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The radical transformation of Eldridge Cleaver

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Posted: Monday, February 6, 2017 11:41 pm

When I think of Black History Month, it reminds me of the civil rights struggle back in the 1960s.

At the time, I lived in suburban Washington, D.C. However, most of the action was taking place in the deep South. Like many people, we watched the conflicts happen on the nightly news with the Huntley-Brinkley report. We also read the Washington Post and examined large black and white photographs found in Life magazine.

I suppose it’s safe to say that the most famous open resistance against Jim Crow laws began in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to ride in the back of a public bus. She was arrested. As a result, a black boycott of bus services forced the city of Montgomery, Ala. to change its policy just a little more than a year after the Parks incident.

By 1960, things in the South were heating up with lunch counter “sit-ins.” Groups of African-Americans would sit at “all-white” lunch counters and request service. They were ignored by employees and sometimes harassed by white patrons, who soiled the protesters with table condiments. Some blacks were pulled from their seats by patrons. Others were arrested for public disturbances.

A few extremist civil rights groups emerged in the late 1960s. One of the most noted leaders at the time was Eldridge Cleaver. He became head of the Black Panther Party. I remember reading his book “Soul on Ice” while residing in an Army bachelor officers’ quarters during the early 1970s.

Cleaver reached an extreme level of radicalism when he and others were involved in a shootout with Oakland police officers in 1968. In an interview years later, Cleaver admitted he and others had instigated the conflict. Two officers were wounded, but Cleaver was shot as well, along with an accomplice who was killed. He was charged with attempted murder but skipped bail and fled to Cuba.

He lead a quiet life in hiding, which was sanctioned by the Castro regime. But after nearly six months, the honeymoon ended. Reuters reporter James Pringle had discovered the fugitive’s whereabouts. Castro and Cleaver felt it was better for both of them if he moved on. Cleaver then fled to Algeria. Eventually, he moved to France.

Extremism usually leads to self-destruction and conflicts within radical groups. Black Panther Huey Newton, no stranger to criminal activity himself, eventually saw the futility of armed conflict and denounced what he called “the military option.” He was quoted as saying it was “infantile leftism.”

By way of his leadership of the Panthers, the group established various community support programs in Oakland. He eventually was killed by a street dealer in an apparent drug transaction that went bad in 1989.

Cleaver did not agree with Newton’s position and saw him as a sellout. The Party criticized Cleaver for spending his time in support of communist North Korea instead of focusing on the plight of black Americans. He was eventually expelled from the Panthers in 1971.

Cleaver’s militant beliefs changed dramatically when he returned to the United States in 1975. He claimed to be a born-again Christian and separated himself from his violent past. The judicial system went light with a sentence of community service for his part in the previously mentioned assault on Oakland police officers.

During the 1980s, Cleaver rejected evangelicalism and looked for alternatives. He was baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where he remained for the rest of his life.

He also became a Republican and ran for various political offices in California, but never was successful.

The civil rights crusader was unable to completely shake his internal demons. In 1988 he was arrested for burglary and cocaine. He went into drug rehab but was arrested again for possession in the 1990s. Clever died in 1998 in a Pomona hospital at 62 years of age.

Leroy Eldridge Cleaver’s life story is an amazing tale of someone who struggled both with racial antipathy during the black power movement and with finding his place on the world stage. After a variety of experiences, he apparently came to the conclusion that despite some personal failures along the way, embarking on a road of positive character and unity was a far better path than one of hate, destruction and isolation.

His place in black history is most likely assured.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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