|Leroy Eldridge Cleaver
(8/31/1935 to 5/1/1998)
Remembering Eldridge Cleaver
* By: Larry Walker, Jr. *
“Right-wing conservatives and left-wing radicals here in the U.S. must be willing and able to sit down at the same table, look across the table at each other and see not an enemy, a target or a statistic, but a brother, a sister, a fellow American, another child of God. We must expand our hearts and enlarge our identity beyond ‘my people’ to include and embrace all of Creation.” ~ Eldridge Cleaver
In the late 1960’s, after leading a troubled youth, Leroy Eldridge Cleaver became a prominent member of the Black Panthers. Having held the titles Minister of Information, Head of the International Section of the Panthers while in exile in Cuba and Algeria, and as editor of the official Panther’s newspaper, Cleaver’s influence on the direction of the Party was rivaled only by founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.
Cleaver and Huey Newton eventually fell out with each other over the necessity of armed struggle as a response to the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program and other actions by the government against the Black Panthers and other radical groups. While Cleaver advocated the escalation of armed resistance into urban guerilla warfare, Newton suggested the best way to respond was to put down the guns, which he felt alienated the Panthers from the rest of the Black community, and focus on more pragmatic reformist activity.
In 1968, Cleaver was shot during an ambush he initiated against Oakland police officers, in which fellow Black Panther member Bobby Hutton was killed and two police officers were injured. Charged with attempted murder, he jumped bail and fled to Cuba and later to Algeria. Following Timothy Leary’s Weather Underground assisted prison escape, Leary stayed with Cleaver in Algeria; however, Cleaver placed Leary under “revolutionary arrest” as a counter-revolutionary for promoting drug use. Cleaver later fled Algeria and went underground in France.
Cleaver returned to the United States in 1975, having become a born again Christian, and renouncing his ultra-radical past. The charge of attempted murder, stemming from the armed Panther attack on Oakland police in 1968, ended in Cleaver being sentenced to probation for assault. In the late 1970’s, he joined the Mormon Church of Latter-day Saints. Once his probation ended, he was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on December 11, 1983. He periodically attended regular services, lectured by invitation at LDS gatherings, and was a member of the church in good standing at the time of his death in 1998.
Cleaver argued that the Mormons were among the few religious groups who, as an entity, did not propagate slavery. He simply found the claims that the Church was a “racist institution” to be unconvincing. Furthermore, Cleaver identified with Joseph Smith and with the ideas of a literal relationship to God as children, not as creations. He appreciated how seriously Mormonism took the written scripture.
Along with Cleaver’s theological conversion came a political conversion. By the 1980s, Cleaver had become a conservative Republican. He appeared at various Republican events and spoke at a California Republican State Central Committee meeting regarding his political transformation. He began lecturing on college campuses, promoting conservative issues and campaigned for then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. In 1984 Cleaver ran for election to the Berkeley City Council but lost. Undaunted, he promoted his candidacy in the Republican Party primary for the 1986 Senate race but was again defeated.
Eldridge Cleaver’s journey, in his own words:
“I embarked upon a search to try to find out what was the truth. That led me to checking out all different kinds of religions. Because I knew that there must be some truth out there somewhere. But I found out that every time I went and checked out a religion or a sect or a denomination or a cult, people started calling me by names. I thought I’d better go check out the Mormons, so I went and studied their material, their doctrine. And People started calling me a Mormon… And then I went and checked out the Moonies to see what Rev. Moon was talking about. But I tell you, I was very reluctant, because after following Mao Tse Tung, and Ho Chi Ming, and Kim El Sun, I wasn’t ready for another great wise man from the East. And I said ‘Hey, I’m not a Moonie, I’m not a Mormon, I just got to the M’s!’
“You know, it’s a logical progression, it’s a metamorphosis. And what I found was that my heart was growing, I became more and more inclusive to be able to relate to more and more people on this planet.”
“I used to be a Marxist and I used to think all our problems were economic and political. But at the end of the day I found out that our main problems are spiritual problems. Because the connection between people and between Creation and the creator is not a political connection, it’s not an economic connection, it’s a spiritual connection. Your creator lays down markers in your life—you don’t know what all this is happening for.”
“A lot of people said I sold out. The biggest drug dealer in Oakland said to me: ‘You know, you flipped out, man.’ I said, ‘No I flipped back in.’” ~ Eldridge Cleaver
I can identify with Mr. Cleaver on several levels, although my life has been somewhat less dramatic. I grew up in the era. I was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1960. My father was a pioneer in the day, he was just completing his Master’s Degree when I came along. In 1964, my family headed for California, where we resided about 80 miles from Oakland. I remember the times. I remember the struggle.
Cleaver’s transformation was similar to my own. When my eyes finally opened, I came to know that, “… we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12).” Once I understood, I embarked upon my own spiritual journey. I ran with the Baptists, the Pentecostals, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Christian Scientists, then back to the Pentecostals. I just never made it to the M’s, yet.
In the early 1980’s, I too became a Reagan Conservative. Groupthink forever ceased to be my forte. Freedom requires an open mind. ‘The connection between people and between Creation and the creator is not a political connection, it’s not an economic connection, it’s a spiritual connection.’ I choose to live free. Today, I am an independent conservative, I am Christian, I am American, I’m Black, and I’m proud.
“If a man like Malcolm X could change and repudiate racism, if I myself and other former Muslims can change, if young whites can change, then there is hope for America.” – Soul on Ice – by Eldridge Cleaver
Right On, Eldridge, Right On!
One Journey Home: Eldridge Cleaver’s Spiritual Path ~ by Linda Neale
From Black Panther to Mormon: The Case of Eldridge Cleaver ~ Mormon Matters
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA