Eldridge Cleaver

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Leroy Eldridge Cleaver was an American writer and political activist. He is well-known as a prominent member of the Black Panther Party. He held titles within the group such as Minister of Information and Head of the International Section of the Panthers. He was editor of the official newspaper, The Black Panther. The New York Times wrote that he was “a symbol of black rebellion in the turbulent 1960s.”[1]

Cleaver was born in 1935 in Wabbaseka, Arkansas. His family relocated to Phoenix and then to Los Angeles. He had a troubled youth, getting involved in petty crime and spending time in youth detention centers. He was 18 when he served time in prison for conviction of a felony drug charge (marijuana). In 1958, he was convicted of rape and assault with intent to murder, and eventually served time in Folsom and San Quentin prisons. While in prison, he was given a copy of The Communist Manifesto. Cleaver was released on parole on December 12, 1966, with a discharge date of March 20, 1971. In 1968 he was arrested on violation of parole by association with individual(s) of bad reputation, and control and possession of firearms. Cleaver petitioned for habeas corpus to the Solano County Court, and was granted it along with a release of a $50,000 bail.[2]

While in prison he wrote philosophical and political essays that formed his memoir titled Soul on Ice, which became highly influential in the black power movement after its publication in 1968. His memoir “was hailed as an authentic voice of black rage in a white-ruled world. The New York Times named it one of its 10 best books of the year.”[3] In the book he renounced rape and his previous reasoning about it. He acknowledged that he had committed many acts of rape, which he then considered an “insurrectionary act.”[4]

I took a long look at myself and, for the first time in my life, admitted that I was wrong, that I had gone astray -- astray not so much from the white man's law as from being human, civilized -- for I could not approve the act of rape. Even though I had some insight into my own motivations, I did not feel justified. I lost my self respect. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile moral structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered.[5]

In 1967, he and others formed the Black House political/cultural center in San Francisco. In 1968, he was a presidential candidate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket, although there was much debate if he could run because he was too young to serve as president. He and his running mate received 36,571 votes (0.05%.

According to Wikipedia, “In the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, there were riots across the nation. On April 6, Cleaver and 14 other panthers led an ambush of Oakland police officers, during which two officers were wounded. Cleaver was wounded during the ambush and 17-year-old Black Panther member Bobby Hutton was killed. They were armed with M16 rifles and shotguns.”[6] Cleaver was charged with attempted murder but jumped bail and fled to Cuba. He spent the next seven years exiled in Cuba, Algeria, and France, while a fugitive from the United States criminal justice system. He also toured North Korea. Cleaver broke with the Panthers in 1971. While in Algeria and North Korea, he and his wife had a son and a daughter. Cleaver and his wife divorced after twenty years of marriage.

Cleaver surrendered to the FBI when he returned to the U.S. in 1977. In a deal with the government, he pleaded guilty to the assault charge stemming from the shootout. Charges of attempted murder were dropped, and he was sentenced to 1,200 hours of community service.

When he returned, he sought a new direction and became active in various religious groups. for instance, he was a born-again Christian and then a follower of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. (Previously while serving his prison sentence in the 1960s, he converted to Islam, then followed Malcolm X.) He led a short-lived revivalist ministry called Eldridge Cleaver Crusades. He was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on December 11, 1983. He periodically attended meetings and spoke frequently at Latter-day Saint gatherings.

Cleaver proclaimed himself a conservative and ran, unsuccessfully, for various local offices as a Republican. He was treated for addiction to crack cocaine in 1990 and arrested for possession in 1992 and 1994. He moved to Southern California sometime after 1994 and died in Pomona on May 1, 1998.

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