Friday, August 1, 2014
"Ex-Panther Eldridge Cleaver: 'I Just Wish I Could Be Born Again Every Day'"
by Donn Downing from 1976-10-25 "People" magazine V.6 N.17
Eldridge Cleaver was once considered the most impassioned black militant of all. He was "Minister of Information" of the Black Panther party during its rampaging heyday. His 1968 book, Soul on Ice, was probably the definitive expression of black rage—a searing account of rapes he committed, prisons he endured and ghettos that taught him violence. But that Eldridge Cleaver is no more. Eleven months ago he returned from seven years of fugitive exile in Cuba, Algeria, China, Russia, North Korea, North Vietnam and France. He faces six counts of assault with intent to kill, arising from a shootout in 1968 with Oakland, Calif. police. Now 41 and living in the Bay Area with his wife, Kathleen, and their two children, Cleaver has made a remarkable political and personal turnabout. He says he had a powerful religious experience in the South of France last year that led to his return. One night he saw faces in the moon—his own, then Castro's, then Chairman Mao's and, finally, the face of Christ. He began to weep uncontrollably and recited the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. Cleaver talked recently about his transformation with Donn Downing for PEOPLE:
People magazine: Would you describe yourself now as a born-again Christian?
Eldridge Cleaver: The label doesn't bother me. I just wish I could be born again every day. The Lord showed me the way back home. I had a stereophonic experience, and I was not the same. From being confused I knew clearly what to do. From being depressed I was elated. I saw my way out of a blind alley.
People magazine: Are you referring to your life with your family in exile?
Eldridge Cleaver: Yes, my whole life was at a dead end. As far as children and family were concerned, the stresses and strains of our life abroad were intolerable.
People magazine: In what way?
Eldridge Cleaver: At first I was trying to force Kathleen to leave me. I knew it would be better for her and the children in the U.S. I could only deal with that if I got mad at her. And it was the same with her. She couldn't do it unless I drove her to it. So I was doing that, but it was not something I wanted. That is where the depression came in. I really felt trapped.
People magazine: It's been reported you were disillusioned with life in Communist nations.
Eldridge Cleaver: I found the bureaucratic arrogance in those countries tyrannical. Members of the Communist party were the most disgusting, hypocritical, phony, see-through kind of people—bureaucrats playing the same little games of power, juice and connections that you find everywhere. But they are worse in those countries because they aren't accountable to anybody except their own little clique.
People magazine: Some of your old friends denounce you as a right-winger. How much have your politics changed?
Eldridge Cleaver: I have the same criticisms of this country. I think my criticisms are even more to the point, more surgical. But I am interested in resolving any differences that can be resolved with people on the right. One of the things I agree with them about is the need for a guaranteed defense. The Russians are dangerous. They've got rockets that can reach Mars too. We cannot fall into a slumber that assumes there can be no more Pearl Harbors.
People magazine: Where do you think your old political allies have gone wrong?
Eldridge Cleaver: A lot of people were born into a situation of criticism, of strife and anti-Americanism. They went through grammar school, high school and college when their parents and peers were talking about the United States as the worst place in the world. Well, I think that's going overboard. There are still people running around this country with the red book [Quotations from Chairman Mao]. You don't even see much of that in China anymore. People here are talking about Fidel Castro as some revolutionary god. The Cuban people call him a big fat pig. The left have to disabuse themselves of some of their political icons.
People magazine: How do you feel about your alienation from the political left?
Eldridge Cleaver: I'm glad to be able to give people on the left nightmares. Last time it was people on the right.
People magazine: You recently met with Charles Colson, the White House aide who helped wage the Nixon administration's war on the left and who has since had his own spiritual conversion. How did that go?
Eldridge Cleaver: Before the meeting, I was sure that I would not like him. But then I read his book [Born Again] and I was impressed. The guy is really okay. He comes through as a human being. I've seen him a couple of times, and I consider him a friend and a brother in Christ. Billy Graham was another one of those people I never particularly wanted to meet. But I was happy and honored that he took the time to talk to me.
