Eldridge Cleaver, Author and Black Panther Leader, Dies
By Bart Barnes
Eldridge Cleaver, 62, the information minister of the Black Panther Party whose searing rhetoric and exhortations of insurrection made him a revolutionary cult leader of the 1960s, died May 1 in California.
Mr. Cleaver, who had served almost 12 years in prison on a variety of assault, drug and theft charges, was author of the best-selling "Soul on Ice," a collection of essays about his own life and the fate of black people in the United States, written while he was in jail in California. Published in 1968, the book became the political manifesto of the Black Panther Party, which Mr. Cleaver helped organize in 1966 in Oakland, Calif., with Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.
After a gun battle with Oakland police in 1968, Mr. Cleaver fled the United States, living for the next seven years in Cuba, France and Algeria. In 1975, he returned as a born-again Christian, renounced his revolutionary views and subsequently joined the Republican Party.
Later he battled drug and alcohol addictions and in 1994 underwent emergency brain surgery after being hit on the head and knocked unconscious during a cocaine buy. After that experience, he promised to stay clean.
He died at Pomona Valley Medical Center in Pomona. Citing family requests for privacy, the hospital would not release the cause of death or provide details on Mr. Cleaver's hospitalization.
Mr. Cleaver, the son of a nightclub piano player and a schoolteacher, was born in Wabbaseka, Ark. He moved as a child to Phoenix and later to Los Angeles. In the early 1950s, he was sent to reform school for bicycle theft, released and then arrested and sent back to reform school for selling marijuana.
Only days after his second release, he was rearrested for possession of marijuana and reincarcerated for 30 months at the California State Prison at Soledad. There he completed high school, and he read voraciously, including the writings of Karl Marx, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Lenin and W.E.B. DuBois.
Released in 1957, he returned to the streets, where he sold marijuana and committed rape. In "Soul on Ice," he would later write: "I started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto . . . where dark and vicious deeds appear not as deviations from the norm, but as part of the sufficiency of the Evil of a day -- and when I considered myself smooth enough I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey . . . 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."
A year after getting out of Soledad, Mr. Cleaver was arrested and convicted of assault with intent to murder. Sentenced to a term of two to 14 years, he was imprisoned at San Quentin and later at Folsom Prison. "After I returned to prison," he wrote, "I took a long look at myself and for the first time in my life admitted that I was wrong, and that I had gone astray -- astray not so much from the white man's law as from being human, civilized. . . . My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered. That is why I started to write. To save myself."
Seeking a program of self-discipline, he joined the Black Muslims, but because California prison authorities did not recognize the Nation of Islam as a legitimate religious organization, Mr. Cleaver's efforts to proselytize other prisoners were often punished with long periods in solitary confinement.
Paroled from prison in 1966, Mr. Cleaver became active almost immediately with the Black Panthers, calling for an armed insurrection to overthrow the U.S. government and for the establishment of a black socialist government in its place.
The next few years were a time of social and political turbulence in the United States, with protests over the Vietnam War escalating and demands by civil rights organizations for full participation in American society growing stronger. Several major U.S. cities had been torn by riots.
In this atmosphere, Middle America tended to view the Black Panthers as a band of gun-toting radicals, intimidating in their signature black berets and leather jackets to the law-abiding. In several cities, the Black Panthers operated free lunch programs for poor children and managed other social service efforts, but they also had periodic confrontations with police. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said the Black Panthers were the nation's "greatest threat."
In April 1968, after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Cleaver and another Black Panther, Bobby Hutton, became involved in a shootout with Oakland police in which three officers were wounded and Hutton was killed when he tried to surrender. Mr. Cleaver's parole was revoked, and he was charged with assault and attempted murder.
By then, "Soul on Ice" had made Mr. Cleaver a public figure, and his cause was taken up around the world. A demonstration on his behalf in New York attracted the likes of writer Susan Sontag and actor Gary Merrill. In France, film director Jean-Luc Godard urged donations to Mr. Cleaver's defense fund. The Peace and Freedom Party, an organization of black and white liberals, made him its candidate in the 1968 U.S. presidential election.
On Nov. 27, 1968, Mr. Cleaver was scheduled to return to jail. Instead, he jumped $50,000 bail and fled to Mexico City and then to Cuba, where he remained until 1969. Later, he traveled to Paris and then to Algeria, where he was greeted as a "revolutionary hero" and given a villa in Algiers by the government. The villa was intended as a haven for black American exiles and a base for recruitment of U.S. military deserters. But in fact, Mr. Cleaver spent much of his time feuding long-distance with Black Panther leader Huey Newton, who in 1971 expelled him from the party.
In time, relations between Mr. Cleaver and the Algerian government became strained, and Mr. Cleaver changed his political and religious convictions. He underwent a mystical conversion to Christianity after an experience in which he said he saw the figure of Jesus Christ on the face of the moon. He came to believe that the socialist and Marxist systems he had witnessed in other countries failed to deliver on their promises. In a 1978 book, "Soul on Fire," he wrote: "I had heard so much rhetoric about their glorious leaders and their incredible revolutionary spirit that even to this very angry and disgruntled American it was absurd and unreal." He described the politics of Cuba as "voodoosocialism."
Shortly before returning to the United States, he wrote on the op-ed page of the New York Times: "With all of its faults, the American political system is the freest and most democratic in the world."
On surrendering to California authorities, Mr. Cleaver pleaded guilty to assault after prosecutors dropped attempted murder charges against him in the 1968 police shootout. He was placed on probation and directed to perform 2,000 hours of community service.
In the years since then, he had designed a line of men's trousers with a strategically placed attachment called the "Cleaver sleave," worked as a tree surgeon and sold clay flowerpots. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in the 1986 California Republican primary.
His marriage to Kathleen Cleaver ended in divorce in 1985. They had two children, Maceo and Joju. He also had a son, Riley, from another relationship.
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