Cleaver, Eldridge, 1935-1998

Alternative names
Birth 1935-08-31
Death 1998-05-01

Biographical notes:

Co-founder of Black Panther Party, presidential candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party (1968), and author of Soul on Ice.

From the description of Papers ca. 1969-1977. (Denver Public Library). WorldCat record id: 55998690

Eldridge Cleaver was born August 3, 1935 in Wabbaseka, Arkansas. During his youth he was convicted of various drug and assault charges and spent time in reformatories and prisons. His experiences led him to become a follower of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. In 1966 he joined the Black Panther Party. In 1968 he published Soul On Ice, ran for the U.S. Presidency, and was involved in a shootout with police in Oakland which led to his arrest. To evade imprisonment Cleaver went into exile for 7 years, living in Cuba, Algeria and Paris, with visits to North Vietnam, North Korea and China. He also underwent a spiritual transformation which led to his conversion to Christianity and conservative politics. After his return to the U.S. he was active as an evangelist and politician. He died in Pomona, Calif. on May 1, 1998.

From the description of Eldridge Cleaver photograph collection [graphic]. 1966-ca. 1982. (University of California, Berkeley). WorldCat record id: 215309610

Biographical Information

Leroy 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 guidebook for radicals in the New Left, student, and civil rights movements.

Cleaver was born on August 3, 1935, in Wabbaseka, Arkansas. When he was still young, the family moved to Phoenix, and in 1946 the family moved to the Watts section of Los Angeles. During his teenage years in Los Angeles, 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.

Released from prison, Cleaver resumed dealing drugs and embarked on a series of rapes, perpetrated, first, on black women, then on white women. In 1958, roughly a year after his release from the Soledad prison, Cleaver was arrested and charged with attempted rape and assault with intent to kill a nurse in a parking lot. He was convicted for assault, and sent to prison.

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 Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X. When Malcolm X broke from the Nation in 1963, Cleaver followed his example.

With the assistance of Beverly Axelrod, a white San Francisco lawyer, Cleaver was released from prison for the second time in 1965. During his incarceration, Axelrod and Cleaver corresponded and had a brief love affair, and Axelrod helped Cleaver get several essays published in Ramparts, an influential left-wing magazine. These essays, in turn, 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 . Two years later, 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). That same year, he befriended Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, cofounders of the Black Panthers; he soon became the party's Minister of Information. As spokesperson for the Panthers, Cleaver helped articulate the group's Ten Point platform, which included demands for Black self-determination and an immediate end to police brutality and the right to self-defense.

In February 1968, Cleaver published Soul on Ice, which quickly became a best-seller and was named Book of the Year by The New York Times . The book includes essays on Cleaver's relationship to Malcolm X, Cleaver's rejection of U.S. capitalism, the solidarity between African Americans and citizens of third-world countries, U.S. imperialism, the relationship between sexuality and race in the United States, and Cleaver's admiration of the student movement of the 1960s.

The success of Soul on Ice, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the imprisonment of Black Panther Chairman, Huey P. Newton, helped propel Cleaver to political prominence. In 1968, the Peace and Freedom Party nominated him for the U.S. presidency. Cleaver campaigned for a revolutionary movement that would integrate Black and white radicals; he received 30,000 votes.

Cleaver's success as a political leader in the U.S. was short-lived. On April 6, 1968 (two days after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated), Cleaver and fellow Panther, Bobby Hutton, were involved in a shootout with the Oakland police. Hutton was killed and Cleaver was arrested. He was released on a writ of habeus corpus, and then fled to Cuba after a higher court revoked his release in November, beginning seven years of exile in Cuba, Algiers, and Paris.

Cleaver continued his radical activity overseas. In 1969, the Black Panther Party opened its International Section in Algeria under his guidance. He led two Panther delegations to Asia to meet with leaders in North Vietnam, North Korea, and China. However, Cleaver's exile was also accompanied by a decline in his influence at home and marked by rifts with Black Panther Party leadership in the U.S. - rifts that were exploited by the FBI's COINTELPRO Program. In 1971, Cleaver broke with the Panthers and, along with his wife, Kathleen, and other former international members, formed the Revolutionary Peoples' Communication Network (RPCN). Cleaver grew increasingly disillusioned with the Algerian government's lack of support; in January 1973, Cleaver reunited with Kathleen in Paris. Eventually, the French government granted him asylum. While in exile, the couple had two children, Antonio Maceo, and daughter Joju.

