Eldridge Cleaver

Eldridge Cleaver

Eldridge Cleaver in 1968
Born Leroy Eldridge Cleaver
(1935-08-31)August 31, 1935
Wabbaseka, Arkansas
Died May 1, 1998(1998-05-01) (aged 62)
Pomona, California
Occupation Writer, political activist
Organization Black Panther Party (1967-1971)
Peace and Freedom Party (1968)
Republican Party (1980s)
Movement Black Power Movement, Black Liberation Movement
Religion The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (after 1983)

Leroy Eldridge Cleaver (August 31, 1935 – May 1, 1998) was an American writer and political activist[1][2] who became an early leader of the Black Panther Party. His 1968 book, Soul On Ice, is a collection of essays that, at the time of its publication, was praised by The New York Times Book Review as "brilliant and revealing".[3]

Cleaver went on to become a prominent member of the Black Panthers, having the titles Minister of Information and Head of the International Section of the Panthers, while a fugitive from the United States criminal justice system in Cuba and Algeria. As editor of the official Panther's newspaper, Cleaver's influence on the direction of the Party was rivaled only by founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Cleaver and Newton eventually fell out with each other, resulting in a split that weakened the party.[4]

Cleaver wrote in Soul on Ice: "If a man like Malcolm X could change and repudiate racism, if I myself and other former Muslims can change, if young whites can change, then there is hope for America."[5]

After spending seven years in exile in Cuba, Algeria, and France, Cleaver returned to the US in 1975, where he became involved in various religious groups (Unification Church and CARP) before finally becoming a Mormon and joining the LDS Church, as well as becoming a conservative Republican, appearing at Republican events.[6]

Early life

Born in Wabbaseka, Arkansas, as a child, Cleaver moved with his family to Phoenix and then to Los Angeles.[1] He was the son of Leroy Cleaver and Thelma Hattie Robinson.[7] He had four siblings: Wilhelima Marie, Helen Grace, James Weldon, and Theophilus Henry.[7] In 1967, he married Kathleen Neal Cleaver; they divorced in 1987. They had a son, Ahmad Maceo Eldridge Cleaver, and a daughter, Jojuyounghi Cleaver.

As a teenager, he was involved in petty crime and spent time in youth detention centers. At the age of 18, he was convicted of a felony drug charge and sent to the adult prison at Soledad. In 1958, he was convicted of rape and assault with intent to murder and eventually served time in Folsom and San Quentin prisons.[1][2] While in prison, he was given a copy of the Communist Manifesto.[7] Cleaver petitioned for habeas corpus to the Solano County Court and was granted it along with a release of a $50,000 bail.[7]

Soul on Ice (1968)

Main article: Soul On Ice (book)

"[W]hen I considered myself ready 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...I felt I was getting revenge. From the site of the act of rape, consternation spread outwardly in concentric circles. I wanted to send waves of consternation throughout the white race."

Eldridge Cleaver, 1968[2]

While in prison, he wrote a number of philosophical and political essays, first published in Ramparts magazine and then in book form as Soul on Ice.[5] In the essays, Cleaver traces his own development from a "supermasculine menial" to a radical black liberationist, and his essays became highly influential in the black power movement.

In the most controversial part of the book, Cleaver acknowledges committing acts of rape, stating that he initially raped black women in the ghetto "for practice" and then embarked on the serial rape of white women. He described these crimes as politically inspired, motivated by a genuine conviction that the rape of white women was "an insurrectionary act".[5] When he began writing Soul on Ice, he unequivocally renounced rape and all his previous reasoning about it.[1][2]

The essays in Soul on Ice are divided into four thematic sections:[8] "Letters from Prison", describing Cleaver's experiences with and thoughts on crime and prisons; "Blood of the Beast", discussing race relations and promoting black liberation ideology; "Prelude to Love – Three Letters", love letters written to Cleaver's attorney, Beverly Axelrod; and "White Woman, Black Man", on gender relations, black masculinity, and sexuality.

