Leroy Eldridge Cleaver (born 1935), an American writer and a leader of the Black Panther party, was noted for advocating violent revolution within the United States.
Leroy Eldridge Cleaver was born August 31, 1935 in Wabbaseka, Arkansas, the son of Leroy Cleaver, a waiter and piano player, and Thelma Cleaver, an elementary school teacher. When his father became a dining car waiter on the Super Chief, a train running from Chicago to Los Angeles, the family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, one of the train's stops. Young Cleaver earned money by shining shoes after school. Two years later, the family moved to the Watts section of Los Angeles. Cleaver dropped out of Abraham Lincoln Junior High School after his parents separated. His petty crime record began at the age of 12 with the theft of a bicycle. He was sent to the Fred C. Nelles School for Boys in Whittier, California, where he was inspired to commit more sophisticated crimes. In 1953, he was released from Nelles and was soon sent to the Preston School of Industry for selling marijuana. Soon after his release from Preston, he was again arrested for possession of marijuana and, now an adult, was sentenced to a two-and one-half-year sentence at the California State Prison at Soledad in June of 1954.
At Soledad, Cleaver completed his high school education and read the works of Karl Marx, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Thomas Paine. After his release from Soledad, he went back to selling marijuana and became a rapist on the weekend. This led him to be arrested for "assault with intent to murder" at the end of 1957 and was sentenced to two to fourteen years at San Quentin Prison. He later was transferred to Folsom Prison in Represa, California.
In the early 1960s, while in jail, Cleaver decided to give up crime. He was influenced by the teachings of the Black Muslims and became a follower of Malcolm X. When Malcolm broke with the Black Muslims, so did Cleaver. Then he became an advocate of "black power," as this position was enunciated by Stokely Carmichael.
Also while in jail, Cleaver wrote essays, some published in 1962 in the Negro History Bulletin; these dealing mainly with racial pride and black nationalism. Out of these autobiographical essays came his first book, Soul on Ice (1968).
Ramparts magazine, which had brought Cleaver to public attention by publishing some of his prison articles, and Cleaver's lawyer were instrumental in securing his parole in 1966. He immediately began a new life as a writer and political activist. He helped found Black House, a social center for San Francisco youth. In 1967, he met the men who had founded the Black Panther party the year before. He became the party's minister of information, responsible for editing its newspaper. Later that year, he married Kathleen Neal. She became the communications secretary of the Black Panther party. The couple had two children.
With Soul on Ice Cleaver gained national prominence. On April 15, 1968, along with the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., and others, he addressed a mass rally against the Vietnam War in San Francisco.
As he became increasingly outspoken against racial, economic, and political injustices in America, Cleaver's parole officer advised him to discontinue his political activities. But Cleaver was becoming convinced that conditions for African-American people could not be alleviated without a violent revolution. To effect this, he felt, massive education was required to politicize the people. One method was to utilize a political campaign. In 1968, he urged the Black Panther party to unite with the predominantly white Peace and Freedom party in California to nominate candidates for local and state offices. Cleaver's wife became a candidate on the Peace and Freedom party ticket for the California State Assembly, along with the Black Panther's Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.
In April 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and after harassment by the police of the Black Panther party, Cleaver was involved in a shoot-out with the Oakland police. One man was killed, and Cleaver was wounded in the foot and arrested. He was accused of violating his parole by possessing a gun, associating with people of bad reputation, and failing to cooperate with his parole agent. He was released on $50,000 bail.
In the next few months, Cleaver became a prominent spokesman of the radical, revolutionary left. He had moved from cultural, African-American nationalism to a more Marxist interpretation of revolutionary change. Cleaver believed that African-Americans should ally themselves with radical whites, and he criticized those African-American nationalists who refused such coalitions. During this period, he toured America as the presidential candidate of the Peace and Freedom party. He lectured on racism at the University of California in the fall of 1968.
Cleaver was scheduled to surrender to prison authorities in November 1968 for hearings on the charge of parole violation. Instead, he disappeared. He went to Cuba, North Korea, and Algeria and in September 1970 announced the establishment of an international office for the Black Panther party in Algiers.
While in exile, Cleaver championed "the angels of destruction" and the "great educational value" of murder. Cleaver accused Newton of putting the Black Panthers in the past by advocating community service programs over armed revolution. Cleaver was accused by others of abusing his wife while in Algeria and of having other Black Panthers killed. In March of 1971, Cleaver and Newton expelled each others' faction from the party, thus ending its heyday as the major voice for African-American activism in America.
In 1976, Cleaver returned to America to vote for Jimmy Carter and to face his accusers in California. Cleaver had changed his beliefs again while in Africa and now "stopped being a communist or socialist and developed an understanding and respect for free enterprise and the democratic political system." He joined the Mormon church and began to lecture on conservative issues and sell ceramic pots. He eventually set up a recycling business and tried, unsuccessfully, to get the backing of the Republican party for the a 1984 run for the US Senate.
Cleaver later divorced his wife and went to Harvard Law School. Cleaver then moved back to Berkeley, California and became a preacher. A recovering drug addict, Cleaver now speaks in school, prisons, and churches about the importance of resolving conflicts without violence and is working on a new autobiography.
Further Reading on Leroy Eldridge Cleaver
Eldridge Cleaver: Post Prison Writings and Speeches was edited by Robert Scheer in 1968. Lee Lockwood's talks with Cleaver were published as Conversations with Eldridge Cleaver: Algiers (1970). Books about the Black Panthers that include Cleaver are Gene Marine The Black Panthers (1969), Ruth Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones The Vanguard: A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers (1970), Philip S. Foner, ed. The Black Panthers Speak (1970), and Bobby Seale Seize the Time (1970). Two books critical of the Black Panthers are Earl Anthony Picking Up the Gun (1970), and I Was a Black Panther, as told to C. J. Moore (1970). Cleaver's own autobiography is Soul On Fire (1978). Much biographical information on Cleaver can be found in David Leon Leaders From the 1960s: A Biographical Sourcebook of American Activism (1994), and a biography of Cleaver to that point can be found in the 1970 issue of Current Biography. Cleaver also appears in August 1996 issue of Ebony magazine.