WRITER, ACTIVIST, FORMER MINISTER
OF INFORMATION FOR THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY (1935-1998)
At times a convict, political candidate and
author, Cleaver was one of the original Black Panthers, formed in 1966 in Oakland by Huey
P. Newton and Bobby Seale. In April 1968, Cleaver, the fledgling Black Panther
Party's information minister, was involved in a violent shootout with police in
Oakland. Panther treasurer Bobby Hutton, 17, was killed in the gun battle, and
Cleaver and two police officers were wounded. Cleaver was arrested after the
shootout, but jumped $50,000 bail and fled the United States. Before his return to
the United States in 1975, he told reporters he believed he would be treated fairly in
court. "A new situation now exists in the United States. The war in
Vietnam is over. The status and condition of Black people has undergone a
fundamental change for the better. The American people have been shocked into
objectivity and vigilance by the exposure of the massive, systematic and conspiratorial
subversion of their democratic rights," he said. He also denounced the Black
Panthers upon his return. After a protracted legal battle, attempted murder charges
in the shootout were dropped, and Cleaver was placed on probation and ordered to do
community service for assault. Before his black Panther days, Cleaver was convicted
in 1958 of assault with intent to kill.
He was paroled after nine years in
prison. He also had a 1954 conviction for narcotics possession. While in
prison, Cleaver wrote "Soul on Ice," a
series of powerful essays decrying prejudice and racism. Published in 1968, it
became a focus of the Black Power movement. Cleaver ran unsuccessfully for president
in 1968 on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. Following his campaign, he was ousted
from the Panthers because of a bitter and public dispute with Newton. After his
self-imposed exile abroad, Cleaver became a born-again Christian and a Republican.
He made a failed attempt for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate in California.
He also claimed to be a rabid
anti-communist, because of his experiences on the run behind the Iron Curtain.
"Red-fighting that's what I'm doing, " Cleaver said in an interview during his
congressional campaign, "I have taken an oath in my heart to oppose Communism until
the day I die," In the past decade, the gray-haired, bespectacled Cleaver had
occasional brushes with the law. He was placed on probation in 1968 after separate
convictions for burglary and cocaine possession. In 1992, he was arrested for
alleged cocaine possession, but a judge threw out the charges after determining Cleaver
was improperly arrested. In a 1986 interview with The Associated Press, Cleaver
attempted to explain his many transformations. "Everybody changes, not just
me," he said. "I was pulled over in my car with my secretary for a traffic
thing and one of the officers walked up to the car, and saw me sitting inside. He
took off his hat and said, "Hey Eldridge, remember me?"