Black Panther Party

Eldridge Cleaver was released from prison on December 12, 1966. At this time, President John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X were dead. The Black Panther Party was only two months old.[7] He then joined the Oakland-based Black Panther Party, serving as Minister of Information, or spokesperson. What initially attracted Cleaver to the Panthers, as opposed to other prominent groups, was their commitment to armed struggle.[9]

In 1967, Eldridge Cleaver, along with Marvin X, Ed Bullins, and Ethna Wyatt, formed the Black House political/cultural center in San Francisco. Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Askia Toure, Sarah Webster Fabio, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Avotcja, Reginald Lockett, Emory Douglas, Samuel Napier, Bobby Hutton, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale were Black House regulars.[10]

Cleaver was a presidential candidate in 1968 on the ticket of the Peace and Freedom Party.[11] Having been born on August 31, 1935, Cleaver would not have been the requisite 35 years of age until more than a year after Inauguration Day 1969. (Although the Constitution requires that the President be 35 years of age, it does not specify if he must have reached that age at the time of nomination, or election, or inauguration.) Courts in both Hawaii and New York held that he could be excluded from the ballot because he could not possibly meet the Constitutional criteria.[12] Cleaver and his running mate Judith Mage received 36,571 votes (0.05%).

Also in 1968, Cleaver led an ambush of Oakland police officers, during which two officers were wounded. In the aftermath of the ambush, Cleaver was wounded and 17-year-old Black Panther member Bobby Hutton was killed.[13][14] The eight Panthers who ambushed the police department had two objectives: to break Newton out of jail and to kill police officers. Charged with attempted murder, he jumped bail to flee to Cuba. In Cuba, he received red-carpet treatment. Cleaver was set up in a Havana penthouse with his own personal maid and cook. The penthouse was stocked with all the food, rum, and cigars he would need. The hospitality soon ended. Having received information that the CIA had infiltrated the Black Panther Party, Castro could no longer trust them. Cleaver then decided to head to Algeria, sending word to his wife to meet him there.[7][15] Cleaver had set up an international office for the Black Panthers in Algeria, but then, in 1971, he was kicked out of the party.[15] Following Timothy Leary's Weather Underground-assisted prison escape, Leary stayed with Cleaver in Algeria; however, Cleaver placed Leary under "revolutionary arrest" as a counter-revolutionary for promoting drug use. Cleaver later left Algeria and spent time in France.[16]

In 1969, Cleaver also cultivated an alliance with North Korea and BPP publications began reprinting excerpts from Kim Il Sung's writings. Although leftists of the time often looked to Cuba, China, and North Vietnam for inspiration, few had paid any attention to the secretive Pyongyang regime. Bypassing US travel restrictions on North Korea, Cleaver and other BPP members made two visits to the country in 1969-70 with the idea that the juche model could be adapted to the revolutionary liberation of African-Americans. Taken on an official tour of North Korea, Cleaver expressed admiration at "the DPRK's stable, crime-free society which provided guaranteed food, employment, and housing for all, and which had no economic or social inequalities."

Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton eventually fell out with each other over the necessity of armed struggle as a response to COINTELPRO and other actions by the government against the Black Panthers and other radical groups. Also Cleaver's interest in North Korea and global anti-imperialist struggle drew ire from other BPP members who felt that he was neglecting the needs of African-Americans at home in the US. Following his expulsion from the Black Panthers in 1971, the group's ties with North Korea were quickly forgotten.[17] Cleaver advocated the escalation of armed resistance into urban guerilla warfare, while Newton suggested the best way to respond to was to put down the gun, which he felt alienated the Panthers from the rest of the black community, and focus on more pragmatic reformist activity by lobbying for increased social programs to aid African-American communities and anti-discrimination laws. Cleaver accused Newton of being an Uncle Tom for choosing to cooperate with white interests rather than overthrow them.[18][19]

