Cleaver, Eldridge 1935–
Eldridge Cleaver 1935–
Political activist, author
“As the charismatic Information Minister of the Black Panther Party, Eldridge Cleaver was one of the most dazzling and controversial fixtures of the ’60s,” judged an Ebony magazine contributor. “For more than a decade, the Arkansas-born writer-activist mesmerized audiences with his calls for revolutionary violence against the agents of racism, capitalism and Christianity.” Cleaver was an early leader of the Black Panthers, a political union of disenchanted African Americans that eventually attracted nationwide membership. From the pages of his bestselling book Soul on Ice as well as from public platforms, Cleaver urged blacks and whites alike to oppose repression, police brutality, and unequal economic opportunity. To racist whites, Cleaver represented a clear threat: he eloquently advocated extreme measures to assure the overthrow of a society that discriminated against minorities.
Cleaver told People magazine that during the late 1960s he felt “there was no hope of effecting real freedom within the capitalistic system. I was the guy who demanded we go down shooting.” Cleaver’s rhetoric caught up with him in 1968 after a gun battle between the Black Panthers and the San Francisco police. Fleeing a federal warrant for his arrest, he took refuge in Cuba, Algeria, and later Paris in an exile that lasted almost a decade. The firsthand experience of life in communist nations dramatically transformed Cleaver’s thinking on his American homeland. Since his return to the United States in 1976, he has pursued a more conventional political agenda. “During the eight years that I was absent from the United States, I underwent a change in my whole philosophy based on my observations,” Cleaver told Ebony. “I stopped being a communist or socialist and developed an understanding and respect for free enterprise and the democratic political system…. I found the systems of dictatorships and communism to be absolutely unacceptable. Living in those countries put an end to my advocacy of communism.”
Eldridge Cleaver was born in 1935 in Wabbaseka, a small Arkansas town near Little Rock. His father, Leroy, worked as a waiter and entertainer in a Little Rock nightclub, and his mother taught elementary school. While Cleaver was still young, his family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, because Leroy Cleaver had gotten a job in the dining car of the Super Chief, a train running between Chicago and Los Angeles. Eventually the Cleavers moved on to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. There Cleaver’s parents separated, and his mother
Born Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, August 3, 1935, in Wabbaseka, AR; son of Leroy (a dining car waiter) and Thelma (a teacher and janitor) Cleaver; married Kathleen Neal (a law professor), December 1967 (divorced, 1987); children: Maceo (son), Joju (daughter). Education: Attended junior college; also educated in Soledad Prison.
Ramparts (magazine), assistant editor and contributing writer, 1966–68; Black Panther Party, Oakland, CA, minister of information, 1967–71; U.S. presidential candidate, Peace and Freedom Party, 1968; lived in exile in Algeria, Cuba, and Paris, 1968–76; returned to United States, 1976. Writer, 1966—; public speaker, 1976—; political activist based in California. Men’s clothing designer and marketer, 1978; artist and owner of a recycling business in Berkeley, CA, 1988—.
Selected awards: Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, 1970, for Soul on Ice.
Addresses: c/o Bantam/Doubleday/Dell, 666 5th Ave., New York, NY 10103.
supported the children by serving as a janitor at a junior high school.
Cleaver’s first brush with the law came just as he entered junior high. After a conviction on bicycle theft, he was sent to a California reform school. Released in 1953, he was arrested again for selling marijuana. This time he was remanded to the Preston School of Industry for a year. At the end of his sentence, he was arrested yet again for selling marijuana and was sent to the California State Prison at Soledad. Cleaver spent the lion’s share of his teen years behind bars in one institution or another. He earned his high school degree at Soledad and read widely, including the works of such authors as Thomas Paine, Karl Marx, Richard Wright, and W. E. B. Du Bois.
In Soul on Ice, Cleaver writes that a youth spent in prison filled him with rage. Upon his release from Soledad, he began selling marijuana again and then engaged in increasingly violent acts. Once again the law caught up with Cleaver, and he was convicted of assault with intent to murder and remanded to San Quentin and Folsom prisons.
