Eldridge Cleaver Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

One of the most controversial figures of the 1960’s, Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, civil rights activist and author, became the articulate metaphor for embittered opposition to the oppression of African Americans by the white majority. When Cleaver was young, his father Leroy, a nightclub entertainer, and his mother Thelma, an elementary school teacher, relocated from their suburban Little Rock, Arkansas, home to Phoenix, Arizona, and then to the Watts section of Los Angeles, California. Soon after the move, Cleaver’s parents separated, and his mother supported the children by working as a custodian.

Not long after his entrance into Abraham Lincoln Junior High, Cleaver was arrested for bicycle theft and remanded to the Fred C. Nelles School for Boys. Reform school served as a new avenue of education for the young man, offering instruction in the means of procuring and redistributing marijuana. Although he was quickly released from the school, his next brush with the law was not long in coming. In 1953, he was arrested for selling marijuana and sentenced to the Preston School of Industry until his eighteenth birthday, after which his sentence continued in Soledad prison. While in Soledad, Cleaver became an avid reader, immersing himself in the works of Malcolm X. Eventually, Cleaver converted to the Black Muslim religion. He was paroled after two years and six months.

The years behind bars encouraged a pattern of repeat behavior, however, and Cleaver returned immediately to his drug commerce, accompanied by acts of increasing violence. Once again, he was apprehended; he was sentenced to fourteen years in San Quentin and Folsom prisons for assault with intent to murder.

During this incarceration, Cleaver began to write in order to vent his rage and to “save” himself. His passion for reading increased, and he added the works of Thomas Paine, Karl Marx, and W. E. B. Du Bois to his repertoire. Eventually, Cleaver earned his high-school diploma through the prison educational program.

In an attempt to extricate himself from...

(The entire section is 845 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Eldridge Cleaver was born in the small village of Wabbaseka, Arkansas, near Little Rock. In 1946, he moved with his family to Rose Hill, a mainly Chicano neighborhood in the Los Angeles area. Cleaver was first arrested, for stealing bicycles, in 1947, and in 1949 he was sent to reform school, where he became a Roman Catholic. He explained in Soul on Ice that he chose the Catholic church because “all the Negroes and Mexicans went there.”

In 1954, Cleaver was sent to prison for selling marijuana. Four years later he was charged with attempted rape and assault with intent to kill and was sent to Folsom Prison, from which he was paroled in November, 1966. A year later, Cleaver married Kathleen Neal. The publication of Soul on Ice in February, 1968, marked Cleaver’s appearance as a self-educated intellectual to be reckoned with. In the work he speaks fluently on issues that were sensitive among blacks and whites. He attacks writer James Baldwin for his alleged bowing to whites, condemns homosexuality as a “sickness,” and reviles black women. Soul on Ice began a crucial year for Cleaver. On April 6, Cleaver was wounded in a shoot-out with the Oakland police that resulted in Bobby Hutton’s death. As a result of this incident, Cleaver’s parole was revoked. Faced with return to prison, Cleaver fled to Montreal and on to Havana.

Cleaver was kept under guard for seven months in Cuba before being sent in 1969 to Algiers, where his hatred for capitalism intensified. In 1970, he led a group of eleven on a trip to Pyongyang, North Korea, and on to Hanoi and Peking. When two groups of black Americans hijacked planes to Algiers, Algeria forced the Cleavers to move to Paris, where they obtained legal residence in 1974.

The two years he spent in Paris proved crucial to Cleaver; his thinking turned conservative, and in late 1975, he returned to America as an evangelical Christian. He was arrested but released in 1976 on $100,000 bail. His active career as an evangelist faltered in the 1980’s.


(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Early Life

A native of Arkansas, Leroy Eldridge Cleaver and his family joined the exodus of African Americans from the South during World War II. In the 1940’s, thousands of migrants moved to California in search of lucrative industrial jobs in the shipyards and aircraft factories. Like many other young African Americans who left the South for the West, Cleaver found that the promise of upward mobility was a myth, and he joined the swelling ranks of alienated youths in the inner-city ghettos of San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles.

The 1960’s

Cleaver spent much of the early 1960’s in the California state prison system for assault and attempted rape of a white nurse. He briefly joined the Nation of Islam and became an adherent of Malcolm X while he was in prison, and he began to develop his own radical, black nationalist ideology, expressing himself in essays that were published as Soul on Ice in 1968, two years after his parole. The book, a central document in the black power era, quickly became a best- seller and launched his career as a writer. Cleaver, a San Francisco resident, also became a leading figure in that city’s growing Black Arts movement. With the assistance of white radicals, he established the city’s Black House, which became a center for radical plays and performances and attracted such African American literary stars as the revolutionary playwright Amiri Baraka.

In 1967, Cleaver joined the Black Panther Party, became its minister of information, and began to edit its...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Lasky, Melvin J. “The Ideas of ’68: A Retrospective on the Twentieth Anniversary Celebrations of ‘the Student Revolt.’” Encounter 71, no. 4 (1988). Discusses Cleaver’s involvement in the Black Panther Party.

Lowery, Charles, and John Marszalek, eds. Encyclopedia of African American Civil Rights. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992. Offers comprehensive biographical information.

Oliver, John. Eldridge Cleaver: Ice and Fire! Plainfield, N.J.: Logos International, 1977. Examines the philosophical juxtaposition of the two principles driving Cleaver’s life.

Rajiv, Sudhi. Forms of Black Consciousness. New York: Advent Books, 1992. A biographical study of Richard Wright, Malcolm X, and Eldridge Cleaver.

Rout, Kathleen. Eldridge Cleaver. Boston: Twayne, 1995. One of the very few biographies to discuss Cleaver as a writer as well as a political activist.

Waldrep, Sheldon. “‘Being Bridges’: Cleaver/Baldwin/Lorde and African American Sexism and Sexuality.” Journal of Homosexuality 26, no. 2/3 (1994): 167-181. Examines the positions of African American writers James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver, and Audre Lorde on the sexuality and sexism, especially regarding homosexuality, of African Americans.