Cleaver returned to the United States in 1975, became a born again Christian, and subsequently renounced his ultra-radical past. With regard to the attempted murder charge stemming from the armed Panther attack on Oakland police in 1968, legal wrangling ended in Cleaver being sentenced to probation for assault. In 1980, he claimed that he had led the Panther group on a deliberate ambush of the police officers, thus provoking the shootout.[14] The same author who broke the news of this claim doubted its veracity, because it was in the context of an uncharacteristic speech, in which Cleaver also discredited the Black Panthers, stated "we need police as heroes," and said that he denounced civilian review boards of police shootings for the "bizarre" reason that "it is a rubber stamp for murder." The author speculates that it could have been a pay off to the Alameda County justice system, whose judge had only just days earlier let Eldridge Cleaver escape prison time; Cleaver was sentenced to mere community service after getting charged with three counts of assault against three Oakland cops. [14] The PBS documentary A Huey Newton Story finds that “Bobby Hutton was shot more than twelve times after he had already surrendered and stripped down to his underwear to prove he was not armed.”[20]

Exile and Soul on Fire (1978)

Playing on the title of Soul On Ice, Cleaver published Soul on Fire in 1978.[21] Cleaver made several claims regarding his exile in Algeria including that he was supported by regular stipends from the government of North Vietnam, which the United States was then bombing. Cleaver stated that he was followed by other former criminals turned revolutionaries, many of whom hijacked planes to get to Algeria. Apparently, the Algerians expected Cleaver to keep his protégés in line, which he described as increasingly difficult as their increasing numbers stretched his North Vietnamese allowance to the breaking point. Cleaver organized a stolen car ring, stealing cars in Europe to sell in Africa.

Around this time, Cleaver discovered his wife had a lover. Panther Brian Booth claimed to have witnessed Cleaver murder the man, which Booth alleges was precipitated by a plot by the two lovers to murder Cleaver and wrest control of the party.[22]

Cleaver eventually fled Algeria out of fear for his life. He could no longer control his protégés and the Algerian police were cracking down on them. He then lived for a time in France. Cleaver became a born again Christian during his year of isolation while living underground.[1]

Later life

In the early 1980s, Cleaver became disillusioned with what he saw as the commercial nature of evangelical Christianity and examined alternatives, including Sun Myung Moon's campus ministry organization CARP, and Mormonism.[23] He later led a short-lived revivalist ministry called Eldridge Cleaver Crusades, "a hybrid synthesis of Islam and Christianity he called 'Christlam'",[1] along with an auxiliary called the Guardians of the Sperm.[24]

Cleaver was then later baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) on December 11, 1983,[25][26] periodically attended regular services, lectured by invitation at LDS gatherings, and was a member of the church in good standing at the time of his death in 1998.

By the 1980s, Cleaver had become a conservative Republican. He appeared at various Republican events and spoke at a California Republican State Central Committee meeting regarding his political transformation. In 1984, he ran for election to the Berkeley City Council but lost.[6] Undaunted, he promoted his candidacy in the Republican Party primary for the 1986 Senate race but was again defeated.[27]

In 1988, Cleaver was placed on probation for burglary and was briefly jailed later in the year after testing positive for cocaine.[28][29] He entered drug rehabilitation for a stated crack cocaine addiction two years later, but was arrested for possession by Oakland and Berkeley Police in 1992 and 1994. Shortly after his final arrest, he moved to Southern California, falling into poor health.[28]