Further incarceration gave Cleaver an opportunity to examine his life and to seek the source of his rage and despair. In an effort to understand himself and his society, he began to write essays and snatches of autobiography. He became a disciple of the Black Muslim movement founded by Elijah Muhammad and was moved by the fiery speeches of Malcolm X. Attempts to win converts to the faith among his fellow convicts were punished by long stints in solitary confinement. Cleaver used these periods of isolation to write and to study the Bible, the only book he was allowed to take with him.
Cleaver spent eight years in prison before he became eligible for parole in 1965. In an effort to secure his freedom, he wrote to civil liberties lawyer Beverly Axelrod in San Francisco. Axelrod took his case and showed his manuscripts to left-wing writer Edward M. Keating. Keating published a Cleaver essay, “Notes on a Native Son,” in Ramparts magazine and promised Cleaver a job at the magazine should he receive parole. Subsequent Cleaver essays in Ramparts attracted the support of Maxwell Geismar, Norman Mailer, and other influential writers. Cleaver was granted parole in November of 1966.
Eldridge Cleaver literally leaped from confinement in a tough, maximum-security prison to a high-profile life among West Coast intellectuals and African American community leaders. He served as an editor and contributor to Ramparts and, in his spare time, helped to start Black House, a San Francisco cultural center for African American youth. At Black House in the early months of 1967, Cleaver met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the founders of the Black Panther Party. From a base in neighboring Oakland, the Black Panther Party offered urban blacks the possibility of aggressive self-defense and self-determination. A chief concern of the Panthers was police brutality. Members would follow law officers through the ghetto to guard against the use of undue force or the false arrest of black citizens. As a paroled felon, Cleaver ran a great risk by becoming involved with the Panthers, but his zeal for the cause outweighed his caution.
Cleaver was named minister of information for the Black Panther Party. As a top Panther official, he made speeches and sought new members for the growing organization. Within a year the group had attracted followers in most major American cities, and the black leather-clad Panthers became symbolic of a new, vocal menace to white supremacy. Tensions mounted as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local law enforcement sought to undermine the movement and its leadership.
On April 6, 1968, Cleaver was wounded in an armed confrontation between the Black Panthers and the San Francisco police. New York Times Magazine correspondent T. D. Allman described the incident: “Cleaver and a companion, Black Panther Treasurer Bobby Hutton, were holed up in a house with a rifle and a few pistols. The police poured thousands of rounds of ammunition into the house. Though some fire was returned, no policemen were wounded. Hutton, however, was shot dead, apparently while trying to surrender.” Arrested at the scene, Cleaver faced another stint in prison. A local judge ruled that the charges against him were politically motivated, however, and for some months he was allowed to go free. Cleaver used the time to continue his agenda with the Panthers and to run for president of the United States on the radical Peace and Freedom Party ticket.
Late in 1968, a higher court ruled that Cleaver should return to jail for parole violation and face new charges stemming from the April shoot-out incident. Cleaver became a fugitive, traveling to Cuba by way of Canada. “When Cleaver dropped out of sight, he was Black Panther minister of information, a potent force in an exploding people’s movement,” wrote Laile E. Bartlett in Reader’s Digest. “Under his leadership, the Black Panthers had developed from a local Oakland organization into an international movement being copied by liberationists around the world. As a writer—his Soul on Ice was a bestseller— Cleaver was both symbol and spokesman for a public that transcended race and class. His enemies had good reason to want him out of the way.”
Cleaver was accorded a warm welcome in Cuba. He met Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the senior ministers of the Cuban Communist party. After some time there, he moved on to Algeria, where he became a sort of foreign ambassador for the Black Panthers. Throughout the communist empire Cleaver was greeted as a revolutionary hero. He discovered, however, that the very government systems he had admired for so long were repressing citizens more forcefully than anything he had encountered in America.
“I came to see that there is a fundamental mistake contained in the Marxist-Leninist ideologies, where they make the distinction between idealism and materialism,” Cleaver told Reader’s Digest. “Everything dealing with the spirit or with religious subjects is lumped under ‘idealism’ and condemned as being ‘the opium of the people.’ I came to feel that there is not only room but a necessity for us to address ourselves to morality and the relationship between people. What made Marxism-Leninism unworkable was that there was no humanity in it, no love.” He added: “So I was wrong, and the Black Panthers were wrong. We had a totally political and economic approach, without giving any consideration to the more civilizing influences. Materialism, racial separation, destructive negativism, hate—they won’t do the job. I can see that, now.”
