Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998) was an enigma. The former Black Panther, revolutionary and author was also a murderer, rapist, latter-day Born Again Republican and laughingstock clothes designer. Justin Gifford’s new biography of Cleaver sets the record straight, neither minimizing nor excusing the “monster” inside him but also giving him his due as a charismatic organizer and brilliant writer, helped immeasurably by two women—Beverly Axelrod (with whom he wrote Soul on Ice) and his wife, Kathleen. Richie Unterberger spoke with Gifford for PKM.
“We cannot understand the story of modern America—with all of its racist violence and struggles for radical egalitarianism—without understanding the story of Eldridge Cleaver,” writes Justin Gifford in his new biography Revolution or Death—The Life of Eldridge Cleaver (Lawrence Hill Books). Cleaver’s was a life rife with contradictions and oppositions, much like the country was when Cleaver rocketed into fame in the late 1960s, and much like it is today.
In 1968, Cleaver’s autobiographical Soul on Ice was hailed as a searing articulation of racial injustice, intertwined then as now with the systemic injustice of prison life and the society that led many Black men there. It sold two million copies in a few years, and made the New York Times Top Ten books of the year.
“He is an authentically gifted prose stylist capable of evoking picturesque images and fiery moods,” enthused Time magazine. “Soul on Ice is a collection of impassioned letters and heated essays lamenting the fact that American ‘negritude’ has been forced to cool it for too long: the book points prophetically and menacingly at the new world that had better be coming soon.”
Yet Cleaver also, as Gifford readily notes when I speak with him in early 2021, “raped women when he was young, killed one of his friends, turned his back on people, intimidated political allies.” Even before he vaulted into the public eye with Soul on Ice little more than a year after getting paroled from prison, his activism as a Black Panther leader put him under surveillance from the FBI and harassment from local police. By the end of 1968 he’d fled the country for Cuba, and then Algeria and France, before destitution forced his return to the United States to give himself up to American authorities.
His story took what many viewed as baffling turns in the last couple decades of his life. He embraced born-again Christianity and right-wing politics. He ran for city council in Berkeley, one of the most liberal towns in the country, as a hardcore conservative Republican; a couple years later, he ran in the California Republican primary for the US Senate. He had affiliations, if fairly short ones, with the Unification Church and the Mormon faith. He struggled with drug and legal problems for much of his final years before dying, largely forgotten by the general public, in 1998.
How to make sense of a journey that not only took such a jagged path, but also was hazily documented at many of its critical junctures? Gifford interviewed some of Cleaver’s closest surviving associates, including Eldridge’s wife, Kathleen, and Beverly Axelrod, the lawyer who was instrumental in both gaining Cleaver’s parole and helping polish and publish Soul on Ice. He also visited no less than fifteen archives around the country, Algeria, and France; accessed prison records and numerous personal letters; and even read several of Cleaver’s unfinished novels. Meticulously researched, the book delivers a portrait of an enormously volatile character with succinct clarity and balance.
Eldridge Cleaver holds his own against William F. Buckley, the pope of pomposity, Nov. 1968:
Cleaver in Prison
After a difficult childhood in which he endured an abusive father and was largely raised by his mother, Cleaver landed in reform school near Los Angeles in his early teens. After 15 arrests, he was sentenced to his first prison term in Soledad for selling marijuana in 1954, aged just 18. He spent most of the next 12 years in California prisons in Soledad, San Quentin, and Folsom, convicted of two counts of assault with a deadly weapon and three counts of assault with intent to commit murder.
Even as he failed to gain parole time and again, Cleaver was devoting much of his jail term to self-improvement. He was a voracious reader of both literature and political theory, including work by Marx, Lenin, and Machiavelli. Inspired by Caryl Chessman—the San Quentin Death Row inmate who published four books before his execution in May 1960—Cleaver taught himself as much as could about the law in an effort to end his incarceration. It’s apparent from his letters from the early 1960s that Cleaver was developing into an articulate (if sometimes overly verbose) writer of obvious intelligence.
It’s striking, however, how thoroughly those qualities were ignored by reports and evaluations from prison authorities. In vocational examinations at Soledad as a teenager, he scored “low on mental ability”; on a San Quentin intelligence test, “he scored a low average.” Psychiatric tests, according to his San Quentin records, “suggest that he has become somewhat overidentified with the passive, feminine approach,” predicting he would accept “supervision in a mild and placid manner.”
Gifford, an associate professor English literature at the University of Nevada in Reno, knew something of prison culture before writing his Cleaver biography. He’s the author of Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim, documenting the life of a writer who also served time in prison, though Iceberg Slim’s most famous for the multi-million-selling memoir Pimp. He also teaches literature at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center. Does he feel systemic racism in the penal system accounts for the discrepancy between reports and reality?
