Leroy Eldridge Cleaver (August 31, 1935 – May 1, 1998) was a leader of the militant leftist Black Panther Party and author of the influential book, Soul on Ice. After a tumultuous journey through a youth spent in and out of prison, he was briefly a member of the Nation of Islam. He later served as chief propagandist for the Black Panthers and was a candidate for the U.S. presidency, but ran afoul of the law after a shoot-out with the police in Oakland, California. After several years as an international fugitive on the run, he was transformed from an angry black revolutionary bent on revenge against American racism to a born-again Christian author, campus activist opposed to Marxist revolution, and Republican Party activist.
In his book, Soul on Fire, he renounced many of his former attitudes as a radical revolutionary and admitted to receiving financial support from the Communist North Vietnamese. He later associated himself with both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the campus movement of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, whom he declared to be "one of the most significant religious and spiritual leaders in the history of the whole world." Believing that only a knowledge of God's love can bring about true peace, he declared that leftist radicals and conservatives must learn "to see not an enemy, a target or a statistic, but a brother, a sister, a fellow American, another child of God."
Born the only child of Leroy and Thelma Cleaver in Wabbaseka, Arkansas, Cleaver's family moved frequently, at last settling in the Watts district of Los Angeles, California. Leroy and Thelma Cleaver separated shortly after the family arrived in California. At one point, his father worked as a nightclub piano player and later as a waiter on the railroad line running between Chicago and Los Angeles. His mother worked as a school teacher. Eldridge would later describe his childhood as an unhappy one dominated by an abusive father who would often physically assault his mother.
As a teenager, Eldridge spent much of his time in correctional institutions. He was arrested for the first time at the age of 12 for stealing a bicycle and sentenced to a reform school for youthful offenders. Cleaver spent most of the ensuing 15 years in prison on a variety of charges relating to drugs or violence. The most serious of these offenses occurred in late 1956, when he was arrested and sentenced to 2 to 14 years in prison for a series of aggravated sexual assaults and assault with intent to murder.
While incarcerated in Folsom State Prison in northern California, Cleaver underwent a profound transformation. "After I returned to prison," he would write, "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."
Influenced by the writings of Malcolm X, Cleaver became a follower of the Nation of Islam. However, California prison authorities did not recognize the Nation of Islam as a legitimate religious organization, and his efforts to proselytize other prisoners was punished with long periods in solitary confinement.
In prison, Cleaver immersed himself in the writings of various revolutionaries and social critics, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Karl Marx, and V. I. Lenin. From such varied sources, Cleaver began to piece together what he would describe as a "concept of what it meant to be black in white America." After Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam, Cleaver also left the organization, remaining a follower of Malcolm X's philosophy of black pride and vigorous activism.
In 1962, while still incarcerated, Cleaver published his first essays on Black nationalism in the Negro History Bulletin. In 1966, through the help of prominent lawyers and writers, several of his essays were published in the San Francisco–based radical journal, Ramparts. These early essays served as the basis for his autobiographical Soul on Ice (1968), which became very influential within the then-burgeoning black power movement. As a journey through the deepest depths of one African-American man's soul it offers personal as well as social insights that remain relevant to this day.
Soon after Cleaver was released from Folsom State Prison in 1966, he joined with Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, who had just formed the Black Panther Party (BPP) in October.
Drawing upon Soul on Ice as political manifesto, Cleaver, as the party's "minister of information," played a major role in the popularization and radicalization of the BPP. Formed at a time of great social upheaval in the United States—amid the tensions of the ongoing war in Vietnam and between supporters and opponents of the civil rights movement—the Panthers emerged as the leading party of Marxist-oriented political radicalism among American blacks. Cleaver himself openly called for a revolutionary insurrection against "the predominantly white and wealthy establishment" within the United States.
In the spring of 1967, at a black student conference organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, Cleaver met Kathleen Neal, the secretary of the Committee's campus program and the daughter of a U.S. Foreign Service officer. Cleaver's fiery rhetoric and the Panthers' more radical approach to issues of race and class appealed to her. The pair married a few months later on December 27, 1967, over the objections of Neal's parents.
In 1968, Cleaver became a candidate for President on the ticket of the Peace and Freedom Party. That same year, on April 6, 1968, two days after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Cleaver participated in a shootout with Oakland police in which 17-year-old Black Panther Bobby Hutton was killed and two police officers were wounded. Cleaver himself was injured, arrested, and charged with attempted murder.
To avoid being sent back to prison for his part in the Oakland shootout, Cleaver jumped his $50,000 bail, fled to Mexico City and then to Cuba, where he remained for seven months.
Cleaver would spend the next seven years wandering throughout the communist world, with sojourns in Algeria, North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union before finally settling in France. Kathleen Cleaver, who was pregnant with their first child, would join her husband in Algeria in July 1969, where she soon gave birth to their son Maceo, named after the Cuban general Antonio Maceo. The Cleavers' second child, daughter Joju Younghi, would be born in North Korea in 1970, and was named Younghi by Kim Il Sung. In Algeria, Cleaver would be joined by LSD guru Timothy Leary and Leary's third wife, Rosemary, who in conjunction with the radical Weathermen group, had arranged for Leary's escape from prison. Together, they were granted political asylum and given a villa in Algiers by the government intended as a haven for black American exiles as well as a base for recruitment of U.S. military deserters.
