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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?"

Revised: July 18, 2013.