“The characterizations of Cleaver as passive, it’s like this really bullshitty armchair psychoanalysis that gets specifically geared toward black men in prison in the 1950s,” he responds. “They’re wedded to this discourse that these men who grow up under single black mothers are somehow feminized. That seems to be something that pervades the narrative of these prison psychologists.
“In my book about Iceberg Slim, I also have a lot of prison chapters in which a lot of the same things turn up. Cleaver and Slim both are these brilliant writers and thinkers, but you don’t see it at all in the prison reporting. They just see what they want to see in those reports. It’s like no matter what he does, they continue to tell this story about how he’s pathological, he’s passive. It’s because of the pervasive racism of the time. Not only from the prison officials, but also from the psychiatrists, and even the medical professionals.
“Cleaver has his own problems, and I’m not here to excuse any of the things that he does in his lifetime. But if you chart his course over the time he’s in prison, he tried everything he can to capitulate to their demands, and what they tell him he needs to do for parole.” Although it should be noted that even at this stage, activism was getting him in hot water with authorities. As documented in the book, he was transferred from San Quentin to Folsom in 1963 as “officials had grown wary of Cleaver’s influence among the Muslims, so they decided to send him to a prison where he had no clout.”
Adds Gifford in our interview, “And they still don’t believe him when he’s in there for five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven years. Finally he’s just like, ‘I’ve got to figure out a different way out of here.’ Which is when he turns to Beverly Axelrod and Soul On Ice.”
Beverly Axelrod, Soul on Ice, and Parole
In May 1965, Cleaver sent his first letter to Axelrod, a white Jewish lawyer about ten years his senior. She’d represented Cesar Chavez and Jerry Rubin, and came to Eldridge’s attention when he saw a photo of her in the San Francisco Hall of Justice with one of her black clients. Over the next year and a half, they struck up an increasingly intense professional relationship, and not only in their quest to gain his release from prison.
Axelrod also edited much of what became Soul on Ice, going as far as to, according to the book, “cut up over fifty pages of their letters into pieces and then [paste] them back together into a publishable form.” She found an agent for him and was key to getting a contract for the book from McGraw-Hill. As revealed in correspondence bulging with intimate details, at the same time an intense romance was blossoming between the pair. As she told Lani Kask, “If I had to pose naked on the middle of Broadway” for Cleaver, “I would have done it.”
Eldridge and Beverly made plans to marry, moving in together in San Francisco after he was finally released on parole from Soledad in December 1966. But shortly afterward he moved out, and their relationship ended just a few months later. Yet even three years after the breakup, when an exiled Cleaver was sorely in need of cash, he remained loyal to the agreement they’d made for her to get 25% of the royalties from Soul to Ice. (A couple years later, he did try to call off the deal, Axelrod winning a royalties case against Cleaver in 1979.)
Gifford was able to access about 2,000 pages of letters between the couple, as well as interviews Lani Kask taped with Axelrod, Cleaver, and others about their relationship for a projected Axelrod biography. “I think most people think of Axelrod as someone who just got hoodwinked by Cleaver,” he observes. “That he was like this master manipulator, and just used her to get out of prison. I do not subscribe to this opinion at all given what I saw in those letters. In Cleaver, I see someone who’s a deeply invested and emotional person. He fell in love with Axelrod and did in fact plan to marry her.
“When he got out of prison and hooked up with the Black Panthers, his life totally changed. It was clear that he wasn’t going to be able to lead this movement and also be married to a white woman. So as he put it in one of his autobiographies, he had to ease out on Axelrod. Which broke her heart.” The Panthers, incidentally, weren’t the only ones who might have frowned upon the relationship. “Why do you have to marry an old white woman?,” his mother asked him when Cleaver introduced Axelrod to his family at Christmas in 1966.
“It’s a really tragic story, full of all sorts of love and pathos,” continues Gifford. “I think that’s one of the things that makes Cleaver such a complicated figure. He’s not just some con man. He’s a guy who’s really full of emotion. That relationship with Axelrod really does show that.”
And, as Gifford emphasizes, by the beginning of the 1970s, Cleaver and his family and followers were “destitute in this foreign country where there’s no resources. They have no opportunity for any sort of income. And even then, he remains loyal. Not even to her, but to her memory. He has no contact with her at all, and he’s still refusing to withhold the royalties from her. He betrays basically virtually everyone else, and refuses to do that to her until really the eleventh hour, where there is no other choice, and they’re like totally destitute.”
Meeting The Black Panthers and Kathleen Cleaver
Around the time he was splitting from Axelrod, Cleaver became involved with the Black Panthers, who’d recently formed in Oakland. His work with the Black Panther Party would soon spark legal troubles that led him to flee the country, even as Soul on Ice was gaining mass attention. Could he have settled into a law-abiding life as a writer outside of prison had he not crossed paths with the Panthers?
