Cleaver, Leroy Eldridge
Cleaver, Leroy Eldridge
Eldridge Cleaver rose to prominence in the late 1960s as a leading African American intellectual and political revolutionary. As minister of information for the Black Panther Party during tumultuous years of social upheaval, Cleaver became a symbol of rebellion, freedom, and eloquence for those seeking political and social change. His 1968 best-selling book of essays Soul on Ice served as a kind of guidebook for radicals in the New Left, student, and Civil Rights movements of the day. Cleaver was involved with the U.S. legal system as a convict, social critic, political activist, political candidate, fugitive, and business owner.
Leroy Eldridge Cleaver was born August 3, 1935, in Wabbaseka, Arkansas. When he was still young, the family moved to Phoenix, and then to the Watts section of Los Angeles. While in Los Angeles during his teenage years, Cleaver was arrested for bicycle theft and for selling marijuana, and was sent to two different reformatories. In 1954, he was again arrested for dealing marijuana and was sentenced to two-and-a-half years at the California State Prison at Soledad.
Unreformed by his first prison stay, Cleaver resumed dealing drugs and embarked on a series of rapes, directed first at black women, then at white women. He later came to see the recklessness and inhumanity of these crimes as both a product of his own misguided choices and a reaction to the racism of U.S. society. In Soul on Ice, he described the delight he felt at "defying and trampling upon the white man's law" through these actions. He also claimed that his motivation in the rapes was to get "revenge" for "the historical fact of how the white man has used the black woman."
"What we're saying today is that you're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem."
In 1958, roughly a year after his release from the Soledad prison, Cleaver was arrested again, this time for armed assault when he attempted to rape a nurse in a parking lot. During his subsequent eight-year stay in the San Quentin and Folsom prisons, Cleaver read widely and became a member and minister of the Nation of Islam, often called the Black Muslims. He also became an admirer of Malcolm X, a Nation of Islam leader. When Malcolm X broke from the group in 1963, Cleaver followed his example. Cleaver was released from prison for the second time in 1965—the same year that Malcolm X was assassinated, allegedly by Nation of Islam members—with the help of Beverly Axelrod, a white San Francisco lawyer. Correspondence and a brief love affair between Axelrod and Cleaver had led to Axelrod's help in getting several essays by Cleaver published in Ramparts, an influential left-wing magazine. These essays, in turn, had built support for Cleaver's cause among members of the U.S. intellectual community, including writer Norman Mailer. The support of such intellectuals helped persuade the Parole board to release Cleaver from prison.
After his parole Cleaver began writing for Ramparts. In 1967, while living in the San Francisco Bay area, Cleaver married Kathleen Neal, who had been an activist with the student nonviolent coordinating committee (SNCC). In that same year, he befriended huey p. newton and bobby seale, cofounders of the Black Panthers, and he soon became that group's minister of information. The Black Panthers was an African American political organization that sought to defend the African American community from police intimidation and violence. As part of their Self-Defense actions, Black Panthers carried guns and law books, followed police cars, and observed police encounters with African Americans.
As a spokesperson for the Panthers, Cleaver explained the group's goals and ideas to the rest of the world. In media interviews, for example, he described how "Pig Power" or "the Gestapo power of the police" contributed to many of the problems in the African American community.
In February 1968, Cleaver published Soul on Ice, the book that made him a celebrity. It quickly became a best-seller and was named Book of the Year by the New York Times. The book begins with the observation that Cleaver's first year in prison, 1954, coincided with that of the landmark Supreme Court case brown v. board of education of topeka, kansas, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873, the first significant legal victory African Americans achieved in the Civil Rights Movement. The book explores, among its many topics, Cleaver's relationship to Malcolm X, Cleaver's rejection of U.S. capitalism, the solidarity between African Americans and citizens of third-world countries, the relationship between sexuality and race in the United States, and Cleaver's admiration of the student movement of the 1960s. The book also deals with themes that came to dominate African American political activism of the time: racial pride, rejection of white standards of beauty, and acceptance of violence as a necessary part of political struggle.
In his essay "Domestic Law and International Order," Cleaver reflected on the situation of African Americans in light of the Vietnam War and of the suppression of the Watts riots of 1965 by the National Guard. For Cleaver, both these events were examples of U.S. imperialism, with the U.S. army in Vietnam and the police in Watts acting as essentially identical agents of state coercion over colonized peoples:
The police do on the domestic level what the armed forces do on the international level: protect the way of life of those in power. The police patrol the city, cordon off communities, blockade neighborhoods, invade homes, search for that which is hidden. The armed forces patrol the world, invade countries and continents, cordon off nations, blockade islands and whole peoples…. The policeman and the soldier will have the last word.