People magazine: How do you account for all this mellowing toward Establishment figures?
Eldridge Cleaver: I used to have the attitude that people were out to do me in on a physical level. That is why I used to relate to guns a lot. But I tell you, ever since that strange experience, I haven't met a person I didn't like. I haven't. It might be some kind of failure. Maybe some tubes and fuses were blown.
People magazine: And what about your future? Are you going to undertake some sort of Christian activist crusade?
Eldridge Cleaver: I have no plans like that. I picture myself as a writer and speaker and that is what I will do. If that constitutes a crusade, then it's just another of what must be a million crusades in this country. I just participate in the whole marketplace of ideas.
"Black Panthers No More, Eldridge & Kathleen Cleaver Now Lionize the U.S. System"
by Lynne Baranski, Richard Lemon from 1982-03-22 "People" magazine V.17 N.11 [http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20081725,00.html]:
Some in the audience at Yale's Afro-American Cultural Center last month were dismayed. Here was a top black militant of the '60s—ex-Minister of Information of the Black Panthers, incendiary author, ex-fugitive and current parolee—and he was talking like the Establishment. Dressed in a three-piece suit, guest speaker Eldridge Cleaver was calling the U.S. "the most democratic country" and urging blacks to work within the system. There were groans in the SRO crowd, but Cleaver's wife, Kathleen, once a Panther herself and now a student at Yale, applauded fervently.
If the author of the 1968 polemic Soul on Ice and the 1978 autobiography Soul on Fire were to write a new book, it might be Souls in Mainstream. On his return in 1975 from seven years of self-exile in Cuba, Algeria and France, Cleaver faced multiple criminal charges (including attempted murder). Today, at 46, the onetime revolutionary no longer walks on the wild side. Says Earl Anthony, an ex-Panther who is now an L.A. playwright: "Eldridge changed from one of the most vicious dudes against the system into a person who is reaching out. He's become a nice human being." Anthony rejects claims by other ex-Panthers that Cleaver's change of heart stems from a deal struck in return for leniency in the courts. (He was convicted on an assault charge only and sentenced to 2,000 hours of community service, since cut to 1,200 hours.) "Eldridge believes what he says," Anthony insists. Henry Gates, an assistant professor working on Yale's Eldridge Cleaver Archives, which will contain the ex-Panther's writings, adds: "He has the sophistication to shed his skin when it's worn out."
Kathleen's evolution has been equally dramatic. In her Panther days, she says, "The party line was all I wanted to talk about." But at 36, she is a relaxed junior with an A average and plans for law school. Her new philosophy, she says, is the one she was raised on—"that you should be generous and kind, you shouldn't shoot and steal, you shouldn't lie." She adds: "All revolutionaries lie."
Since Kathleen moved to New Haven last August with the couple's son, Maceo, 12, and daughter, Joju, 11, Eldridge has been baching it in San Jose. He works for a Mormon who operates a tree service, and lives in a house shared by nine other employees. Cleaver himself has become a Mormon investigator—which means he's learning about the church, but hasn't yet been baptized. He's writing a book about evangelicals, building a business of design flowerpots, and fulfilling his sentence by, among other things, helping the handicapped.
Kathleen is less bothered by their separation than Eldridge. "Marriage is more interesting if you spend some time apart," she claims. She is also busy studying (on a full scholarship) for a B.A. in history, writing her autobiography, working at the Connecticut Afro-American Historical Society, and caring for the kids. Often she labors in her kitchen past midnight writing course papers. "Being a single parent is a negative," she admits. "But Yale is everything I wanted." While she will graduate in 1983, Eldridge will have a commencement of sorts this June when he completes his sentence. "It will be the first time in 33 years he's not been embroiled in the California criminal justice system," Kathleen notes.