Muses Gifford, “From essentially his Soul on Ice in prison days onward, where he’s writing to Axelrod and to other editors at Ramparts, he keeps saying, ‘I keep feeling pulled in two directions. I feel pulled in the direction of wanting to be a writer, and I feel that I’m being pulled in the direction of being a race leader.’ On the one hand, growing up, his mother was always trying to pressure him to become like a Thurgood Marshall, or a W.E.B. Du Bois, or a Booker T. Washington. She wanted him to become a leader of the race.
“Malcolm X was the leader he wanted to be. On the other hand, he gets to prison, and he’s also drawn to literature. He starts reading in earnest when he’s 18, and is really drawn to reading and writing as a kind of way out of his criminal behavior [and] criminal pursuits.
“These two things stand in tension with one another throughout his time in prison, and especially when he gets out of prison. I think that he was constantly looking for something that would allow him to do both. The Panthers had really given an opportunity to express both parts of that.
“What was kind of tragic about Cleaver is that he was never satisfied entirely with either thing. He wasn’t entirely satisfied with just being an author, because he felt like political action needed to happen. He really believed in the armed liberation of black people, more so than I think even Huey Newton. But he also believed in the power of literature, as cheesy as that sounds. It’s something that was deeply important to him, and deeply mattered to him. And it was something that he couldn’t quite reconcile.
“And you see this in the Panthers. He writes Soul on Ice, and it comes out in February of ’68. And in April of ’68, two months later, he’s shooting up Oakland police officers in the hopes of starting an insurrection that will sweep across the country, in all the inner cities in the country, and like start a national revolution. So I think that for Cleaver, this was a kind of unresolved tension that even if the Panthers weren’t an organization that he associated himself with, he would have found a way to express these parts of himself no matter what.”
His new girlfriend, Kathleen Neal, also immersed herself in Panther life, the pair marrying shortly after Christmas 1967. “What becomes really clear is that she is the backbone of the organizational and administrative portion of the party,” asserts Gifford, who spent a couple summers in Atlanta researching Kathleen Cleaver’s material.
He really believed in the armed liberation of black people, more so than I think even Huey Newton. But he also believed in the power of literature, as cheesy as that sounds.
At UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, “There was a whole box of her logs of all the daily tasks she’s doing. It’s everything from getting on the phone with Huey Newton to discuss party business, translating Angela Davis’s autobiography into French, meeting with diplomats from China and North Korea. Plus domestic tasks, like taking care of the various children that are living on the compound in the International Section” of the Panthers in Algeria.
“The real hero of the Cleaver biography is actually Kathleen in many ways. She should get more credit for really creating and promoting this radical wing of the Black Panther Party, starting in 1968. Without her, there would be no Eldridge Cleaver. I think that’s something that the public really doesn’t see and understand.
“She doesn’t want to take any credit for anything. She just wants to do the good work of the struggle for Black people. I felt like this book was an important opportunity for me to try to shed some light on her contribution.” Although his book doesn’t ignore the unfortunate, and numerous, instances in which Eldridge physically abused Kathleen. These were foreshadowed shortly after they met when, as Gifford writes, Cleaver “ominously held his thumb and pointer finger up to his forehead about an inch apart and told her, ‘I’m about this far away from being crazy.’”
Cleaver and the FBI
By the end of 1967, Cleaver was becoming a leader in the Black Panther Party, getting appointed Minister of Information. As Soul on Ice was published in late February 1968, FBI agents were already on his trail, opening his mail and following him when he visited jailed Panther co-founder Huey Newton. In April, he was part of an armed battle between several Panthers and Oakland police, losing his parole and getting indicted on three counts each of attempted murder and assault.
Freed on $50,000 bail, he ran for U.S. president as the nominee of the Peace and Freedom Party. If anything, he turned up the heat with speeches at which he urged crowds to “stop killing other niggers and start killing police” and “shoot some of these prosecuting attorneys.” Asked at one speech what white people could do to help oppressed blacks, he responded, “Kill some other white people.”
I ask Gifford whether the same kind of righteous rage that fueled Soul on Ice was hard for Cleaver to tone down, at least enough to escape further imprisonment and violent conflict, as the Establishment bore down on the Panthers. “As that organization unfolds, what you see is increasing violent pressure coming from the FBI and local law enforcement on the organization,” he explains. “So much that they have to make decisions about how they’re going to change.
“For instance, in 1967, it’s still legal in California to walk around with an armed shotgun on the street. They’re doing armed patrol of the police officers. So Black Panthers can drive up to a cop on the street who’s arresting a Black man, and from a distance stand there with a loaded weapon, and observe and read sections from the penal code to make sure that everything is going according to the law.