In Algiers, the newly founded international wing of the Black Panther Party was formed with the Cleavers at the center. An incessant long-distance feud between Cleaver and Huey Newton resulted in 1971, with the international branch's expulsion from the party. Following the split, the Cleavers and their allies formed a new organization, the short-lived, Revolutionary People's Communication Network.
In his 1978 book, Soul on Fire, Cleaver mused that during this time he believed for a while that Christianity was "The Answer." In a later analysis however, Eldridge admitted that he found any doctrine to be too confining.
He would also reveal that he was supported by regular stipends from the Republic of North Vietnam, with which the U.S. was then at war, and that in his trek into exile he had been followed by other former-criminals-turned-revolutionaries, several of whom had hijacked planes to get to Algeria. The Algerians expected Cleaver to keep his protégés in line, but it became increasingly difficult, as their growing number stretched his North Vietnamese stipend to the breaking point. Cleaver organized a stolen car ring as a solution to this dilemma, with his revolutionary protégés stealing cars in Europe, and then selling them in Africa. Eventually, due to such criminal activity, Cleaver would have to flee Algeria out of fear for his life.
Finally, Cleaver abandoned his disciples and began to sour on his Marxist paradise dreams, resettling in Paris in 1973, with his family. It was there, during his months of isolation with his family, that Cleaver began setting in motion the process that would enable his repatriation to the United States.
He would later write that also while in France, one night, looking up at the moon, he saw the faces of his heroes Marx, Mao Tse-Tung, Castro, and others appearing in succession; then fading away. In that moment, he recalled the sermons of his Baptist minister grandfather and got down on his knees and prayed. Looking up at the moon again, he saw only the face of Jesus Christ.
In 1975, the Cleavers returned to America, where Eldridge turned himself in to authorities, pleading guilty to assault after prosecutors dropped attempted murder charges against him from the 1968 police shootout. He was placed on probation and directed to perform 2,000 hours of community service. Subsequently, he also renounced the Black Panthers. The next few years were spent in California. During this period, Cleaver underwent a political transformation that saw him become increasingly conservative and interested in religion. In 1981, Kathleen, along with both children, moved across country to go back to college. She enrolled at Yale, graduating with honors in 1983, with a bachelor's degree in history. The Cleavers divorced in 1985.
After public appearances with several evangelical ministers, including Pat Robertson and Robert Schuller, Eldridge became disillusioned with what he viewed as the commercial nature of evangelical Christianity. Around the same time, he also made several appearances with Reverend Sun Myung Moon's campus ministry organization, the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles (CARP). In 1984, Cleaver was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remaining a nominal member of the Mormon church until his death.
He described his spiritual quest as "a search to try to find out what was the truth. That led me to checking out all different kinds of religions… And I said, "Hey, I’m not a Moonie, I’m not a Mormon, I just got to the M’s!" You know, it’s a logical progression, it’s a metamorphosis. And what I found was that my heart was growing, I became more and more inclusive to be able to relate to more and more people on this planet."
Politically, Cleaver became active in Republican politics, endorsing Ronald Reagan for President in 1980. In 1986, he embarked on a GOP campaign to win one of California's seats in the United States Senate. He failed to win the party's nomination, however. His political turnabout was such that once at a public meeting of the Berkeley City Council he demanded that it begin its meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance, a practice they had abandoned years before. The incident ended with the mayor telling the former Black Panther leader to "Shut up or we'll have you removed."
Also in the 1980s, it was revealed that Cleaver had become addicted to crack cocaine. In 1992, he was convicted of cocaine possession and burglary. In 1994, he underwent emergency brain surgery after reportedly being knocked unconscious during a cocaine buy.
On May 1, 1998, at the age of 62, Eldridge Cleaver died of prostate cancer in Pomona, California. He is interred at the Mountain View Cemetery, Altadena, California and is survived by his daughter, Joju Younghi Cleaver, and son, Maceo Cleaver. He also had a son, Riley, from another relationship.
Eldridge Cleaver's life coincided with a uniquely tumultuous time in American history, particularly in relation to the issue of race relations and the politics of the Left. A common view on the Left into the 1960s was that the United States was an inherently evil, racist, imperialist nation that could only be righted by radical revolution. Some prominent intellectuals who had been on the Left, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Norman Podhoretz, and others from poor immigrant families ultimately also disliked this view and deserted the Left. While Cleaver—perhaps due to his criminal behavior and status as a notorious fugitive—never gained the status of a neo-conservative intellectual leader, he followed a similar, if more extreme pattern.
Cleaver's book, Soul on Ice, is a powerful expression of one aspect of the African-American experience and is still read in college classes along with such classics as the Autobiography of Malcom X. As former Black Panther Roland Freeman said upon Cleaver's death, "Eldridge played a very critical role in the struggle of the '60s and the '70s. He was a symbol." Noteworthy today as well is Cleaver's son, Ahmad Maceo Eldridge Cleaver, who has embraced Islam and published his first book, entitled, Soul on Islam, in April of 2006.
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