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  • Black Panther - Leroy Eldridge Cleaver - Black History and Literature Library
    Black Panther - Leroy Eldridge Cleaver - Black Activist, Black Man, Black Panther - Black History and Literature Library

    Black Panther - Leroy Eldridge Cleaver

    Leroy Eldridge Cleaver (August 31, 1935 – May 1, 1998) was an American writer and political activist who became an early leader of the Black Panther Party.

    In 1968, Cleaver wrote Soul on Ice, a collection of essays that, at the time of its publication, was praised by The New York Times Book Review as "brilliant and revealing". Cleaver stated in Soul on Ice: "If a man like Malcolm X could change and repudiate racism, if I myself and other former Muslims can change, if young whites can change, then there is hope for America."

    Cleaver went on to become a prominent member of the Black Panthers, having the titles Minister of Information and Head of the International Section of the Panthers, while a fugitive from the United States criminal justice system in Cuba and Algeria. He became a fugitive after leading an ambush on Oakland police officers, during which two officers were wounded. Cleaver was also wounded during the clash and Black Panther member Bobby Hutton was killed. As editor of the official Panthers' newspaper, The Black Panther, Cleaver's influence on the direction of the Party was rivaled only by founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Cleaver and Newton eventually fell out with each other, resulting in a split that weakened the party.

    After spending seven years in exile in Cuba, Algeria, and France, Cleaver returned to the US in 1975, where he became involved in various religious groups (Unification Church and CARP) before finally joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as becoming a conservative Republican, appearing at Republican events.

    Eldridge Cleaver was born in Wabbaseka, Arkansas; as a child he moved with his large family to Phoenix and then to Los Angeles. He was the son of Leroy Cleaver and Thelma Hattie Robinson. He had four siblings: Wilhelima Marie, Helen Grace, James Weldon, and Theophilus Henry.

    As a teenager, he was involved in petty crime and spent time in youth detention centers. At the age of 18, he was convicted of a felony drug charge (marijuana, a felony at the time) and sent to the adult prison at Soledad. In 1958, he was convicted of rape and assault with intent to murder, and eventually served time in Folsom and San Quentin prisons. While in prison, he was given a copy of The Communist Manifesto. Cleaver was released on parole December 12, 1966, with a discharge date of March 20, 1971. In 1968 he was arrested on violation of parole by association with individual(s) of bad reputation, and control and possession of firearms Cleaver petitioned for habeas corpus to the Solano County Court, and was granted it along with a release of a $50,000 bail.

    Cleaver was released from prison on December 12, 1966. He was writing for Ramparts magazine and organizing efforts to revitalize the Organization of Afro-American Unity. The Black Panther Party was only two months old. He then joined the Oakland-based Black Panther Party (BPP), serving as Minister of Information, or spokesperson. What initially attracted Cleaver to the Panthers, as opposed to other prominent groups, was their commitment to armed struggle.

    In 1967, Cleaver, along with Marvin X, Ed Bullins, and Ethna Wyatt, formed the Black House political/cultural center in San Francisco. Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Askia Toure, Sarah Webster Fabio, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Avotcja, Reginald Lockett, Emory Douglas, Samuel Napier, Bobby Hutton, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale were Black House regulars. The same year, he married Kathleen Neal Cleaver (divorced 1987), with whom he would have son Ahmad Maceo Eldridge (born 1969, Algeria; died 2018, Saudi Arabia) and daughter Joju Younghi (born July 31, 1970, North Korea).

    Cleaver was a presidential candidate in 1968 on the ticket of the Peace and Freedom Party. Having been born on August 31, 1935, Cleaver would not have been the requisite 35 years of age until more than a year after Inauguration Day 1969. (Although the Constitution requires that the President be at least 35 years of age, it does not specify whether he need have reached that age at the time of nomination, or election, or inauguration.) Courts in both Hawaii and New York held that he could be excluded from the ballot because he could not possibly meet the Constitutional criteria. Cleaver and his running mate Judith Mage received 36,571 votes (0.05%).

    In the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, there were riots across the nation. On April 6, Cleaver and 14 other Panthers was involved in a confrontation with Oakland police officers, during which two officers were wounded. Cleaver was wounded during the ambush and 17-year-old Black Panther member Bobby Hutton was killed. They were armed with M16 rifles and shotguns. In 1980, he admitted that he had led the Panther group on a deliberate ambush of the police officers, thus provoking the shootout. Some reporters were surprised by this move, because it was in the context of an uncharacteristic speech, in which Cleaver also discredited the Black Panthers, stated "we need police as heroes", and said that he denounced civilian review boards of police shootings for the "bizarre" reason that "it is a rubber stamp for murder". Some speculated his admission could have been a pay-off to the Alameda County justice system, whose judge had only just days earlier let Eldridge Cleaver escape prison time; Cleaver was sentenced to community service after getting charged with three counts of assault against three Oakland police officers. The PBS documentary A Huey Newton Story claims that "Bobby Hutton was shot more than twelve times after he had already surrendered and stripped down to his underwear to prove he was not armed."

    Charged with attempted murder after the incident, he jumped bail to flee to Cuba in late 1968. Initially treated with luxury by the Cuban government, the hospitality ended upon reports Fidel Castro had received information of the CIA infiltrating the Black Panther Party. Cleaver then decided to head to Algeria, sending word to his wife to meet him there. Elaine Klein normalized his status by getting him an invitation to attend the Pan-African Cultural festival, rendering him temporarily safe from prosecution. The festival allowed him to network with revolutionaries from all over Africa in order to discuss the perils of white supremacy and colonialism. Cleaver was outspoken in his call to violence against the United States, contributing to his mission to "position the Panthers within the revolutionary nationalist camp inside the United States and as disciples of Fanon on the world stage". Cleaver had set up an international office for the Black Panthers in Algeria. Following Timothy Leary's Weather Underground-assisted prison escape, Leary stayed with Cleaver in Algiers; however, Cleaver placed Leary under "revolutionary arrest" as a counter-revolutionary for promoting drug use.

    Cleaver also cultivated an alliance with North Korea in 1969, and BPP publications began reprinting excerpts from Kim Il Sung's writings. Although leftists of the time often looked to Cuba, China, and North Vietnam for inspiration, few had paid any attention to the secretive Pyongyang regime. Bypassing US travel restrictions on North Korea, Cleaver and other BPP members made two visits to the country in 1969–1970 with the idea that the juche model could be adapted to the revolutionary liberation of African-Americans. Taken on an official tour of North Korea, Cleaver expressed admiration at "the DPRK's stable, crime-free society which provided guaranteed food, employment, and housing for all, and which had no economic or social inequalities".

    Byron Vaughn Booth (former Panther Deputy Minister of Defense) claimed that, after a trip to the DPRK, Cleaver discovered his wife had been having an affair with Clinton Robert Smith Jr. Booth told the FBI he had witnessed Cleaver shoot and kill Smith with an AK47. Elaine Mokhtefi, in the London Review of Books, writes that Cleaver confessed the murder to her shortly after committing it.

    In his 1978 book Soul on Fire, Cleaver made several claims regarding his exile in Algeria, including that he was supported by regular stipends from the government of North Vietnam, which the United States was then bombing. Cleaver stated that he was followed by other former criminals turned revolutionaries, many of whom (including Booth and Smith) hijacked planes to get to Algeria.

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