Eldridge Cleaver was a man who made a significant imprint on our times, and not for the best. But I mourn his passing nonetheless.
I first met Eldridge when he was Ramparts magazines most famous and most bloodthirsty ex-con. "Im perfectly aware that Im in prison, that Im a Negro, that Ive been a rapist," he wrote in a notorious epistle that Ramparts published. "My answer to all such thoughts lurking in their split-level heads, crouching behind their squinting bombaridier eyes, is that the blood of Vietnamese peasants has paid off all my debts." This became an iconographic comment for the times, a ready excuse for all the destructive acts radicals like us committed.
No one doubted that Eldridge was the most articulate and colorful tribune of the Black Panther vanguard. But what he most articulated was a limitless, radical rage. Eldridge was indeed a rapist, and possibly a murderer as well (he boasted to Timothy Leary, whom he held hostage in his Algerian exile, that he even had a private graveyard for his enemies). It was Eldridge who accused Panther leader Huey Newton of betraying the radical cause when Newton reversed his famous summons to "pick up the gun" and begin the revolution. Eldridge split the Panthers and became spiritual godfather to the Black Liberation Army and other violent revolutionary factions.
In the 70s and 80s Eldridge had a change of heart, or rather many changes of heart. He became a Moonie, and then a Christian, and a Republican. Those of us who knew him, saw these various incarnations as a political street hustle, designed to secure new support systems for an extraordinary individual who lacked a moral center. Still, it took a certain courage and integrity to tell even a part of the truth. It meant, for example, detaching himself from the radical gravy train, which was just beginning to cash in on the criminal past. His Panther comrades David Hilliard, Bobby Seale, and Elaine Brown were busily taking advantage of a national false memory syndrome which recalled the Panthers not as the street thugs they were but as heroes of a civil-rights struggle they had openly despised. (In their heyday, Panther leaders liked to outrage their white supporters by referring to its leader as "Martin Luther Coon.") On campus lecture tours, in Hollywood films, and in a series of well-hyped books celebrated by institutions like the New York Times and the Washington Post, they rewrote their own past to fit the legend.
But Eldridge chose the lonely and more honest course of admitting what he had done. His most famous encounter with the law had been a shootout that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. In this episode, an 18-year old Panther named Bobby Hutton was killed. It quickly became a famous martyrdom for the New Left, and a ritual occasion to attack the repressive and racist power structure that had victimized black militants. In an interview with reporter Kate Coleman more than a decade later, however, Eldridge revealed that he had ordered Party members to "assassinate" police as a "retaliation" for the King murder, and that he himself had participated in an armed ambush which left two San Francisco police officers wounded. This was why the police were chasing Eldridge when the shooting occurred. Eldridges revelation took greater courage than has been shown by other New Left leaders who know these facts but have denied them ever since.
It was during his last televised interview on 60 Minutes earlier this year that Eldridge won my final respect. Quiet-spoken, as he had never been in his public life, sober, bespectacled and fully grey, he discussed what appeared at last to be truly felt convictions, not designed for anyone but himself. He said that when you looked at this country as compared to others that human beings had created, it was remarkably good to people like himself, and to minorities generally, a fact he had not appreciated when he was young. He said: "If people had listened to Huey Newton and me in the 1960s, there would have been a holocaust in this country." The interviewer didnt even notice the significance of the remark. But I did. Here is the beginning of any real understanding of what the radical left and its Black Panther vanguard were about in the Sixties. For coming to this knowledge, Eldridge paid a profound price. In a world where it is so difficult to get a purchase on the truth, we should all be thankful to him for providing us with one.