Former Panther Eldridge Cleaver: A Relic With A Cause
The Orange County Register
The flames, it seemed at the time, would burn forever. And so even now, you look for the fire in Eldridge Cleaver's eyes.
You look for the torch that set ablaze Oakland and Watts and Detroit and Newark under the salute of black fists above faces that would become famous from FBI posters.
The face of the black militant movement was the face of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale - the Black Panther Party - and their minister of information, Eldridge Cleaver.
In 1967, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the Black Panthers "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country."
The leather-jacketed, beret-wearing Panthers were white America's nightmare and a stark reality that threatened the pastoral, down-by-the-riverside dream of Martin Luther King Jr.
In their volatile times, Cleaver and his comrades advocated arson, robbery, rape and even murder as means of balancing the scales against white hegemony.
And so, even now, you listen for the inflammatory rhetoric that made "pigs" of law enforcement and "devils" of white people.
You remember the voice from news clips. It screamed a battle cry when the more popular message of the day was for pacifism.
It is not a voice you ever expected to hear say this:
"Can you treat me to lunch? I don't have any money."
From radical to conservative
In a loft apartment in what used to be the newsroom of a Pomona, Calif., daily, Eldridge Cleaver's life, from '60s radical to
'90s conservative, is revealed in scattered detail.
One corner of the room holds a magazine rack stuffed with pamphlets such as "A Course in Miracles" and "Search For Healing Affirmations."
In another corner an assortment of river rocks lines the concrete floor near a table and a bag of cement mix.
"That's what I'm going to do when I retire," says Cleaver, 62. "See, I make these flower pots. I'm going to sell them."
A computer sits in the middle of the room. A disc in it holds Eldridge Cleaver's screenplay, a story about two Vietnam veterans - one black, one white - and their disparate lives in the town Cleaver calls "Bezerkeley."
There are two office chairs from which the backs are missing, and a draftsman's chair on rollers that he uses when he's at the computer. Two small tables are the only furniture he'll take when he moves out at the end of the month. He can't afford $625 rent.
A banister holds two suits of clothing on a stairway meant to lead to a bedroom. But when he lies down, alone except for his thoughts, Cleaver's 6-foot, 2-inch frame rests on two vinyl couches he pulls together near a table where photocopies of his FBI "wanted" poster are stacked.
"I autograph those when I go on speaking trips," he says. "People like to have me sign them. They're unique because they're actually signed by J. Edgar Hoover."
Revolution over, Eldridge Cleaver marches to the cadence of evolution. Times change. Dreams dim.
And so the aging radical is mainstreamed into academics (he's a consultant at LaVerne University) and makes his meager living on stages where, if he is a prophet, he is first a history lesson.
But even here and even now, ideas flourish, ideals flourish.
The menace to society passed. Welcome the relic with a cause.
"Why is it that politicians can lie and get away with it?" Eldridge Cleaver asks, his big voice filling the loft. "We have developed a political culture of mendacity."
That was the message he took to a group of political consultants who asked him to address their meeting.
And the message in the message is this: Just because he is no longer a militant, don't think Eldridge Cleaver has run out of things to say.
"We ought to require politicians to do two things," he says. "One: When they register to run for office they should take an oath that their campaigns will be run subject to the penalties of perjury. And two: They ought to be required to write their own speeches.
"You'll see a brand new day in America when those two things happen."
A fatal shootout
In 1968, Cleaver's quest for a new day in America found him behind a gun in a shootout with Oakland police, in which Black Panther colleague Bobby Hutton was killed.
Cleaver was arrested, then fled the country while his trial was pending.
For eight years, Cleaver traveled mostly in communist countries, observing the lives of the people whose governments he saw as preferable to capitalism.
His first stop was Cuba, where he was regaled as an example of the evils and repression of capitalism.
And from Cuba, panhandling and stealing his way on forged passports arranged through Communist Party connections, he went to Algeria, to Uganda, to Egypt, to Czechoslovakia and finally to North Korea.
Before leaving the United States he had become a Marxist and had expected his journey "in exile" to be an affirmation of all that was wrong with the democratic way of doing things.
"The more I got a balanced perspective, the more I began to see that, while the U.S. had its problems, it was not the devil," Cleaver says. "It was like shock therapy to me.
"I had invested so much in the communist ideology, I wanted it to be true. But I began to see that there was a direct relationship between the ideology and (corrupt) practice."
The genesis of the Black Panther Party was a reaction to police brutality toward blacks.
"But after seeing the police departments in Algeria, in North Korea, in Czechoslovakia," Cleaver says, "it made me miss the Oakland P.D., even though they were a bunch of rats.
"It made me take a second look at what I was shooting my mouth off about."
Further looks coincided with Cleaver's renewal of "my spiritual roots" (both grandfathers were Protestant preachers), and he soon decided to turn himself in to the FBI and start over.