The transformation in Cleaver’s thinking was a gradual process, fueled by the isolation he felt because he could not speak any foreign languages. He lived abroad for eight years with his wife and two children, eventually moving to Paris. By December of 1975 he was ready to return to America, even if it meant going back to prison. “I’d rather be in jail in America than free anywhere else,” he told Reader’s Digest.
At first, Cleaver was incarcerated, but his conservative political philosophy and blossoming Christian faith found him powerful supporters from among the very people he once scorned the most. By 1978 he was cleared of charges and was a sought-after speaker at universities, religious gatherings, and political rallies. Some of his former associates questioned his conversion to Americanism and Christianity, but Cleaver steadfastly maintained that he had the right to change if he wanted to. “They try to make it look like I’m doing flip-flops all over the ocean,” he said in Ebony. “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 taking them.”
Since 1980 Cleaver has lived in Berkeley, California. He has run for various political offices there, including city council in 1984, the U.S. Senate in 1986, and the San Francisco Regional Transit Board in 1992. He has not won any of the seats he has sought. Financially Cleaver has almost always been on shaky ground, since the Internal Revenue Service staked a claim on the earnings he might have received from Soul on Ice, which has sold more than two million copies. In the late 1980s, he began running a recycling pickup service and making ceramic pottery for sale.
Cleaver broke from the Black Panthers even before he returned to the United States in 1976. However, he does not disavow his actions from those days or the ultimate aims of the Panthers. “The Black Panthers? That’s not where I am now, but it’s where I learned,” he told Reader’s Digest. “Soul on Ice? Those are not my words now, but they were honest at the time.” In fact, Cleaver told Ebony, “the Black Panther Party played a very positive role at a decisive moment toward the liberation of Black people in America.” Cleaver said in People that his outlook on life now is not the result of mellowing as he becomes a senior citizen. “That implies your ideas have changed because of age,” he concluded. “I’ve changed because of new conclusions.”
Soul on Ice, McGraw, 1968, reprinted, Dell, 1992.
Eldridge Cleaver: Post-Prison Writings and Speeches, Random House, 1969.
Eldridge Cleaver’s Black Papers, McGraw, 1969.
Soul on Fire, Word, Inc., 1978.
Cleaver, Eldridge, Soul on Ice, McGraw, 1968, reprinted, Dell, 1992.
Cleaver, Eldridge, Soul on Fire, Word, Inc., 1978.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 30, Gale, 1984.
Oliver, John A., Eldridge Cleaver: Ice and Fire! Bible Voice, 1977.
Ebony, March 1988, pp. 66–68.
Entertainment Weekly, February 12, 1993, p. 68.
Jet, February 24, 1986, p. 25; May 19, 1986, p. 12; October 26, 1987, p. 38.
Life, February 6, 1970, p. 20.
Newsweek, March 17,1975, p. 40; December 1,1975, p. 42.
New York Times Magazine, January 16, 1977, p. 10.
People, March 22, 1982.
Playboy, May 1968.
Reader’s Digest, September 1976, pp. 65–72.
Washington Post, August 1, 1992, p. A12.
"Cleaver, Eldridge 1935–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cleaver-eldridge-1935
"Cleaver, Eldridge 1935–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cleaver-eldridge-1935
Eldridge Cleaver (Leroy Eldridge Cleaver), 1935–98, African-American social activist, b. Wabbaseka, Ark. Growing up in Los Angeles, he spent much of 1954–66 in prison for various crimes including rape. In 1966 he joined the staff of Ramparts magazine, and soon became a member of the Black Panthers. In 1968 his book Soul on Ice made him famous. The next year, fleeing arrest following a Panther shootout with Oakland (Calif.) police, he began a period of exile in Cuba, Algeria, and other points, during which he broke with the Panthers. After his return to the United States in 1975, he espoused a wide, even bizarre, range of political, religious, and commercial causes.
"Cleaver, Eldridge." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cleaver-eldridge
"Cleaver, Eldridge." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cleaver-eldridge