, setting up an international office for the Black Panthers there. In 1969, he and the Black Panther Party began to publish North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung's writings, making two visits to North Korea in 1969 and 1970, and coming to believe that North Korea was a "crime-free society" with "guaranteed food, employment, and housing for all, and which had no economic or social inequalities." He later killed his wife's lover Clinton Rober Smith Jr. on his return to Algeria. Cleaver would go on to fall out with Huey P. Newton because Newton believed that Cleaver's internationalist and pro-North Korean outlook distracted him from the Black Power struggle and from the African-American fight for freedom back in the USA. Newton also believed that the Black Power movement should give up armed struggle to stop alienating the Black community, but Cleaver supported the escalation of armed struggle and co-founded the Black Liberation Army, leading to his expulsion from the BPP in 1971. In 1972, Cleaver moved to Paris, France, where he became a born-again Christian and a fashion designer. He became interested in virility and led his own "Eldridge Cleaver Crusades" revivalist organization which propagated "Christlam" (a synthesis of Christianity and Islam) and had an auxiliary called "Guardians of the Sperm". On 11 December 1983, Cleaver was baptized into the LDS Church, and he also became a conservative Republican who ran for the Berkeley City Council in 1984 and for the US Senate in 1986 as a Republican primary candidate. In 1988, 1992, and 1994, he was arrested for burglary, cocaine, and crack usage, and he died in Pomona, California in 1998 at the age of 62.
Know Your History: Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver – From Israel-Hater To Zionist
With the Black Lives Matters movement being co-opted by Israel haters and antisemites, now seems like a good time to look at Eldridge Cleaver, a prominent activist of the Black Panther Party, who began as a rabid Israel hater.
Click on image to enlarge
We’ve heard this all before, and certainly echoes the kinds of things we are hearing now – from within the Black Lives Matters movements, and from without.
There’s also this photo of Cleaver (right) holding hands with arch terrorist Yasser Arafat.
But then something interesting happened. During his trip to Algeria, he saw how the Arabs enslaved Africans, and had an epiphany. From then on, he became an ardent Zionist.
The following articles give insight into this part of his transformation.
Thanks to Dumisani Washington for bringing Eldridge Cleaver and his fascinating transformation to my attention.
Eldridge Cleaver: The Mormon Years
When Eldridge Cleaver ascended the Marriott Center stage on June 28, 1981, the Black Panther Party wasn't quite dead. The organization's last remnants were running an alternative school in Oakland, California, and that final Panther project didn't peter out until 1982. But Cleaver, who a decade earlier had been head of the party's International Section in Algeria, didn't have anything to do with the group anymore. Far from Oakland and even farther from Algiers, he was standing before a sea of neatly dressed Mormons in Provo, Utah, where he spoke for more than an hour about the evils of Communism, the glory of God, and why he wanted the United States to export democracy to the world. Cleaver had once warned that America's institutions were instilling ugly ideals in its citizens, driving them to the point where that "the shit gets all fucked up and twisted up and you end up in the John Birch Society." Now the same man was warmly namechecking a prominent Bircher, saying he'd been "running around with Dr. W. Cleon Skousen."
Cleaver still had harsh words for some of the cops he'd clashed with in the 1960s. But now he had been to the socialist world, and he had come away convinced that the cops there were even worse. "The thing that I used to resent the most about American police, in my own personal experience, was one time the police in San Francisco kicked my door down," he said. "But I had an experience in Algeria&hellipover there, the police came through the wall."
It's a real stemwinder. If you want the historical context for the speech, scroll down. If you want to just jump in and take it straight, here you go:
In the last couple of installments of the Friday A/V Club, we've looked at "a disorienting moment in American history: a time after the convulsions of the 1960s and '70 had ended but while most of the giant figures of that faded age were still around, trying to find a place for themselves in a changed world." The ex-Panther in Provo was a particularly vivid case.
Eldridge Cleaver spent his youth in and out of jails, reformatories, and prisons, his most serious crimes being a series of rapes. Radicalized behind bars, he produced the book that made him famous: Soul on Ice, largely written in prison and then published after his release. It was both a bestseller and one of the central Black Power texts of the '60s, and it solidified his status as one of the most prominent Black Panthers, rivaled in fame only by party founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. But in 1968—barely more than a year after he was paroled from Soledad, not quite two months after Soul on Ice appeared—he got into a shootout with some Oakland cops and fled the country, spending the next seven years in Cuba, Algeria, and France, with side trips to a variety of Communist countries.
