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...
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