Who Was Eldridge Cleaver?

Eldridge Cleaver spent much of his youth in reform school and prisons in California. He began writing while incarcerated. Freed on parole, he joined the Black Panthers and published his prison essays in Soul on Ice. In 1968, he fled the country to avoid a return to prison. Cleaver was 62 when he died in Pomona, California, on May 1, 1998.

Early Life

Leroy Eldridge Cleaver was born on August 31, 1935, in Wabbaseka, Arkansas. Growing up, Cleaver witnessed his father beating his mother. Soon after a move to Los Angeles, California, his father left the family.

Reform School and Prison

As a teenager, Cleaver was charged with stealing a bicycle and sent to reform school. He would return for a second stay for selling marijuana. In 1954, Cleaver was sent to prison for possession of marijuana.

During his incarceration, Cleaver began to develop his own political philosophy. After his release in 1957, he raped an unknown number of women, both black and white. He felt that his rapes of white women were "insurrectionary" rapes, justified by what African Americans had suffered under a system dominated by whites.

In 1958, Cleaver was put behind bars once more, this time for assault. There, he became inspired by Malcolm X. He also began writing, detailing his continuing philosophical evolution. Though still passionate about rights for African Americans, he rejected the anger that had motivated his rapes. With the help of his lawyer, his compelling essays appeared in Ramparts magazine. His work gained the attention of supporters who pushed for Cleaver's release, which happened when he was granted parole in 1966.

Joining the Black Panthers

In 1967, Cleaver joined the Black Panther Party as its minister of information. He became the voice of the activist group, coming up with attention-getting slogans and editing its newspaper. The next year, Soul on Ice, a collection of Cleaver's prison writings, was released and became a bestseller.

On April 6, 1968, Cleaver was involved in a shoot-out with police that left a fellow Black Panther dead. At first jailed, he was soon released on bail, which allowed him to continue his run for president on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. However, Cleaver was then told he would have to return to custody.

Exile and Return

Rather than go back to prison, Cleaver fled to Cuba. During his time as a fugitive, he visited North Korea, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union and China. Cleaver also travelled to Algeria, where he set up an international office for the Black Panthers before being kicked out of the group in 1971.

Cleaver next moved to France. He had a religious experience there before returning to the United States in 1975. He then proclaimed himself a born-again Christian, decried the socialist systems he had seen and wrote that "the American political system is the freest and most democratic in the world." Cleaver's charges from the shoot-out in 1968 were eventually reduced to assault and he was sentenced to community service.

Later Life and Death

Cleaver's later years saw him shift between different beliefs. He worked with Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and created "Christlam," which combined aspects of Christianity and Islam. His politics changed as well. After joining the Republican party, he ran for office several times and supported Ronald Reagan — whom he had formerly denounced — as president.

Cleaver also suffered from an addiction to cocaine. This resulted in several arrests, though he did not have to return to prison. A devastating head injury in 1994 — which may have occurred in a drug-related attack — prompted him to recommit to evangelical Christianity. Cleaver died in Pomona, California on May 1, 1998, at the age of 62.


  • Name: Leroy Eldridge Cleaver
  • Birth Year: 1935
  • Birth date: August 31, 1935
  • Birth State: Arkansas
  • Birth City: Wabbaseka
  • Birth Country: United States
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: Eldridge Cleaver wrote 'Soul on Ice,' a best-selling collection of essays about his time in prison, and was the minister of information for the Black Panthers.
  • Industries
    • Christianity
    • Journalism and Nonfiction
    • Civil Rights
  • Astrological Sign: Virgo
  • Interesting Facts
    • Eldridge Cleaver designed a line of men's pants that had a "Cleaver Sleeve," a codpiece intended to feature the wearer's genitals. The pants did not sell well.
  • Death Year: 1998
  • Death date: May 1, 1998
  • Death State: California
  • Death City: Pomona
  • Death Country: United States

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  • Article Title: Eldridge Cleaver Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/authors-writers/eldridge-cleaver
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: November 1, 2021
  • Original Published Date: April 2, 2014


  • Rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man's law, upon his system of values, and that I was defiling his women—and this point, I believe, was the most satisfying to me because I was very resentful over the historical fact of how the white man has used the black woman. I felt I was getting revenge.
  • I could not approve the act of rape. Even though I had some insight into my own motivations, I did not feel justified. I lost my self respect. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile moral structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered.
  • With all of its faults, the American political system is the freest and most democratic in the world.
  • The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.
  • I saw that the dictatorship of the proletarian was the last thing I wanted to have. That's when I began to see that with all of our problems in the United States, we had the best formal government in the world. We had the freest and most democratic procedure.
  • Change is not treason... Change is a process of growth.
  • I have taken an oath in my heart to oppose communism until the day I die.
  • Ronald Reagan has said that no longer will the Federal Government house, clothe and feed black people. I am glad about that, because it will force blacks to unify and lobby for their needs.
  • If Eldridge Cleaver is allowed to teach our children, they may come home one night and slit our throats.
  • He has the sophistication to shed his skin when it's worn out.