Leroy Eldridge Cleaver was born August 31, 1935 in Wabbaseka, Arkansas. His family later moved to Phoenix, then settled in Los Angeles. Raised with an abusive father in a tough environment, he ran into problems and as a teenager he spent time in youth detention centers for petty crimes. After the age of 18 he was charged with more series crimes, starting with a felony drug charge over selling marijuana, then later rape and assault with the intent to murder. He served time in Soledad, Folsom and San Quentin prisons.
While in prison he dedicated a lot of time to self-development, reading literature and writing a number of philosophical and political essays which first published in Ramparts magazine. Through his writing he enlisted the help of Beverly Axelrod, a lawyer ten years his senior, with whom he had a love affair and extensive written correspondence with. She helped him form his essays in to a book – with the goal of securing parole by making him into a published, recognized author. Axelrod brought the work to the attention of writers and editors and secured a contract with McGraw Hill. In February 1968 Soul on Ice was published and by the end of the year had sold one million copies. It was a highly influential text in the Black Power movement. The book was dedicated “To Beverly, with whom I share the ultimate of love.”
Cleaver was finally released at the age of 31, only to be arrested for violation of parole, which he successfully petitioned for habeas corpus. After his release he joined the newly formed Black Panther Party, serving as the Minister of Information, or spokesperson, for the Oakland branch. Cleaver and Axelrod had made plans to marry upon his release, but they broke up shortly after, a relationship with a white woman lawyer complicating his future as a black revolutionary with the Panthers. Cleaver did remain loyal to their agreement that Axelrod received 25% of the royalties from Soul on Ice even after their breakup.
In 1967 Cleaver formed the Black House political/cultural center in San Francisco and married Kathleen Neal. He was a presidential candidate in 1968 on the ticket of the Peace and Freedom Party (although he wouldn’t reach the requisite 35 years of age until after Inauguration Day 1969) and received 36,571 votes.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr on April 4, 1968 Cleaver and other Black Panthers were involved in a confrontation with Oakland police officers. Two officers and Cleaver were wounded, and a 17 year old Black Panther Bobby Hutton was killed. In the aftermath Cleaver was charged with attempted murder and jumped bail, fleeing to Cuba, then Algeria.
He returned to the US in 1975 to face the attempted murder charges. During this time, until his death, Cleaver continued to soul search and express himself. In the US he continued to sell the ‘Cleaver Pants’ he designed in France – with a codpiece meant to prevent ‘penis binding.’ He became a born again Christian, then a Catholic, later led a short-lived revivalist ministry called Eldridge Cleaver Crusades, then was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He became a conservative Republican, and in the late 1980s was placed on probation for burglary then later jailed after testing positive for cocaine. He went to rehab but was arrested for possession in 1992 and 1994.
Eldridge Cleaver died on May 1, 1998 at the age of 62.
Lesson from Cleaver:
Cleaver wrote a bestseller book from prison. He didn’t go to college and get an MFA. He had a rough childhood, even rougher adolescence, and as a black man in prison in the 1960s had literally no chance at making anything of himself or attaining any prominence or success as a writer – yet he did it. He gave himself the education he needed, made the contacts he needed to make, and wrote the story he needed to write.