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Eldridge Cleaver: Another Look By: Peter Collier
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, June 01, 1998


When I heard over the radio that Eldridge Cleaver had died, I wondered to myself, as many no doubt had who knew about his born again Christianity, if this was the last stop on his curious pilgrimage. I also thought back to that afternoon in 1967 when he walked into the offices of Ramparts magazine which had in effect sponsored his release from prison, took a look around as if casing the joint, and deadpanned, "Is this where they're making the revolution?"

I had recently come to work at Ramparts myself. For weeks I had been hearing about this authentic voice, soon to be our authentic voice, from the black underworld; this poet of rape who had the audacity to claim that this crime for which he had done hard time was actually a legitimate insurrectionary act. His prison essays were one of the first literary manifestations of black power, one of the first unveilings of that quintessentially '60s notion that all prisoners are political prisoners. In the isolation of his prison cell, Eldridge had psyched out the zeitgeist more adroitly than most of us on the outside. He saw we were entering an era when someone like himself could not only blame America for his crime, but also plausibly claim that he had been washed clean of his guilt by the blood of the Vietnamese. But while the voice was the voice of Eldridge, I'd heard that the hand that wrote Soul on Ice had been held by more than one white editor.

As Eldridge looked around the Ramparts office on that days thirty-odd years ago (and very odd some of those years have been), I noticed his eyes-a striking green, and so hooded that they seemed embedded in epicanthic folds. He let his glance linger languorously on surfaces that would have seemed ordinary to anyone except a man who'd been looking at objects of monochromatic sameness for countless days behind bars. Then he turned and walked down the hall. The gait was not the cantilevered swagger of the black hipster. It was slower and more deliberate, a walk developed over years of doing the prison exercise-yard passegiata.

Eldridge was something of an anomaly at Ramparts. The rest of us were earnest white revolutionaries mixing journalism and a deepening activism to wage war by other means against the government. Eldridge talked the same talk but he walked that different walk. The look on his face as he listened to our bull sessions-an ironic, impassive face that didn't show emotion easily-carried the charge that this was kid's stuff. Yet he was our noble savage, a radical celebrity who increased our clout. He was by nature a conversational counter puncher, but he could do the black revolutionary schtick with the best of them and had an ability that most other black revolutionaries didn't to get under the white skin. Not long after he arrived at Ramparts, a suspicious-looking box addressed to him arrived in the mail. Thinking that it might be a bomb, we got Don Duncan, a former green beret who was on our staff and who theoretically had some knowledge of demolitions, to open it. After much huffing and puffing, the lid came off. Inside the box was nothing more dangerous than a coil of dogshit nesting in a bed of excelsior. The rest of us were in a tizzy of revolutionary outrage; Eldridge just laughed at the "racist dog" who'd sent it.

Cleaver liked the dope and hedonism and sex-especially sex-that was the Musak of the Movement. Despite or given the perversity of the time, because of his background, he was catnip to lefty women. (I remember coming into the office one Saturday afternoon and thinking it was deserted until I heard a noise, and Eldridge emerged from an area where we kept a cot, along with a knockout blonde deb who volunteered for us and who was now rearranging herself like a hen after the rooster is through.) He also cut something of a swathe through San Francisco's radical chic circles. I heard that he was invited to a party honoring James Baldwin. He had, of course, attacked Baldwin parricidally in his writings, just as Baldwin had once similarly attacked Richard Wright. But when he saw Baldwin at this party, so it was said, Eldridge bear-hugged him and gave him a solid French kiss.

He was a master at upping the ante-that sky's-the-limit rhetoric that became the lingua franca of the Movement. I remember in one casual conversation saying something derogatory about Stalin's crimes, whereupon Eldridge fixed me with one of those gelid stares that made white radicals cringe. "Whatchu talking about, man?" he said. "More people got killed trampling each other to get a look at that brother's body at his funeral than were killed in any damned purges!"

