Authors: Eldridge Cleaver

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American philosopher, memoirist, and political activist

Identity: African American

Author Works

Nonfiction:

Soul on Ice, 1968

Post Prison Writings and Speeches, 1969

Eldridge Cleaver’s Black Papers, 1969

Soul on Fire, 1978

Biography

One of the most controversial figures of the 1960’s, Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, civil rights activist and author, became the articulate metaphor for embittered opposition to the oppression of African Americans by the white majority. When Cleaver was young, his father Leroy, a nightclub entertainer, and his mother Thelma, an elementary school teacher, relocated from their suburban Little Rock, Arkansas, home to Phoenix, Arizona, and then to the Watts section of Los Angeles, California. Soon after the move, Cleaver’s parents separated, and his mother supported the children by working as a custodian.{$I[AN]9810002042}{$I[A]Cleaver, Eldridge}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Cleaver, Eldridge}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Cleaver, Eldridge}{$I[tim]1935;Cleaver, Eldridge}

Eldridge Cleaver

(Library of Congress)

Not long after his entrance into Abraham Lincoln Junior High, Cleaver was arrested for bicycle theft and remanded to the Fred C. Nelles School for Boys. Reform school served as a new avenue of education for the young man, offering instruction in the means of procuring and redistributing marijuana. Although he was quickly released from the school, his next brush with the law was not long in coming. In 1953, he was arrested for selling marijuana and sentenced to the Preston School of Industry until his eighteenth birthday, after which his sentence continued in Soledad prison. While in Soledad, Cleaver became an avid reader, immersing himself in the works of Malcolm X. Eventually, Cleaver converted to the Black Muslim religion. He was paroled after two years and six months.

The years behind bars encouraged a pattern of repeat behavior, however, and Cleaver returned immediately to his drug commerce, accompanied by acts of increasing violence. Once again, he was apprehended; he was sentenced to fourteen years in San Quentin and Folsom prisons for assault with intent to murder.

During this incarceration, Cleaver began to write in order to vent his rage and to “save” himself. His passion for reading increased, and he added the works of Thomas Paine, Karl Marx, and W. E. B. Du Bois to his repertoire. Eventually, Cleaver earned his high-school diploma through the prison educational program.

In an attempt to extricate himself from confinement, Cleaver began a lengthy correspondence with Beverly Axelrod, a civil rights attorney, who showed his writings to Edward M. Keating, an editor of Ramparts magazine, a monthly New Left publication. Ramparts published one of his essays, “Notes on a Native Son,” and offered Cleaver a staff position upon his release. In November, 1966, Axelrod secured parole for Cleaver. The two were subsequently married and had two children. Cleaver accepted an editorial post with Ramparts, and in 1968 the firm published Soul on Ice, a compilation of his autobiographical essays composed in prison. The collection vaulted into the best-seller charts, eventually selling over two million copies worldwide.

While working at Ramparts, Cleaver helped found Black House, a San Francisco cultural center for disadvantaged African American youth. It was at Black House that Cleaver met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the co-organizers of the newly formed Black Panther Party, which advocated aggressive self-defense for the black community against the police. Citing “total liberty for Black people or total destruction for America,” Cleaver became the minister of information for the Black Panthers in 1967. In this capacity, he made outspoken and often radical public appeals and recruited new members. In April of that year, he was one of the principal speakers at an anti-Vietnam rally in San Francisco that was attended by more than sixty-five thousand people.

On April 6, 1968, Cleaver was wounded in a gun battle between the Panthers and the San Francisco police. Although arrested at the scene, he was released on bail. While charges were pending, he sought the office of president of the United States on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket and garnered thirty thousand votes. During this period, he also guest lectured in an experimental sociology course at the University of California as a cospeaker with the police chief of Oakland. The governor and the State Board of Regents opposed the course, engendering student demonstrations.

Following the subsequent trial for the shooting incident, when it appeared that he would be returned to prison, Cleaver and his family fled the country. This “political exile” lasted for eight years, during which time the family resided in Cuba, Algeria, and Paris. Although he was lauded as a revolutionary hero, the time in Cuba altered Cleaver’s views on communism, and he renounced his previous affiliation, noting an absence of humanity in the system.

In 1976, Cleaver voluntarily returned from exile. Although he was arrested as he attempted to reenter the country, he was cleared of all charges two years later. In 1978, he penned Soul on Fire, a sequel to the original Soul on Ice, which proclaims his conversion to Christianity and his newly found respect for the American way of life.

Cleaver and his family returned to Berkeley, California, where Cleaver ran for city council in 1984, the United States Senate in 1986, and the San Francisco Regional Transit Board in 1992. He was defeated in each race. Because the Internal Revenue Service confiscated his book sale proceeds to defray back taxes, he supported his family by running a recycling pickup service and by selling his ceramic pottery. He died in Southern California on May 1, 1998.

BibliographyLasky, Melvin J. “The Ideas of ’68: A Retrospective on the Twentieth Anniversary Celebrations of ‘the Student Revolt.’” Encounter 71, no. 4 (1988). Discusses Cleaver’s involvement in the Black Panther Party.Lowery, Charles, and John Marszalek, eds. Encyclopedia of African American Civil Rights. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992. Offers comprehensive biographical information.Oliver, John. Eldridge Cleaver: Ice and Fire! Plainfield, N.J.: Logos International, 1977. Examines the philosophical juxtaposition of the two principles driving Cleaver’s life.Rajiv, Sudhi. Forms of Black Consciousness. New York: Advent Books, 1992. A biographical study of Richard Wright, Malcolm X, and Eldridge Cleaver.Rout, Kathleen. Eldridge Cleaver. Boston: Twayne, 1995. One of the very few biographies to discuss Cleaver as a writer as well as a political activist.Waldrep, Sheldon. “‘Being Bridges’: Cleaver/Baldwin/Lorde and African American Sexism and Sexuality.” Journal of Homosexuality 26, no. 2/3 (1994): 167-181. Examines the positions of African American writers James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver, and Audre Lorde on the sexuality and sexism, especially regarding homosexuality, of African Americans.
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