A man transformed
Cleaver gave himself up in New York in 1975. He returned home as a man whose beliefs had been reshaped but whose reputation was still that of "Soul On Ice," a book he wrote in 1968 that, among other notions Cleaver now regrets, advocated raping white women as retribution for political inequality.
Now, when he speaks, as he did last summer at the Redlands Adult School graduation, he says this:
"We have got to get back to some of the oldest ideas in the world, and that is that God is love. We have got to stop being partisan and political and start being human. Start being loving."
The kinder, gentler Eldridge Cleaver is a contradiction to the face of the FBI poster.
Never was the contradiction greater than in 1984, when he ("to the consternation of everybody I knew") endorsed Ronald Reagan for president.
"When I came back from my journey through the communist world," he says, "all my left-wing friends were in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party raided the Black Panther Party. (In the early '80s) all the black Democrats could say was, `Ronald Reagan is a racist.' Well, who gives a (flip)? Who ain't a racist, if we're going to play those games?
"Rather than just accept what was happening, which is not how I function, I decided I was going to take another look at things."
Over time, vindication
Cleaver (who endorsed Bob Dole in 1996) says time vindicates his position on welfare, which he opposes, and on affirmative action, about which he said:
"I don't understand people when they would say, `Here is a white man who wanted to be a doctor, but because of the sins of our fathers, they are going to kick this man out of the class and give his seat to a minority.' To me that is asinine. It is not the American way.
"The solution would be to put another seat in the room, because we could use two more doctors. This approach to affirmative action sucks. I also think that the opposition to it sucks, because it is all being done in old-brain terms."
Such talk leaves former supporters such as NAACP director Julian Bond wondering which Eldridge Cleaver to believe - the radical or the reformist.
"He disappointed me," Bond said recently from his office at the University of Virginia. "I like ideological consistency even when it's ideology that I don't agree with. Anybody who dances around as much as he does, you have to wonder about.
"It raises the question about what his beliefs were back then. Was it the fashion of the time and he just put it on?"
In the late '70s, when Cleaver was imprisoned in San Diego, Bond, then a Georgia congressman, went to visit Cleaver.
Bond says he went to offer spiritual support to Cleaver, whom Bond, as a '60s activist himself, had seen as something of a hero.
"Now," Bond says, "I'm not sure what he is out to achieve."
Same thing, different method, Cleaver will say.
Now, he sees himself as being to Martin Luther King Jr. as the biblical Joshua was to Moses: One prophet leads the people to the Promised Land, another leads through it.
"I want to be part of the forces that help America choose the Promised Land," he says. "The present leadership in the black community is still talking about a `black movement.' But (issues facing the future) are about all America. Those guys are still playing the race card and talking protests, but that's passe."
Before his "exile" and after it, Cleaver served a total of 15 years in prison for crimes that included attempted murder and possession of narcotics.
Coming out of prison in the mid-'80s, Christianity in his heart but mischief on his mind, Cleaver discovered crack cocaine and was nearly killed trying to get it in 1994.
A divot in the right side of his skull is a reminder of a February night when a drug dealer laid an iron pipe into Cleaver's head, leaving him to die on a Berkeley sidewalk.
He was unconscious for two months.
Today, the scar is all that's left. No craving for drugs, he says. No need.
This year, the University of LaVerne took on Cleaver as a consultant to its Coalition for Diversity.
The university gives Cleaver an office and access to its library in exchange for occasional lectures and classroom visits. His income is from outside speaking engagements (recently at the University of Oregon) and Social Security.
("If they were selling Pomona for a nickel," Cleaver jokes, "I'd have to run for the border to keep from being sold.")
Richard Rose, associate professor of religion and philosophy at LaVerne, says Cleaver's role is that of "an elder."
"In the tribal life of African Americans, elders are respected for that life they have led," Rose says. "I think that's where he is right now. We can learn a lot from his history.
"Those experiences now put him in a place where he speaks with the authority of one who has traveled. Mr. Cleaver really has become one who has taken a different view on life and on how to change the circumstances of those who are oppressed. We don't have to make the same mistakes the Black Panther Party made to achieve the same goal."
Eldridge Cleaver says he has two regrets: One, that he is alone except for occasional contact with his three children (ages 10-29). And two, that in some ways he is still living on the run, place to place, until the bills become unpayable or a relationship turns sour.
He has no phone, no car and, soon, no apartment in which to store those dusty rocks and photocopied "wanted" posters.
No, there is no fire. Not like you remember.
There is a smolder, though; a warmth that survived the flames.
"People started saying `Eldridge has become patriotic,' " he says. "Well, yes. Because I love my country.
"It's time to forget the American Revolution and fulfill the American Dream. I have grown my heart to where I am not talking about `my people.' Because my people have grown to include all the human family."
Published Clarification Date: 05/03/98 - This Article On Eldridge Cleaver Was Printed Thursday, The Day Before Cleaver Died. Because Of Press Capacity, Several Feature Sections Of The Times Are Printed Before The Rest Of The Sunday Paper.
Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.