From his base in Algiers, Cleaver fantasized about global revolution—and had a hand in the birth of the Black Liberation Army, a violent offshoot of the Panthers. But the repression and racism that he saw in the Eastern Bloc reminded Cleaver of the prisons he had lived in back in America, and he grew disillusioned with Communism (though he maintained a soft spot for the North Vietnamese). And then, in France, he found Jesus.
As Cleaver tells it in his 1978 book Soul on Fire—yes, there is a Christian sequel to Soul on Ice called Soul on Fire—the exiled Panther saw a vision in the sky, as shadows on the Moon seemed to form an image of his own face. "As I stared at this image, it changed, and I saw my former heroes paraded before my eyes. Here were Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-tung, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, passing in review—each one appearing for a moment of time, then dropping out of sight, like fallen heroes. Finally, at the end of the procession, in dazzling, shimmering light, the image of Jesus Christ appeared." In 1975, the homesick revolutionary returned to the United States, where he spent eight months in jail. But before long he was on the outside again, traveling the evangelical circuit and appearing on TV with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker. Once, when Cleaver saw Falwell debating a gay professor on a Philadelphia TV station, he made his way to the studio and sat in the front row of the audience, telling the announcer that he "thought Brother Jerry needed some help, so I came to give him support."
Cynics charged Cleaver with opportunism. One Maoist who had known him in the '60s accused his old comrade of "acting a fool and being dangled to the public by the rulers of this country, spouting this madness about how he saw Jesus in the moon and all the rest of it, when all he saw (probably loaded at the time) was a chance to crawl back on his belly and keep his raggedy ass out of jail." The Black Panthers' leader, Elaine Brown, suggested that Cleaver was covertly working for the feds. (Much later, Cleaver's ex-wife would fling the same charge at Elaine Brown.)
The issue came up even in friendly venues. In a 1977 appearance on the Christian TV show I Believe—hosted by a left-leaning Catholic, not a conservative evangelical—it was the first question the interviewer asked: "Was it a real conversion to the Lord Jesus, or is it just something you imagined out of loneliness and desperate need—a need to return, a need to work out the political and legal hassles?" How do we know you're sincere?
If you want to be cynical about Cleaver's motives, you might note that his evangelical period coincided with a significant piece of patronage. It was Arthur DeMoss, a major donor to Falwell's university and to the Campus Crusade for Christ, who ended Cleaver's eight-month imprisonment by posting his $100,000 bail, and it was the Campus Crusade for Christ that then sponsored his speaking engagements. When Cleaver started his own ministry, the Eldridge Cleaver Crusades, DeMoss was a major funder. Cleaver's break with the evangelical mainstream—marked by a speech in which he declared that he "would rather be with the littlest Moonie than with Billy Graham"—came a month after his benefactor died. In a recent article for Religion and American Culture, Dan Wells notes that Cleaver sometimes expressed reservations about the role he found himself playing, complaining in his private journal that he felt Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker were using him as a "token."
Yet to me it seems clear that Cleaver's conversion was sincere. You can see that in the very fact that he had trouble being contained by a stereotypical evangelical identity—that rather than simply following the script his new fan base expected, he made it a step in a spiritual path that was hard to take as anything but sincere, given how eccentric it was. "I've done a lot of shopping in the theological supermarket," he told that interviewer in 1977. That shopping trip continued for the rest of his life.
In 1979 he got involved with Project Volunteer, an Oakland front group for the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, though it wasn't completely clear how he felt about Moon's religion. (In contemporaneous profiles for New West and the Berkeley Barb—the latter teased on the cover as "Cleaver's Moon Trip"—he gave the impression that he liked Project Volunteer's charitable work but was trying to get members out of the church each article reported that he had been working on an anti-Moonie book titled Divine Deception. The book never appeared.) In 1980, Cleaver—who had gone through a Nation of Islam period in San Quentin and who had spent much of his evangelical period reaching out to disillusioned Black Muslims—announced that he would be launching his own religion, a fusion of Christian, Muslim, and uniquely Cleaverite doctrines that he called "Christlam." (Among other things, the fledgling faith held that "the dwelling place of God" is "in the male sperm." Cleaver was fixated on semen and the organ that produced it: When the man who introduced his Provo talk mentioned that the old Panther had been working in clothing design, he refrained from noting that Cleaver's most notable contribution to fashion was a line of pants featuring a codpiece designed to stop the practice of "penis binding.")
And then he found the Mormons.
