Obituary: Eldridge Cleaver

Rupert Cornwell
Sunday 03 May 1998 23:02 BST

HE DIED an environmentalist, a consultant on ethnic diversity, and, most astonishing of all, a Republican. But 30 years ago, Eldridge Cleaver, arguably the most remarkable figure to emerge from the black power movement of the late 1960s, was simultaneously idolised, feared and loathed as few others have been in America.

The nearest he came to formal public office was as "Information Minister" of the Black Panthers, the radical and violent black nationalist movement founded by Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, in 1966. That, however, was just one facet of a career which led Cleaver from a childhood in back- country Arkansas to ghetto crime and radical political theorising, best- selling authorship and advocacy of violent revolution - all by way of Christianity, Islam, Marxism and finally Christianity once more.

Eldridge Cleaver was born in the American South in the middle of the great depression. His father was a waiter and musician, while his mother was a teacher, who taught him a respect for knowledge which never left him. But it was only when the family fell on bad times and drifted to Los Angeles that he discovered black radicalism.

The climactic moment was 1968, that annus terribilis of modern US history. That year, Cleaver published his most famous book, Soul on Ice, a fiery and dazzling collection of essays attacking racial prejudice and injustice. Almost simultaneously, Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis caused black protest to explode into violence. The Panthers were in the forefront of that violence and in April 1968, shortly after King's death, Cleaver was involved in a shoot-out in Oakland, in which the Panthers' Treasurer Bobby Hutton was killed and two police officers were wounded. He was arrested, but jumped a $50,000 bail and fled the country.

He spent almost eight years abroad. After escaping to Montreal he settled initially in Cuba. But he soon wearied of his appointed role as living proof of the evils of American racism, and moved on to Algeria where he headed the "International Section" of the Panthers.

An exile's life in Algiers in turn paled, and by 1972 he was in Paris where, inevitably, he became a celebrity in liberal circles. But the voyage to Africa and Europe ultimately taught him that there was no escape from his American roots. From the South of France, where he had bought a flat with the proceeds from Soul on Ice, he put out feelers for a return home, where he was technically still a fugitive from justice. Ultimately, he spent eight months in prison, before being sentenced to five years' probation, and 2,000 hours of community service.

Though he ran foul of the law on drugs and burglary charges, Cleaver thereafter made few headlines. After the national agony and division of Vietnam and the disgrace of the Nixon presidency, America sought peace with itself and black activism moved into more peaceful channels. But, unattractive as his methods could be, Cleaver was a milestone on black America's journey to self-discovery and self-respect.

Deliberately, he set out to shock and scare whites, preaching violence and calculatedly playing on the sexual undercurrents of race. He once derided "white pigs", saying they were better off dead; "We encourage people to kill them." In Soul on Ice he seems to justify black men raping white women. Such views would have caused controversy at any time; in an America polarised as never before or since, they sounded as a bombshell. For conservatives, the Black Panthers threatened the entire social order; liberal intellectuals like Leonard Bernstein meanwhile held Manhattan fund-raisers for them.

By the 1990s, the former Panther was lying down with the lambs. Step by step, Cleaver virtually renounced his past, even joining the Republican Party which once regarded him as Satan incarnate. One of his last appearances was at an Earth Day conference in Oregon last month where he summed up his life in a dozen words: "I've gone beyond civil rights and human rights to creation rights."

Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, political activist: born Wabbaseka, Arkansas 31 August 1935; married (two children); died Pomona, California 1 May 1998.

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