“The Mulford Act, in July of ’67, basically prohibits the carrying of shotguns and weapons in urban areas in California. Suddenly they can’t do that anymore. The Panthers have all of this justifiable rage and virulent critique of the police, of capitalism. So the question is like, what are they gonna do? Well, the response becomes more militant, and [Cleaver] starts to build an underground organization of Panthers. He wants to eventually have them create a kind of insurrectionary force in the United States.
“As the FBI and the police put the screws on them, the Panthers start to splinter into a number of different kinds of responses. The Newton-Bobby Seale section of the party creates the more community program, like the [free] breakfast program [for children]. They go more toward the reformist part of the party. Cleaver’s response is the most insurrectionary and violent, and that just simply cannot survive. It just gets ground down and ground down, until finally it just dissolves by the mid-‘70s.”
The real hero of the Cleaver biography is actually Kathleen in many ways. She should get more credit for really creating and promoting this radical wing of the Black Panther Party, starting in 1968. Without her, there would be no Eldridge Cleaver.
Maybe FBI harassment was to be expected given the controversial, to say the least, content of Cleaver’s public statements. However, in Gifford’s view, it was inevitable after an incident predating the shootout with the police by almost a full year. When thirty Panthers entered California’s state capitol in Sacramento in May 1967 with shotguns and rifles (albeit pointed in the air or at the ground) to protest the Mulford Act, Cleaver was there on assignment from Ramparts magazine.
“As soon as they stormed that Capitol building, it was over,” Gifford states. “That’s the truth. Cleaver wasn’t even carrying a gun that day. He went in there with cameras because he was on parole. But as soon as he walked into that building with the rest of those Panthers onto the chamber floor and read the protest of the Mulford act, they put him on the agitator list and had the FBI surveilling him basically from then on. Into the ‘80s, at least.
“I still think we can underestimate the degree to which the FBI’s efforts was responsible for the destruction of the Panthers. People talk about the Panthers splintering, and Huey Newton being a crazy ass—doing cocaine, pistol-whipping people, and owning this nightclub called the Lamp Post. And he did. I’ve done interviews with people where they’re describing stories where Newton is off his rocker as much as Cleaver. They’re both like these two crazy people who are essentially carrying the party down with their kind of personal issues, and personal pathologies.
“But that all comes out of the context of the FBI…I mean, they put tons of resources into destroying the Panthers. They chased Cleaver all over the globe in order to make sure that that organization did not work, did not thrive. I think that we can’t just say ‘Oh, the Panthers just kind of fell apart.’ I think they were destroyed by the FBI. The FBI did the work to make sure that organization didn’t make it. And they were successful.”
Fleeing the United States
Just a few weeks after getting about 36,000 votes as a Peace and Freedom presidential candidate, and just a month after signing a $25,000 contract for a new book on black power, Cleaver faced a likely return to prison on November 27. He considered making a last stand in a public police shootout at Oakland’s Merritt College, even going as far as studying blueprints of underground tunnels. He also stockpiled guns, gas masks, and medical supplies. But when the day arrived, he was en route to Cuba, flying first to New York in disguise on a wheelchair, and then to Montreal, where he stowed away on a Cuba-bound freighter.
Did he realistically expect to take on the police in an Oakland shootout, or was it bluster? Speculates Gifford, “His time in prison with rapists, thieves, and murderers convinced him that these are the folks that can be turned from petty criminals into the political vanguard. Marx himself did not believe that that was possible. He thought that the lumpen [proletariat] were like a lost cause. But Frantz Fanon, who kind of theorized about Algerian struggles [in his 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth, which Cleaver read in San Quentin], believed that the lumpen were actually at the forefront of the Algerian people in their fight against the French.
“Cleaver, reading this in prison, believed, I actually think, that the prisoners in here operate in the same way. He saw a parallel between the kind of prisoner consciousness in the African-American guys that he served with in the prison, and the various peasants that lived in the Algerian countryside, who were struggling against French colonialism.
“From that perspective, I don’t think that it was pure fantasyland. Cleaver had entered prison at 18, and had really known nothing else until he got out at the age of 30. If your entire twenties is spent in an institution, that’s all you know and what you’re going to believe. I think to some degree, it was idealistic. But then again, so was decolonization.
“So I think he really applied the ideals and theories of decolonization to the American context. And that’s also what appealed to him about the Black Panthers, because that’s what Newton and Seale believed as well.”
Cleaver would get to experience the everyday realities of post-colonial Algeria sooner than he expected. First, though, was a stop in Cuba, which turned out to be both shorter and more disappointing than he anticipated.