Eldridge was born in Arkansas, moved to Phoenix when his father, Leroy, became a dining car waiter, but essentially grew up in L.A. His parents separated when he was 13. He went to a reformatory a year later for bicycle theft, and was soon sent back for selling marijuana. Then, at 18, came a two-and-a-half-year term in Soledad prison for possession of marijuana. That was his first felony conviction, and one of the few past episodes about which he remains bitter. Possession of small amounts of pot was later made a misdemeanor in California.
He resumed hustling drugs and, as he once wrote, became a rapist who "started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto." A 1958 conviction for assault on a white woman got him nine years in prison, where he wrote the impassioned essays on black pride and power that were published as Soul on Ice. After his 1966 parole he joined the fledgling Panthers.
Kathleen's road to radicalism was far different. Her father, Ernest Neal, was a sociology professor at Tuskegee who became a Foreign Service officer. She grew up in India, the Philippines, Liberia and Sierra Leone. "I was happy and protected," she recalls. She spent a year at Oberlin, went on to Barnard, then dropped out to become an idealistic volunteer worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It was at SNCC's Nashville office that she first encountered Cleaver in 1967.
"It was a meeting of the spirit," Kathleen says. "I was becoming a revolutionary and I was impressed by his statesmanlike quality." She was also awed by the galleys of Soul on Ice that he let her read. For Cleaver it was "love at first sight." Her family objected, but they married nine months later.
Cleaver was so angry in those days that he was even scorned by the Panthers' Supreme Commander, Huey Newton, for antagonizing the black community. Eldridge concedes he felt "there was no hope of effecting real freedom within the capitalistic system. I was the guy who demanded we go down shooting." Kathleen recalls how "the Panthers were serious and meant to die"—as at least 19 did in the '60s. She adds: "It was exhilarating in a way, believing what we were doing would alter history. But it was also terrible—people getting killed."
Four months after the wedding, Cleaver and two policemen were wounded in an Oakland shootout in which another Panther was killed. Eldridge fled to Cuba, Algiers (where Kathleen joined him), then Paris. Maceo was born in Algiers and Joju on a visit to North Korea. From Hanoi, Cleaver urged U.S. soldiers in South Vietnam to assassinate their commanders. Through it all, Kathleen fondly called him "Papa Rage." But gradually they found Marxist solutions both oppressive and ineffective. Eldridge derides Cuba's system as "voodoo socialism," and says North Korea and Algeria are "even worse, because they have been doing it longer."
Though Kathleen found exile "awful," the marriage survived. "Boredom tears apart more marriages than pressure," Eldridge says. Kathleen adds, "If you can handle the fact that you might be killed any minute, you can handle a lot." There were storms over Eldridge's affairs in his Panther days. "He had groupies," she says. "In a revolutionary situation it's hard to follow Christian morality. Now he's a reformed husband." To which Cleaver responds, with a laugh: "Kathleen is beautiful, sincere, very intelligent—and a little too moral for me."
Cleaver's legal bills totaled more than $350,000, much of it paid by donations. "It's cheaper to be conservative," Kathleen jokes. "I decided to go to law school to make use of the experience I had gained dealing with lawyers." Eldridge has tried to make ends meet by writing, lecturing and—at one point—designing men's pants with a codpiece (they didn't sell). He has vigorously pursued religion; before embracing Mormonism, he led a Cleaver Crusade for Christ and was baptized by a lay evangelical in a California pool where Esther Williams once performed. He enjoys "rescuing" copies of Soul on Ice from secondhand stores to give to friends, and strongly denies he's "mellowed." "That implies your ideas have changed because of age," he says. "I've changed because of new conclusions."
As for his kids, "I want them to educate themselves," the onetime Papa Rage says. "I would like Maceo to be a lawyer or a general, a revolutionary in the sense that he will continue to do the work that has been done from generation to generation, improving the conditions of people and being a source of freedom."
"Former Panther Eldridge Cleaver: A Relic With A Cause"
by John Hughes from 1998-05-03 "The Orange County Register" newspaper [http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19980503&slug=2748475]:
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.
But: "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.")
`An elder' -
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.