The most complete account I've seen of Cleaver's Mormon period is "Eldridge Cleaver's Passage Through Mormonism," a paper published by Newell G. Bringhurst in the Spring 2002 Journal of Mormon History. According to Bringhurst, Cleaver's first "direct contact" with the Latter-day Saints came in late 1980, when a former New Left comrade suggested he look into the faith. At this point the Mormon church did not have a reputation as a welcoming place for African Americans—it did not start ordaining black priests until 1978. But Cleaver apparently felt welcome as he met with Skousen, Ezra Taft Benson, and others in 1981, and soon he was giving talks under the aegis of Skousen's Freeman Institute. (Now called the National Center for Constitutional Studies, the organization has been a notable influence on the conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck.) I'm not sure if Cleaver ever read Skousen's classic conspiracy tract, The Naked Communist, or its more baroque sequel, The Naked Capitalist. But he was impressed by the writings of Joseph Smith, and also by Smith's 1844 presidential campaign, which ended with a mob murdering the candidate in jail.
By this time, Cleaver had plea-bargained his way out of serving any more jail time for the Oakland shootout. But he was still on parole, and he was barred from being baptized into the church until that was completed. Eventually it was, and Cleaver became a Mormon in 1983.
That same year, he told the Associated Press that he was open to the idea of resurrecting the Black Panther Party. One wonders what that would have looked like. Cleaver had written to Bobby Seale in 1982, acknowledging that he had "move[d] in a different ideological direction" but suggesting they still could work together. "The capitalistic system is in a state of general crisis and black people are being sacrificed on the altar of national recovery," he wrote. "The police department are preying upon the people and are poised to crush them. The very food supply of the people is in jeopardy. There is no organized force to represent the people. We can—and must create such a force."
The '80s Cleaver made a few unsuccessful bids for office, with platforms that sounded conventionally conservative—he criticized Communism and the welfare state, praised private enterprise and Ronald Reagan—until he got to the issue of drugs: On that matter, he told CBS during his 1986 run for the Senate, "I think we should decriminalize them, and take the enormous profit out of the illicit trade." When Reason interviewed Cleaver around the same time, he reiterated the argument in earthier terms: "the same way that we got J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI out of Prohibition, we're getting what I call the Piss Police out of this whole drug situation. It's absolutely catastrophic in terms of our freedom." (When Cleaver took an unpoliced bathroom break, one of Reason's interviewers, Bill Kauffman, stole a glance at Cleaver's files. The two he remembers were labeled "Sperm" and something along the lines of "Jim Morrison: Alive?")
Cleaver had his troubles in the '80s and '90s. There were financial problems. His marriage split up. For a while he was addicted to crack, and at one low point he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor burglary charge. He stayed on the Mormon membership rolls through it all, though he attended church less often as time went by.
And then everything seemed to come full circle: In the wake of the Waco standoff, Cleaver's quirky "right-wing" views seemed to pulsate with the same revolutionary energy as his old "left-wing" ideas. "Through long, personal, bitter experience with the government's agencies and methods of repression, I recognized early on that the government was systematically poisoning and prejudicing public opinion with a blitz of inflammatory disinformation to stir up hatred against David Koresh and to foment a thirst for his blood," he wrote. He called the government's raid an "arrogant, abusive, fascist exercise of state power"—and, in a bit of over-the-top rhetoric that rivaled the fieriest flourishes of his Panther days, he declared: "Nothing done by Hitler's murderous hordes was worse."
With the Cold War over and Communism apparently dead, Cleaver was turning back toward his old antiwar politics too. He wrote an essay, left unpublished at the time, that denounced the first Gulf War (and, in a passing reference, returned to condemning Reagan). Interviewed by Henry Louis Gates a year before his death, he defended the Panthers' legacy while reiterating his criticisms of Marxism. He also told Gates that Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the Kennedys had been "killed by the powers that rule this country who did not want to see the political dynasty of the Kennedys take control."
And he made a late-life move toward feminism—not a decision you'd expect from a man who had once been a serial rapist, who had been physically abusive toward his wife, and who had once gone looking for God in the human sperm. Cleaver expressed these views in a 1995 letter to the psychedelic psychologist Timothy Leary, a man he had put under "revolutionary arrest" when they were both in exile in Algeria. (The two had buried the hatchet when they found themselves in the same California prison, where by Leary's account they became a "high-scoring two-man basketball team.") Now Cleaver was urging Leary to hold a joint press conference to "call upon the Democratic Party and the Republican Party both to nominate a woman candidate for president in the year 2000." The Cleaver-Leary platform, he added, should be centered around "the Loving Heart of a Mother." It wasn't your standard feminist rhetoric, and it's interesting that he envisioned two men making the announcement. But it was another turn in a life that was full of turns, turns that somehow added up to a single whole.