He never seemed really at ease at Ramparts and his literary output was neglible. It always seemed to me that wasn't until he met Huey Newton a couple of months after getting out of prison that Cleaver really found his niche. When he became a Panther, it was the equivalent of a free-agent superstar signing with a superteam. At the time I always wondered why Eldridge, to me a much more impressive figure, became a follower of Newton. But I understood later on when it was revealed that far from being a shrill voiced theoretician giving brain dwarfing hour-long Castroite rants, Huey was actually a black Scarface running drugs and women in Oakland and beating and even murdering whoever got in the way. Eldridge had seen people like Newton in heavy lock-up where they ruled over other prisoners by their violence, mesmerism, and homemade existentialism, and by a nihilistic willingness to die for their power. He had seen prison gangs take over the joint and realized that Huey, acting with the help of the white left, had put together such an organization on the outside. Eldridge knew he had only gotten away with rape; Huey had gotten away with murder

Eldridge was an ornament for the Panthers, although he remained a sort of free lance enragé, running for President on the Peace and Freedom ticket, making speeches in which he called for "pussy power," accused Reagan of being a "faggot" and Bobby Kennedy of being "scurvy," and offered to kill Joseph Alioto, along with Alioto's children and grandchildren while he was at it. He was willing to put up rather than shut up. His most famous moment came in 1969 when he was in a shootout with cops in Oakland. As rifle and shotgun rounds penetrated the house where he was holed up, he survived by getting into a bathtub and later came out, stripped naked, with his hands up. A young thug named Bobby Hutton-forever after known as L'il Bobby Hutton in Panther martyrology-was killed and his bloody shirt was waved for years to come.

The shootout became Eldridge's summary moment, just as shooting and killing an Oakland cop named John Frey had been for Huey two years earlier. It was the foundation of his own personal myth inside the Panther party and a significant stop in the development of the idea-still taken seriously in some quarters today-that the Oakland police, in collaboration with other law enforcement agencies, were waging a genocidal war against the Panther organization. It wasn't until twenty years later that Cleaver told writer Kate Coleman that the cause for the shootout had not been motiveless malignancy on the part of the police. In fact, just prior to the shootout he and a carload of Panthers had ambushed a black and white, wounding a pair of policemen as part of their war against the "army of occupation" in the ghetto, and the gun battle in Oakland that claimed Hutton's life had been a sequel to this event. Cleaver's admission to Coleman never made much of an impact among his former comrades. As they say, the accusation is always on page one and the retraction buried in the Metro section.

After the shootout Eldridge jumped bail and disappeared into a '60s haze-traveling to Cuba, then to Algeria (where he had to put up with another exile, Timothy Leary, whose bizarre loquaciousness caused Cleaver to warn him that there was a "Panther graveyard" thereabouts for people who talked too much), and then to Paris where he is alleged to have shared a mistress with Giscard d'Estaing. Somewhere along the way he fell out with Huey, accusing him of selling out the "armed struggle" and ridiculing his fatuous posturing as the Servant of the People. It was more than a war of words. Their quarrel was played out in the back alleys of Oakland, Los Angeles and New York, as Eldridge, putting together a rebel army of black revolutionaries from abroad, launched a civil war against the Newton branch of the Panthers. Cleaver soon resigned from his command, but his troops would leave behind the nucleus of the terrorist Black Liberation Army.

When he finally returned to America in 1975, Eldridge was a changed and also a diminished man. It wasn't just his involvement in gimmicks like the codpiece pants to be marketed as "Cleavers." There was a change in his attitudes too, or at least in his rhetoric. One of the things he said when he returned-and those who had served with him in his war against the U.S. would never forgive him for it-was that it was "better to be in jail in America than a free man in most other countries."

Eldridge did go to jail for a couple of years for the shootout and fleeing the country. When he came out, he embarked on a journey that would produce many incarnations-Moonie, Christian, Republican. I listened for news of him as he became a recycler, a prophet, a political candidate, a buffoon. The conventional radical wisdom was that he suffered from a bisected life. The first part-into prison and then into the revolution-was seen as an exemplary journey of our time. But nobody on the left made the same assumption about the leftover life Eldridge lived after coming home. What happened after 1975 was bogus: there are no second acts in American lives.

It was confusing. He was always a con man, always seizing the main chance. Did he believe any of the protestations he made, either as a revolutionary or as a pilgrim? It is hard to tell. Yet I always thought that what happened in his afterlife in America-a time when his soul was in thaw-was at least as interesting as what happened when he first burst on the scene back in 1967 and that it was a shame nobody told his story.

There's a tiny slice of that story in the attached letter. Early in 1976 Washington attorney James Guirard, hearing that Cleaver was in jail, sent him a copy of a long philosophical essay he had written to Solzhenitsyn some time earlier about the failure of dialectical materialism. He hadn't gotten an answer from the exiled Russian writer and didn't expect one from the black revolutionary. But three months later, Cleaver replied with the following note which shows why he became an embarrassment to his old comrades and an enigma to the rest of us.


Peter Collier co-authored seven books with David Horowitz, including the widely read Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the ‘60s. He is also the author of many other books including, biographies on the Fords, Rockefellers, and Kennedys.


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