Accordingly, Cleaver called for African Americans,"who in this land of private property have all private and no property," to oppose this system and fight for power and property.
The success of Soul on Ice, combined with a vacuum in African American leadership caused by the assassinations of Martin Luther King jr. and Malcolm X, and the imprisonment of other leaders such as Newton, made Cleaver seem for a brief time to be an important African American leader. In the spring of 1968, he was nominated for the presidency of the United States by the white radical Peace and Freedom party. During his candidacy he spoke out for a revolutionary movement that involved both blacks and whites. He received 30,000 votes nationally.
Cleaver's time in the spotlight was cut short as a result of violence that erupted between the police and the Panthers. On April 6, 1968,—two days after the assassination of King—Cleaver was involved in a shoot-out with the police in which one Black Panther was killed. Cleaver was arrested, but two months later was released on a writ of Habeas Corpus (release from unlawful imprisonment). A higher court later reversed his release and scheduled him for reincarceration in November 1968. Cleaver chose to become a fugitive from the law and fled to Cuba.
Cleaver's exile overseas was accompanied by a rapid decline in his influence as both a political and intellectual leader. His short stay in Cuba was followed by stints in Algeria, North Korea, and Paris. He continued to speak out as a revolutionary during his time overseas. Sometimes his revolutionary efforts were in the sartorial rather than political sphere, as in 1975 when he attempted to publicize his design for Cleavers, a new type of pants that featured a codpiece intended to display the male sexual organ. The new pants would, he theorized, revolutionize sexual attitudes in a way that would ultimately eliminate such crimes as rape. They would also, Cleaver said, "abolish … the crime of indecent exposure" and replace it with "decent exposure."
After he had lived for several years in communist countries, Cleaver's political radicalism began to wane and he became more conservative in his beliefs. Eventually, he could no longer abide life away from the United States, and by the mid-1970s Cleaver began to voice a different view of his native country. In 1975 he returned to the States where he was immediately put in prison."I'd rather be in jail in America than free anywhere else," Cleaver commented after his return.
Cleaver's subsequent career in the United States was marked by a series of unsuccessful ventures as he has tried to regain the spotlight. While in jail in 1976 he announced that he was a born-again Christian and renounced the Marxism-Leninism and atheism of his Black Panther days. After his release on bail he began a short career as leader of a religious revivalist movement, the Eldridge Cleaver Crusades. In 1980, he attempted to create a new church called "Christlam," a synthesis of Christianity and Islam. He also dabbled with Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and the Mormon Church becoming, for a short period, a Black Mormon. Cleaver was a perennially unsuccessful candidate for political office, running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1984 and for the U.S. Senate in 1986. In the second race he campaigned as a conservative Republican, the ultimate rebuke to his earlier radicalism.
Cleaver continued to have run-ins with the law. In 1987, he was arrested for cocaine possession and the following year he was arrested for theft from a residence. He was ordered to make restitution and was placed on parole for three years. Also in 1987, the Cleavers divorced. Cleaver was again arrested for cocaine possession in 1992, but the charges were dropped, and in 1994 he was seriously injured by a blow to the head from a fellow drug addict. In the mid-1990s, Cleaver was owner of a recycling company in Oakland and a lecturer.
Cleaver started work in February 1998 as a consultant to the Coalition for Diversity at the University of LaVerne located in southern California. A few months later, however, on May 1, 1998, he died in Pomona, Californa.
Although his public career was a mixed success, Cleaver's writings and activities have affected U.S. politics and culture. Besides Soul on Ice, his books include Eldridge Cleaver: Post-Prison Writings and Speeches (1969) and Soul on Fire (1978). And despite his later rejection of many of the Black Panther beliefs, Cleaver viewed that group's legacy as beneficial. "The Black Panther Party," he said,"played a very positive role at a decisive moment toward the liberation of Black people in America."
Cleaver, Eldridge. 1968. Soul on Ice. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Rout, Kathleen. 1991. Eldridge Cleaver. Boston: Twayne.
"The Two Nations of Black America." 1998. Interview with Eldridge Cleaver. PBS Frontline. Available online at <www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/race/interviews/ecleaver.html> (accessed June 13, 2003).