The turbulent life of writer and political activist Eldridge Cleaver (pictured) highlights both the intellectual rise of a former criminal and a slow descent inspired by a series of acts that left a cloud over his fragmented legacy. Cleaver died on this day in 1998 at the age of 62, leaving behind one of the most potent social critiques of his time.
Cleaver was born in Wabbaseka, Ark., on August 31, 1935. After living in Phoenix with his family as a child, Cleaver eventually settled in Los Angeles. A troubled youth, Cleaver engaged in petty crimes and was a constant fixture at area detention centers. At 18, he entered the infamous Soledad prison on a felony drug charge. Later, he was convicted on several sexual assault charges and served time in the Folsom and San Quentin prisons.
While incarcerated, Cleaver was entranced by the teachings of Malcolm X and began to write a series of essays. Written mostly in Folsom State Prison in 1965, the essays were key to the reformation of Cleaver as he looked to separate himself from his violent criminal past. Now-defunct political magazine Ramparts published parts of Cleaver’s essays, going on to receive high praise for their in-depth and unflinching revelations of Black America.
The essays were formed into a book titled “Soul On Ice” (pictured below), which was released in 1968. Cleaver’s essays are still often cited by many scholars of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.
Watch Cleaver discuss America’s neo-colonial oppression here:
After his release in prison in 1966, Cleaver had fully embraced Marxist theories and sought out the militant Oakland-based Black Panther Party. Serving as the Party’s spokesperson, Cleaver began to emerge as a prominent voice among African-American activists of the late 1960s. In 1968, Cleaver’s desire for armed resistance took hold and he led the Panthers on an ambush of Oakland police. The shootout left two officers wounded and 17-year-old Panther member Bobby Hutton (pictured at right) dead.
After the shootout, Cleaver jumped bail and fled to Cuba to avoid an attempted murder charge. He would later live in Algeria then France much later. Cleaver and Huey Newton were at odds with each other on how the Panther Party should proceed in the face of government meddling. Cleaver wanted a more violent approach while Newton wanted to move away from the radicalism of the past.
In 1975, Cleaver returned to the United States and renounced his former militant past by becoming a born-again Christian. The murder chargers he faced as a result of the Oakland police shootout were dropped in 1979.
In a bizarre turn of events, Cleaver became a Mormon in the early 1980s and remained so until the time of his passing. Cleaver also became a conservative Republican, running for office in a pair of failed bids. Just two years outside of running for a Senate seat, Cleaver was placed on probation for burglary and jailed for a short stint after testing positive for cocaine in 1988.
Cleaver’s struggle with drugs never ended, after attempts at rehab proved fruitless. After suffering with poor health for a long time, Cleaver died in Pomona, Calif.
Cleaver’s story is both inspiring and somber all at once. After getting his education while in prison, he learned to examine his former ways with a measurable amount of intelligence. However, his legacy is somewhat tainted by the ensuing actions during his time with the Panthers and beyond. Still, that should not discredit his valuable contributions found in his essays nor should he be judged for trying to discover his own way considering his troubled past.
Rest in peace, Eldridge Cleaver.