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.
August 31, 1935
May 1, 1998
Writer and political activist Eldridge Leroy Cleaver was born in Wabbaseka, Arkansas, where he attended a junior college. From 1954 to 1957 and again from 1958 to 1966 he was incarcerated on drug and rape charges, and furthered his education while in prison. In 1965 Cleaver became the most prominent "Black Muslim" prisoner to break with Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam after Malcolm X's assassination. Just as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had begun to target the Black Panthers as the nation's "greatest threat," Cleaver became the party's minister of information in 1966, calling for an armed insurrection to overthrow the U.S. government and replace it with a black socialist government. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, he also was an assistant editor and contributing writer to Ramparts magazine.
In 1968 Cleaver published Soul on Ice, which remains his primary claim to literary fame. A collection of autobiographical and political essays in the form of letters and meditations, Soul on Ice articulated the sense of alienation felt by many black nationalists who refused to work within an inherently corrupt system. Cleaver viewed his own crimes as political acts and spelled out how racism and oppression had forged his revolutionary consciousness.
Later that year, while on parole, Cleaver was involved in a shootout with Oakland police during which a seventeen-year-old Black Panther, Bobby Hutton, was killed; Cleaver and a police officer were wounded. Cleaver's parole was revoked and he was charged with assault and attempted murder. Although he received worldwide support and was chosen to run as the presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party (see Dick Gregory for discussion of another 1968 black antiwar presidential candidate), Cleaver feared for his safety if he surrendered to the authorities. He fled the country, jumping a $50,000 bail, and lived for the next seven years in Cuba, France, and Algiers. He also visited the Soviet Union, China, North Vietnam, and North Korea during these years of exile. But in 1975 he returned to the United States and struck a deal with the FBI. Although he faced up to seventy-two years in prison, he was sentenced instead to 1,200 hours of community service.
In 1978 Cleaver published Soul on Fire, a collection of essays on his newly acquired conservative politics, and in 1979 he founded the Eldridge Cleaver Crusades, an evangelical organization. In 1984 he ran as an independent candidate for Congress in the Eighth Congressional District in California. In the 1980s he lectured on religion and politics, and published his own poetry and polemical writings. In March 1994 his struggle with drugs came to national attention when he underwent brain surgery after he had been arrested in Berkeley, California, late at night with a serious head injury, in a state of drunkenness and disorientation. During this period he attended Harvard Law School, then returned to Berkeley, where he became a preacher. In his later years he spoke in prisons, schools, and churches about drug addiction and nonviolence. He was also a consultant to the Coalition for Diversity at the University of La Verne in Southern California. In the Pomona, California, area he spent many evenings giving poetry readings at local coffeehouses and in his spare time crafted ceramics.
Cleaver was a prolific writer and speaker and was seen by some in the late 1960s as a black leader capable of organizing
and leading a mass movement. Soul on Ice won the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize in 1970. Most of his work consists of nonfiction writing: Eldridge Cleaver: Post-Prison Writings and Speeches (1969), Eldridge Cleaver's Black Papers (1969), the introduction to Jerry Rubin's Do It! (1970), and contributions to The Black Panther Leaders Speak: Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and Company Speak Out Through the Black Panther Party's Official Newspaper (1976) and to War Within: Violence or Nonviolence in Black Revolution (1971). He also authored and coauthored numerous pamphlets for the Black Panther Party and the People's Communication Network. Some of his work has also appeared in anthologies such as the Prize Stories of 1971: The O. Henry Awards.
Cleaver had both his critics and his followers. There are those who felt that his commitment to violence and his use of rape as a political weapon in the 1960s had no place within society. Others have questioned the sincerity and credibility of his later volte-face to right-wing politics and fundamentalist Christianity, and Cleaver often felt compelled to explain and defend himself. According to him, combined with his growing disenchantment with communism and radical politics was a mystical vision resulting in his conversion to Christianity. When accused of having mellowed with age, Cleaver replied, "That implies that your ideas have changed because of age. I've changed because of new conclusions."
Baranski, Lynne, and Richard Lemon. People (March 22, 1982).
Cleaver, Kathleen. Target Zero: Eldridge Cleaver, a Life in Writings. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Hunter, Charlayne. "To Mr. and Mrs. Yesterday." New York Times Book Review (March 24, 1968): 3.
amritjit singh (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005