Given a spacious apartment and grand tours as an honored guest upon arrival in Havana, Cleaver’s relief soon turned to disillusionment. At a dinner meeting some Cubans, he later wrote, “said the Black Panther Party was infiltrated by the CIA and they couldn’t trust us. Then they accused me of attending secret black power meetings in Havana.” He’d hoped to create a center for guerilla training for an underground section of the Black Panthers, but his requests were ignored.
Elaborates Justin in our interview, “As soon as you mention anything about race in Cuba at that time, they thought you were trying to undermine the socialist program there. Any mention of race meant that you were not following the official government Marxist program. Cleaver just could not understand that. That to him just felt wrong, and I’m sure it was deeply disappointing to him.
“I think his initial reaction was, ‘I don’t think that Marxism or communism is wrong. I just think that the Cubans are fucking it up.’ He just thought the Cubans were not doing it right because of the racism on the island, because Cubans have their own racial stratification. Cleaver was kind of unaware of that until he got there.
“As he encountered that racism on the island, he said ‘Okay, well, socialism can be done, but it just needs to be done right. It needs to be done elsewhere.’ So he’s like, ‘I’ve gotta just get out of here and get to North Africa, where it can be done better.’ Algeria seems to present a better case study for what he wanted to accomplish.”
The FBI was still surveilling Cleaver in Cuba, reporting that he’d raped a young girl during his short time on the island, despite an absence of evidence. However, he wasn’t welcome after a mere half year as resident, and Cuba put him on a plane for Algiers in June 1969.
In Algiers, Cleaver was reunited with Kathleen (soon to give birth to their first child), setting up an “International Section” of the Panthers. A growing family didn’t stop his abuse of his wife. After learning of her affair with fellow expatriate Clinton Smith—one of several hijackers finding asylum of sorts with the Cleavers in Algeria—Cleaver kidnapped and shot him to death in a jealous rage. He’d often slept with other women since his marriage, and would continue to do so after killing Smith. But that didn’t stop him committing a murder for which he was never punished, in Algeria or elsewhere.
“I didn’t find any evidence that it came back to haunt him,” says Gifford. “This is the moment where his absolute power that he has in Algeria kind of foments his absolute corruption. When I talked to Elaine [Mokhtefi, an American at the Algerian Ministry of Information who’d help secure permission for Cleaver to stay in Algeria] and Kathleen, because they both knew about it, they were terrified. They were both like, ‘He’s in a situation where we’re a million miles from home. The government doesn’t care. They are not gonna punish him in any way, and he just feels like he can kind of get away with anything that he wants to do.’
“Not only that, but he didn’t seem to even feel any sort of guilt for it. This is one of the things that is disturbing about Cleaver’s character, and I think why people find it difficult to talk about Cleaver, and why a biography really hasn’t been written about Cleaver up until this moment—is that the guy can be pathologically remorseless. It’s difficult to talk about a figure of history like this who performs actions this way, and doesn’t seem to have any sort of feeling about it.
After learning of her affair with fellow expatriate Clinton Smith—one of several hijackers finding asylum of sorts with the Cleavers in Algeria—Cleaver kidnapped and shot him to death in a jealous rage.
“When I talked to Elaine in particular, I said, ‘Why didn’t you go to the police or tell anybody?’ And she’s like, ‘What were they gonna do? This is a new dictatorship, and they weren’t gonna do anything.’” (Mokhtefi, incidentally, writes in detail about her experiences with Cleaver in her recent memoir Algiers, Third World Capital, which documents her life as an activist in Algeria from the early 1960s through the early 1970s.)
What’s more, “Cleaver had his own dictatorship. He was able to act any way that he wanted.” As Gifford writes, when Cleaver led a group of writers and activists known as the American People’s Anti-Imperialist Delegation on a July 1970 tour through North Korea, North Vietnam, and China, “he did not allow the female delegates to make decisions, he forbade everyone from talking to others outside the delegation, and he violently policed everyone’s movements.” He read their tour journals and “demanded that they destroy any part that made reference to him.” According to Randy Rappaport, on the trip as part of New York Newsreel, “He basically said you will be killed if [you] in any way, shape, or form betray or show any negativity toward me or the Black Panther Party. He basically threatened our lives, and he had our passports.”
As Gifford sees it, “He’s building this coalition of multiracial, multiethnic group of people from all over the United States; this band of kind of leftist political activists. They come there in good faith to work with Cleaver, to try to establish relationships with these various countries, and against the imperialism in the United States. They find Cleaver is so paranoid about the FBI trying to sabotage his efforts that he himself enacts the brutality of a prison guard or a warden. More than one of them basically called him that, like a warden.