Eldridge Cleaver died in 1998. His son Maceo has become a Muslim, and in 2006 he wrote a book called Soul on Islam. His daughter Joju married Geronimo Pratt, a Black Panther who had spent 27 years in prison before his conviction was overturned. You can see both Maceo and Joju in that video of the speech in Provo, neither of them a teenager yet, sitting behind one of their father's incarnations as he addresses the assembled Mormons.
Leroy Eldridge Cleaver (1935–1998)
Leroy Eldridge Cleaver was one of the best-known and most recognizable symbols of African-American rebellion in the 1960s as a leader of the Black Panther Party. In the 1970s, he became a born-again Christian and later an active member of the Republican Party.
Eldridge Cleaver was born on August 31, 1935, in Wabbaseka (Jefferson County). His father, Leroy Cleaver, was a nightclub entertainer and waiter his mother, Thelma Hattie Robinson Cleaver, taught elementary school. Many accounts portray Leroy Cleaver as a violent man who beat his wife. Eldridge Cleaver recalled those beatings as the beginning of his “ambition to grow up tall and strong, like my daddy, but bigger and stronger than he, so I could beat him to the ground the way he beat my mother.”
When Leroy Cleaver got a job in the dining car of a train that ran between Chicago, Illinois, and Los Angeles, California, in 1943, the family moved from Arkansas—first to Phoenix, Arizona, and finally to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1946.
In Los Angeles, Eldridge Cleaver was repeatedly in legal trouble, including arrests for bicycle theft and selling marijuana. In 1954, he was sent to the California State Prison at Soledad after being convicted of marijuana possession. After his release in 1957, he was convicted of assault with intent to murder and was incarcerated at San Quentin and then Folsom prison.
In the early 1960s, he joined the Black Muslim movement founded by Elijah Muhammad. Cleaver denounced the Muslim faith after the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X but was determined to put into place Malcolm’s dream of the Organization for African Unity.
After his release from prison in December 1966, he became a staff writer for Ramparts magazine and soon met the leaders of the newly formed Black Panther Party, including Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. After witnessing a successful Black Panther showdown with police at the Ramparts offices, Cleaver joined the Black Panther Party, believing Newton to be the successor to Malcolm X. After Newton’s arrest in March 1967 following a confrontation with Oakland, California, police, Cleaver, the party’s Minister of Information, led the “Free Huey” movement that brought fame to both Cleaver and the party.
Cleaver married Kathleen Neal in December 1967 they had two children and divorced in 1987.
Cleaver was wounded and arrested on April 6, 1968, in a Black Panther shootout with police. After a judge ordered him released from prison two months later, Cleaver undertook a series of lectures at the University of California at Berkeley and ran for president as the candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party. After attempts by Governor Ronald Reagan to stop Cleaver from speaking at Berkeley led to Cleaver’s speaking out against Reagan personally, his parole was revoked, and Cleaver was ordered back to prison. On November 24, 1968, three days before he was due to turn himself in, Cleaver fled and escaped to Cuba.
A few months later, Cleaver was granted asylum in Algeria. His wife joined him there, where they remained until moving to Paris in 1972. While living in Paris, Cleaver converted to Christianity and became motivated to return to the United States. After his 1975 return, Cleaver spent eight months in jail and performed community service to clear the legal obligations stemming from the 1968 shootout.
Cleaver published several books, including the autobiographical titles Soul on Ice (1968) and Soul on Fire (1978), Eldridge Cleaver: Post-Prison Writings and Speeches (1969), and Eldridge Cleaver’s Black Papers (1969).
In 1980, Cleaver attempted to create a new religion, Christlam, which was a combination of Christianity and Islam. In the early 1980s, he joined the Republican Party and endorsed Ronald Reagan in his 1984 presidential reelection campaign. He made several runs for political office between 1984 and 1992, including an unsuccessful candidacy for the Republican nomination in the 1986 U.S. Senate race in California. Cleaver had several drug-related arrests in the late 1980s and early 1990s but kicked his drug habit and rededicated himself to Christianity. When former colleagues questioned his numerous religious conversions and drastically changing political views, Cleaver said, “I have a very good track record of being ahead of other people in understanding certain truths and taking political positions far in advance of the crowd and turn out to be vindicated by subsequent experience. Yet, when I take these experiences, I have been attacked for doing so.”
