Cleaver, Eldridge Leroy, (1935-1998), African American writer, political activist, and former minister of information for the Black Panther Party.

Cleaver was born in Wabbaseka, Arkansas. After growing up in Wabbaseka and Los Angeles, California, Cleaver spent much of his young adulthood in the California state penitentiary system. Convicted on drug and rape charges in 1953 and 1958, he used his prison time to broaden his education. During these years, Cleaver studied the teachings of the Nation of Islam and became a devoted supporter of black leader Malcolm X. With the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Cleaver broke his ties to the Nation of Islam and sought to carry on the mission of Malcolm X's Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Paroled in 1966, Cleaver went to work as an editor and writer for Ramparts magazine. Soon after his introduction to Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, cofounders of the Black Panther Party, in Oakland, California, Cleaver joined the Panthers and became the party's minister of information. In this role, Cleaver called on black men to "pick up the gun" against the United States government.

Cleaver had many turning points in 1968. He established himself as a gifted essayist and cultural critic with the publication of Soul on Ice, a collection of prison writings that earned him the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize in 1970. Also in 1968 Cleaver was selected as the presidential candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party. After a shootout in Oakland that left Cleaver and a police officer wounded and 17-year-old Black Panther Bobby Hutton dead, Cleaver was charged with assault and attempted murder. His parole was revoked. Believing his life was in danger, Cleaver fled the country in November 1968.

He spent the next seven years in Cuba, France, and Algeria with his wife Kathleen Neal Cleaver. Still actively involved with the Panthers, Cleaver published essays in Ramparts, Black Panther, and the Black Scholar and served as head of the international section of the Black Panther Party in Algeria. After visits to North Korea, North Vietnam, and the People's Republic of China, however, Cleaver became increasingly critical of Marxist governments. A deal with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) allowed him to return to the United States in 1975, with a sentence of more than 1,000 hours of community service.

After returning to the United States, Cleaver's commitments shifted toward conservative politics and fundamentalist Christianity. He described this transformation in Soul on Fire, which appeared in 1978. Cleaver lectured on religion and politics in the 1980s and ran as an independent candidate for Ronald Dellums’s seat in the House of Representatives in 1984. After dropping out of the congressional race, Cleaver ran for a seat on the Berkeley City Council in California. His ongoing struggle with drugs became public in 1994, when Cleaver was arrested in Berkeley.

A varied and prolific writer, Cleaver authored numerous political pamphlets, short stories, and poetry. His books Eldridge Cleaver: Post-Prison Writings and Speeches and Eldridge Cleaver's Black Papers both appeared in 1969. The Black Panther Leaders Speak: Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and Company Speak Out Through the Black Panther Party's Official Newspaper was published seven years later.

 

Contributed By:
Lawrie Balfour