“I couldn’t help but think of him in prison. This is so typical of Cleaver, that he ended up enacting the very power structures that he had been subject to in order to deal with the kind of victimization that he was subject to. Rather than trying to create an egalitarian system, he just ended up reproducing it himself.
“So all of that goodwill that he had been trying to create, it had just been lost. That coalition essentially fell apart after that tour. Those people never worked with each other again. In fact, one of the people told me she was just completely traumatized from that, and never got over it. Because it was such a terrible experience.”
Things got even worse after a rancorous split between Panther Party leaders Newton and Cleaver in 1971. “Then Cleaver tries to create an International Section that is completely autonomous from the central committee,” picks up Gifford. “They don’t have any funds, they don’t have any contacts. So it’s just like hobbling along for a number of years.
He basically said you will be killed if [you] in any way, shape, or form betray or show any negativity toward me or the Black Panther Party. He basically threatened our lives, and he had our passports.
“Different Panthers are hijacking airplanes and bringing between $500,000 and $1 million of ransom money to Algiers. There’s this brief moment of hope for Cleaver that maybe they will be able to fund their organization through hijacking. But Algeria is not going for this shit, right? Because they do not want to be the target of the United States. They do not want to be considered a terrorist organization. So they give the money back.
“At that point, Cleaver doesn’t have any other options in Algiers. So he basically gives up the International Section at that point, and goes to Paris.” After getting ambushed (though not injured) by eight policemen as they were coming out of their front door in December 1972, the Cleavers got fake passports. Kathleen returned to her mother’s house in the US with their children, though she’d rejoin Eldridge in France, Cleaver leaving Algeria on New Year’s Day in 1973 and moving to Paris.
No longer a Panther or even a figure of much sociopolitical influence, Cleaver could have turned to writing to support himself while keeping out of the US, where he still faced prison time. But Doubleday wasn’t pleased with his work-in-progress, an autobiographical prison novel called Promises. After being told he needed to make drastic changes to make it publishable, he responded, “I feel that my publishers are some chickenshit, petty, calculating profiteers, capable of disregarding my fate, able to relate to me only from the perspective of a Balance Sheet.” As if that wasn’t enough to alienate Doubleday’s Peter Hyun, Cleaver told him, as Gifford reports, that “if he really wanted to help, he should send money for rent.”
Cleaver never would write another work on par with Soul on Ice, or even publish much at all. “If you look at the trajectory of his writing career outside of the prison, without that constraint, he really doesn’t do as well as a writer,” is Gifford’s take. “He tended as an artist to do better when he had that prison routine constraining him.
“When he’s at Folsom, for instance, he’s getting up every morning at 5:30, he’s doing his exercise, skipping breakfast. He’s writing for three hours instead of going to breakfast. He’s doing his time in the yard. He’s then going back to writing. Whatever else you want to say about prison life and its terribleness, Cleaver personally, as a writer and an artist, thrived in that environment.
“I mean Soul on Ice…nothing even comes close in his corpus to the genius of that work. I think in large part that was due to Axelrod’s influence as an editor and sounding board. She really was a huge influence on his work. But also just the constraint of his time in prison – when he got out and was trying to write first like why he was with the Panthers, and then [when] he was in the International Section, and then even in Paris, he just petered out.
“You look at these different manuscripts that he tried to write. I went through box after box of things that he wrote later. He was full of good ideas, but nothing that was disciplined, and nothing that was going to be publishable. So somewhat ironically, it was prison life itself that actually produced Eldridge Cleaver the writer. Without that, I don’t think that he would have been able to be the writer that he was.”
The Cleavers became so desperate for money in Paris that Eldridge tried his hand as a men’s pants fashion designer. Not just any old pants; they boasted, as Gifford describes them in the book, “an exterior codpiece affixed to the front, called an ‘appurtenance.’” He went as far as to put an ad for the result (dubbed “the Cleavers”) in an October 1975 issue of Rolling Stone, picturing the pants on Eldridge himself. Read the ad copy, “Walking Softly But Carrying it Big…You’ll be Cock of the Walk with the New Fall Collection from Eldridge de Paris.” Unsurprisingly, the pants didn’t catch on.
Disenchanted with life in Paris by the mid-‘70s, Cleaver began considering returning to the US, risking an almost certain return to prison. He contacted Bay Area Congress representative Ron Dellums, one of the most liberal African-Americans in mainstream electoral politics, in hopes of gaining safe passage. As a sign of how low Cleaver’s stock had fallen, as Gifford writes, “Dellums told Cleaver that he should learn French, because nobody on the left wanted him to come back.”
For Justin, “It’s one of my favorite moments [in the book]. Because Dellums and Cleaver were friends in the Panther days. Dellums was actually a supporter of the Panthers, one of the few mainstream politicians who gave the Panthers his support. Particularly when they were doing the breakfast program, and when the Panthers were starting to kind of move toward the political mainstream.