Cleaver died on May 1, 1998, in Pomona, California, of undisclosed causes. At the time of his death, he was employed by the University of La Verne in La Verne, California, as a diversity consultant. He is buried in Altadena, California.
For additional information:
Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Fire. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1978.
———. Soul on Ice. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.
———. Target Zero: A Life in Writing. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Lavelle, Ashley. “From Soul on Ice to Soul for Hire: The Political Transformation of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.” Race & Class 54 (October–December 2012): 55–74.
Manditch-Prottas, Zachary. “Meeting at the Watchtower: Eldridge Cleaver, James Baldwin’s No Name in the Street, and Racializing Homophobic Vernacular.” African American Review 52 (Summer 2019): 179–195.
Malloy, Sean L. “Uptight in Babylon: Eldridge Cleaver’s Cold War.” Diplomatic History 37 (June 2013): 538–571.
Rout, Kathleen. Eldridge Cleaver. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1991.
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So Eldridge Cleaver had a male clothing line? If this ain't some foolery.
Eldridge Cleaver, one of the most misogynistic, sexist, color-struck, sell-out, pseudo-revolutionary fools in Black history designed a pair of "men-only pants" back in the 1970s. This is my first time hearing of this. This is the same c*** who proudly expressed his disdain for Black women and his admiration for white women. The same guy who "practiced" raping Black women in order to prepare himself for raping "prized" white women as revenge against the white man. He was bold as hell for this BS.
Here's an excerpt from a 1975 interview Cleaver did with Mark Sillman---
Eldridge Cleaver's voice was soft and modulated and sprinkled with pauses as he discussed his latest venture--not his efforts to return to the United States, which he was loath to discuss, but his new role as entrepreneur, the designer of a new line of slightly obscene men's trousers.
"Well, the ideas for these pants came out of an article I'm writing about the uni-sex movement, attacking the uni-sex movement. While I was writing the article I started thinking of tangible ways to express my ideas, you know? And these pants are the natural outgrowth of that."
Cleaver took another sip of red wine. He only drinks red wine, he said. All this red wine and soft talking lent to the image of the new Eldridge Cleaver, who is really quite a relaxed guy. Not at all what you'd expect of a former convict, rapist, Black Panther Minister of Information, best-selling author of Soul on Ice.
A group of four young people, including three Harvard undergraduates, sat around and listened to Cleaver that night in August. Cleaver had come to visit his friend Jack Caball, an American expatriate novelist (one of a dying breed) and talk about his pants. The setting was intimate--the room in the Latin Quarter of Paris was dark and warm, with wood ceiling beams, tall bookshelves, a Calder print above the fireplace and a Chagall lithograph over the grand piano.
"Well, what exactly do these pants look like?" Mr. Caball's son Bruce asked. He knew very well what they looked like. His father already had described them to him, adding that "These pants are a disaster for Cleaver. I've seen writers invent plenty of ways of keeping from writing, but these pants are a disaster for Cleaver." But Bruce wanted to hear Cleaver describe the pants.
"Well these pants look like a regular pair of men's pants except around the groin, you know?" Cleaver said. "In a conventional pair of pants the penis gets tucked behind the pants, you know?" He imitated a tucking motion with his hands. "But in these pants, the penis is held in a sheath of cloth that sticks outside of the pants."
"You mean the penis protrudes out--it's hanging in this tube of cloth--outside the pants?," Bruce said loudly, his voice rising in glee. "Like a codpiece?"
"Yeah, that's the idea. Now you see how this is a direct attack on uni-sex. Women can't wear them, right? Take a look at what you guys are wearing. You're wearing sissy pants," Cleaver said.
"Well, uh," Bruce began, "couldn't these pants be dangerous? I mean, couldn't you get hurt wearing them?"
"No, man, how are you going to get hurt? What could happen?"
"But how about wearing them in social situations? Couldn't they be kind of embarrassing--like if you're dancing of something?"
"You mean, about getting an erection? You see, this is the thing I'm trying to get away from--that fig leaf mentality. I'm trying to get people in touch with their bodies and sexuality. It's amazing now to think that thousands of years ago men were walking around with no clothes on, and thought nothing of it. Now men walk around with clothes on and think nothing of it. What a shock it must have been then, to see the first person wear clothes! And what a shock now, to see a person without clothes. Or with these pants on.
"I'm really amused by the way people react to these pants. People who talk radical, about politics, then start talking conservative about these pants. What's wrong with getting an erection and letting people know about it? If a girl turns you on, why not let her know about it? There have been so many games going on between men and women for so long, that when sexuality finally comes out, it takes some pretty weird forms."