Cleaver died at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center in Pomona, California, on May 1, 1998, at 6:20 am.[29] His family asked that the hospital not reveal the cause of death, although he was known to have diabetes and prostate cancer.[30] He is buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, California.[31]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Gates, Henry Louis; Higginbotham, Eveleyn B. (2004). African American Lives. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 173–175. ISBN 019516024X. Retrieved May 15, 2012.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Kifner, John (May 2, 1998). "Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther Who Became G.O.P. Conservative, Is Dead at 62". The New York Times. Retrieved May 15, 2012.
  3. Patterson, Lindsay (April 27, 1969). "Eldridge Cleaver; Post-Prison Writings and Speeches", The New York Times. Retrieved June 10, 2013.
  4. Bloom, Joshua; Martin, Waldo E., Jr. (2013). Black Against Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 370. ISBN 978-0-520-27185-2.
  5. 1 2 3 Cleaver, Eldridge (1991) [1968]. Soul On Ice. Dell/Delta. ISBN 0-385-33379-X., p. 106.
  6. 1 2 "Eldridge Cleaver Announces Bid for U.S. Senate Seat". Jet. Johnson Publishing. 69 (23): 25. February 24, 1986. ISSN 0021-5996. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Cleaver, Eldridge Cleaver; edited by Kathleen Cleaver (2006). Target Zero: A Life in Writing. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 1-4039-6237-5.
  8. Andrews, William L., Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  9. Cleaver, Eldridge (1969). Post-Prison Writings & Speeches. Vintage. ISBN 978-0-394-42323-4.
  10. Baraka, Amiri Baraka (1984). The Autobiography of Leroi Jones. Lawrence Hill Books. ISBN 1-55652-231-2.
  11. Jenifer Warren, "Former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver Dies at 62", The Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1998.
  12. Jones v. Gill (1968) 50 Haw. 618, 446 P.2d 558; Garst v. Lomenzo (N.Y. County Supm. Ct. 1968) 57 Misc.2d 1040, 294 N.Y.S.2d 33, aff'd (1968) 22 N.Y.2d 956, 242 N.E.2d 482, 295 N.Y.S.2d 330.
  13. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Interview with Eldridge Cleaver, Spring 1997.
  14. 1 2 3 Kate Coleman, "Souled Out: Eldridge Cleaver Admits He Ambushed Those Cops", New West, May 19, 1980.
  15. 1 2 "Leroy Eldridge Cleaver". Retrieved 20 February 2014.
  16. Jeff Bailey, "Leroy Eldridge Cleaver (1935–1998)", The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
  17. Jim Vanderwall, Ward Churchill (2002) [1990]. The COINTELPRO Papers. South End Press. ISBN 0-89608-648-8.
  18. George Katsiaficas, Kathleen Cleaver (2001). Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-92784-6.
  19. David Horowitz, Peter Collier (1989). Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts about the 60’s. Free Press. ISBN 978-0-684-82641-7.
  20. http://www.pbs.org/hueypnewton/people/people_hutton.html
  21. Cleaver, Eldridge (1978). Soul on Fire. Waco, Texas: Word Books.
  22. David Rosenzweig, "Ex-Panther Says He Saw Cleaver Kill a Man", Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2001.
  23. Linda Neale, "One Journey Home: Eldridge Cleaver's Spiritual Path", EarthLight Magazine #50, Spring 2004.
  24. Horacio Silva, "Radical Chic" New York Times, September 23, 2001.
  25. Familysearch.org. Shows date of the baptism of Leroy Eldridge Cleaver.
  26. "From Black Panther to Mormon: The Case of Eldridge Cleaver" at Mormonmatters.org.
  27. Hamilton, Neil A. (2002). American Social Leaders and Activists. New York: Infobase Publishing. p. 84. ISBN 1438108087. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
  28. 1 2 Taylor, Michael (May 2, 1998). "Ex-Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver Dies". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved August 26, 2011.
  29. 1 2 Haynes, V. Dion, "Ex-Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver", Chicago Tribune. Retrieved February 19, 2014.
  30. CNN Obituary
  31. Bates, Colleen Dunn; Gillis, Sandy; et al. (2006). Hometown Pasadena: The Insider's Guide. Pasadena: Prospect Park Publishing. p. 87. ISBN 097539391X. Retrieved May 15, 2012.

Further reading

External links

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Preceded by
Peace and Freedom nominee for
President of the United States

Succeeded by
Benjamin Spock
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