“Then when Cleaver’s making these noises like he wants to come back to the United States, he had previously been saying things like ‘I want to blow up the White House.’ So Dellums is like, ‘Don’t come back, we don’t want you here. Nobody wants you here. You’ve already gone too far to the radical left, and the Panthers have already moved into the political mainstream. We don’t want to have anything to do with you.’
“So Cleaver found himself in this awkward position in the mid-‘70s where he had been part of the Panthers. But then he had taken up a position of essentially insurrection, and the Panthers were trying to get away from that image. They’d stopped putting images of guns in the newspaper. They had put up Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown [the latter of whom was by now chairing the Black Panther Party] for electoral politics. Cleaver was marring this image, so they did everything they could to just try to get away from him.
“Once the FBI kind of destroys the Panthers, he tries a number of other things to make the organization work. It’s not like one day he says, ‘Oh, I just throw up my hands’. When he’s unable to do so, he then tries these other crazy schemes. He tries in Paris to become a designer of these pants. And none of them pan out, none of them work. So he finally just decides it’s time to go home, it’s time to give up, and to try this like last-ditch effort to basically become a preacher, become a Christian conservative, and see if I can scam my way out of prison time.”
In November 1975, Cleaver flew to New York, where he was arrested on landing and flown to prison in California. Now abandoned by what was left of the Panthers, he converted to Christianity, and a Cleaver Defense Fund won support from figures as famous as George McGovern, Julian Bond, and Pat Boone. By August, he was out on parole. Soon afterward, he toured as a public speaker, disavowing his former radical views and insisting “the outmoded positions of the Left are exactly that—outmoded.”
By the early 1980s, his marriage was over and he was working as a tree trimmer. In the most astonishing and, to many sympathizers, troubling turn of events in a life brimming with them, he fervently embraced right-wing politics. He even ran against Ron Dellums for Congress on a platform, according to his campaign materials, “vigorously supporting free institutions and the democratic process, while vigorously opposing Communism and all forms of oppression, exploitation, and totalitarianism.” He also suggested the US close its borders entirely, a chilling notion that continues to echo in discussion of immigration policies today.
Personal vendettas might have played a part in Cleaver’s unsuccessful political ambitions. “When he came back in ’75 and put himself forward in this image of being this Christian conservative,” says Gifford, the Panthers “really put some distance between them and him. Saying, ‘Oh, well, he’s a turncoat, he’s a fink, he’s working with the FBI, he’s working for the CIA.’ Cleaver took this shit personally. When he ran against Dellums, he did so because of that thing Dellums said about him learning French. He was so pissed about what Dellums had said. He could have run against anybody, but he decided to run against Dellums because he felt that Dellums had personally attacked him.
“One of the things that’s interesting about Cleaver is that he was not above petty rivalry. He would attack people personally, and Dellums was definitely one of the main people that he attacked in that last decade of his life. He was like the target that kept him going.”
Failing to win office or stick with the religions he fleetingly adopted, Cleaver had become, writes Gifford, “a political dilettante who stirred up controversy in order to remain in the public eye.” By the ‘90s he was no longer touting conservative views or in the public eye. He was for the most part seldom discussed or remembered by the time of his death.
Yet as Gifford found when he was researching his biography, Cleaver has by no means been forgotten by government authorities far away from California. “When I went to Morocco, to meet with Eldridge’s son, Ahmad, he said, ‘Sorry I’m late, they always delay me at the airport. Usually I’m strip-searched and they take a couple extra hours to let me go through. And even now that they know that you’re with me, that will probably happen to you.’
“And it is what happened to me. I went to leave the country, and I got delayed at the airport for some inexplicable reason for an hour. They took me into a small windowless room and made me just sit there for no reason that anybody would tell me. It goes to show that the name Eldridge Cleaver, once he showed himself to be an insurrectionary figure, gained the surveillance of the feds from then on. I don’t think it was really until he kind of became this Christian conservative figure, and was playing that role for a couple of years, that they really left him alone.”
The Real Cleaver
The question’s come up time after time: were Cleaver’s late-life conversions for real? Or were they designed to get him a living, get him out of prison, and get authorities off his back, driven by little if any sincerity?
“I think that in his heart of hearts, what Eldridge Cleaver is, is a survivor,” Gifford considers. “That goes back to his days in prison, and then his days as a Panther and then abroad. His #1 thing that he values is survival. And whatever it takes to do that, he’s gonna do it. So if it means becoming a Muslim, he’s gonna do that. If it means becoming a Christian conservative, he’s gonna do that too.