Eventually, Cleaver could no longer abide life away from the United States, and he negotiated his return, on the F.B.I.'s terms, as a prisoner in 1975. Over the years, Cleaver's political views had become conservative, a turn he attributed, in part, to his disillusionment with life in communist countries. In addition, while he was in France, Cleaver claims to have had a mystical vision, in which he saw the face of Christ in the moon. The vision laid the foundation for his conversion experience. Cleaver returned to the States born again, both as a Christian and as a conservative. Shortly after he arrived, he said, "I'd rather be in jail in America than free anywhere else."

While in jail in 1976, Cleaver 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, which he founded in 1977. In 1978, Cleaver published a second memoir, Soul on Fire . In 1980, Cleaver created a new church, a synthesis of Christianity and Islam he called Christlam. He also spoke at colleges on behalf of Reverend Sun Myung Moon's campus ministry organization, the Collegiate Association of Research Principles (CARP). A few years later, Cleaver became involved with the Mormon Church.

In 1980, the murder charges pending against Cleaver from the 1968 shootout were dropped and Cleaver was placed on probation for assault and sentenced to twelve-hundred hours of community service.

Cleaver twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the 1980s. In 1984, he lost his race for a House seat to Oakland Congressman Ron Dellums; in 1986, he ran in the Senate primary against incumbent, Alan Cranston, campaigning as a conservative Republican.

In the mid-1980s, Cleaver became addicted to crack cocaine. He was arrested several times for cocaine possession and related charges, between 1987 and 1992. In 1987, Kathleen Cleaver divorced him. In 1994, after nearly dying in a cocaine-related assault, he kicked his addiction and returned to Christianity. Cleaver was working as a diversity consultant for the University of La Verne, near Los Angeles, when he died in Pomona, California on May 1, 1998.

Largely taken from entry on Eldridge Cleaver,, West's Encyclopedia of American Law, The Gale Group, Inc, 1998., accessed July 24, 2006.

From the guide to the Eldridge Cleaver papers, 1963-1988, (The Bancroft Library)

Biographical Information

Leroy Eldridge Cleaver was born on August 3, 1935 in Wabbaseka, Arkansas. In 1956 his family moved to Los Angeles. During his youth he was convicted for various theft and drug offenses and spent time in reformatories and the California State Prison at Soledad. In 1958 he was convicted of assault and spent 8 years in the San Quentin and Folsom prisons. During this period of incarceration he became a member and minister of the Nation of Islam and a follower of Malcolm X. With the assistance of attorney and lover Beverly Axelrod, Cleaver had several of his prison writings published in the left-wing periodical Ramparts . The support which his writings earned him from the U.S. intellectual community was influential in gaining Cleaver's release from prison in 1965. In 1967, while living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Cleaver married Kathleen Neal, an activist in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That same year he befriended Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, co-founders of the Black Panther Party, and soon became the Party's Minister of Information. The following year Cleaver published Soul On Ice -- a collection of essays named Book of the Year by the New York Times -- and ran as a candidate for the U.S. Presidency for the Peace and Freedom Party. Later that year Cleaver and fellow Black Panther Bobby Hutton were involved in a shootout with Oakland Police. Hutton was killed and Cleaver was charged with murder. While awaiting trial, Cleaver fled to Cuba. He would spend the next seven years in exile, living also in Algeria and Paris during that time. During his exile, Cleaver formed the International Section of the Black Panther Party in Algeria; met with political leaders in North Vietnam, North Korea and China; quickly became disillusioned with Marxist-Leninist beliefs; and eventually broke ties with the Black Panthers. During this time he and Kathleen had two children, Antonio Maceo and Joju. While in Paris, Cleaver experienced a spiritual transformation which led to his conversion to Christianity and conservative politics. In 1975 Cleaver negotiated with the F.B.I. for his return to the United States as a prisoner. In 1977, after his renunciation of his earlier political activity and his release from prison, he founded the Eldridge Cleaver Crusades, an evangelical Christian movement. Cleaver would later have affiliations with Sun Myung Moon's Collegiate Association of Research Principles and the Mormon Church. In the 1980s Cleaver ran two unsuccessful campaigns for U.S. Congress. He later became addicted to crack cocaine and was arrested on several drug-related charges. In 1987 Kathleen Cleaver divorced him. In the 1990s Cleaver kicked his addiction and worked as a diversity consultant for the University of La Verne in Southern California. Eldridge Cleaver died May 1, 1998.

[Biographical information abridged from that of the finding aid for the Eldridge Cleaver Papers, BANC MSS 91/231 c.]

From the guide to the Eldridge Cleaver photograph collection, 1966-circa 1982, (The Bancroft Library)


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