“That said, I still want to make the case that he had an acute sense of justice. At the end of his life, he bent toward that in ways that feel true to me. When he comes out of that last head injury, someone’s hit him over the head, he can’t walk, he’s got this cane, he’s got this brain injury, now he has cancer. At this moment, he’s showing up at these talks and, like, telling Newt Gingrich to fuck off. Suddenly he’s kind of turned against the Right. He’s no longer giving these kind of ‘come to Jesus’ talks. Or if he is mentioning his spiritualism, there’s a kind of softness to it. It’s not a hardcore political religiosity. It’s a religion that comes out of his experience with his two grandfathers, which deeply influenced him when he was a boy.
“So I tend to be less pessimistic, I guess, about Cleaver. I know that there’s a lot of evidence, when you look at the course of his life, that suggest that he was just an opportunist, and he was a terrible person, and he did all sorts of terrible things. I’m not gonna disagree that he did terrible things. He, of course, did. He raped women when he was young, he killed one of his friends, he turned his back on people, he intimidated political allies. There’s no shortage of examples of things that he did that were terrible.
“And also, there are things about him that remain deeply radical that I think are important to keep our focus on and he tried to recuperate, especially at the end of his life. Some of them are silly. Like he said we should have prisons on the moon, and we should send polluters who ruin our planet [there]. He was really worried about the health of the planet, like environmental justice issues, in the ‘90s. And we should also send rapists and wife-beaters.
“Obviously this is like a ridiculous idea. But the idea behind the idea, I think, is what is important here. That there needs to be some sort of accountability for environmental pollution, for domestic abuse and violence. Those things remain important. Things that Cleaver wanted to keep at the forefront of his thoughts and his speeches all the way to the end of his life. Even up to the last two or three days of his life, he was giving speeches about this stuff.”
Revolution or Death also makes an important point that’s often overlooked when trying to solve the puzzle of Cleaver’s shifting allegations. When Cleaver was abandoned by the Left shortly after his return to the U.S., as Gifford observes in his book, “He was isolated and longed for a sense of community.” Could the haphazard lines he charted had much to do with a wish to belong, with a community that would take him?
“I don’t want to psychologize Cleaver too much because I’m a literary scholar,” replies Gifford. “So I’m loathe to just say, well, this happened in his life, so then like he reacted this way. But one of the patterns that I saw throughout Cleaver’s life is that especially after his father left, he really turned to groups of young men to find a sense of self. This went back to the Pachuco gangs when he was a teenager, and then also in prison. Of course, the Panthers.
“But even when he came back from Paris and was joining these religious organizations and this 4th of July organization [which he established to promote anti-Left propaganda], the Mormons, he was really someone who despite his radical individualism, always sincerely desired a sense of belonging and brotherhood. We don’t even think that about Cleaver. I think we tend to think of Cleaver as this guy who’s just kind of striking out on his own as this writer and revolutionary. But I actually think of him as someone who’s deeply lonely, and constantly looking for a sense of belonging.
“If you look at the different chapters of his life, he’s always surrounding himself with people. I mean, that time in Algeria, he lives in a compound with a bunch of other families. There’s like 24 people living in that compound. You wouldn’t do such a thing if you didn’t want to be surrounded by people. Of course he had his family as well. I think that Cleaver is at his kind of most Cleaver-y when he found these organizations that help him express his political, personal, and spiritual ideals.”
Cleaver and Modern America
I come back to one of the key statements of Gifford’s biography: “We cannot understand the story of modern America—with all of its racist violence and struggles for radical egalitarianism—without understanding the story of Eldridge Cleaver.” What does Cleaver tell us about the United States today, when many of the same problems he raged against—systemic racism, social inequity, and an unjust prison system—remain very much with us, if in somewhat different forms?
“For all of the differences between the demonstration on January 6 [the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol which Trump is accused of fomenting] and the Panthers entering the [California state] capitol back in 1967, what I think is interesting about those two moments is that they suggest a kind of working-class rage, about the system of government that we exist under,” says Gifford. “Although the Trump supporters and Black Panther supporters, or Black Lives Matter supporters, want different things – in fact, I would say opposing things – there nevertheless remains a crucial point of connection between them. The target of their rage is the same, which is this government Capitol building. Their approach is also the same, which is like this armed insurrection.
“We live in America where our history is a history of failed opportunities to have alliances between white working-class people and black working-class people. Cleaver was someone who stood for an alliance between [the] white working class and black working class. This is not something that is well known about him, because people tend to think about the Panthers as, ‘Oh, those black radical nationalists.’ But that’s actually not what they stood for at all. Cleaver ran for president under the Peace and Freedom Party, which was a white anti-war party in the 1960s. He believed we were not gonna get anywhere as a country unless whites and blacks gathered together and threw their lot in together.”