Writer, activist and revolutionary: remembering Eldridge Cleaver

By Akim Hudson

“You don’t have to teach people how to be human. You have to teach them how to stop being inhuman.” –Eldridge Cleaver 

No one is ever certain of where life will take them, nor how our respective experiences will construct our future. There are countless anecdotes of people throughout history that rearranged the trajectory of their lives after initially starting their life immersed in utter dismay.  

Eldridge Cleaver would also become one who completely rearranged his life for the better. As a juvenile, trouble always managed to find Cleaver.

Cleaver would spend a majority of his adolescence committing crimes. Some were relatively petty, such as possession of marijuana and bike theft. Others were unjustifiable and impermissible, like rape, and assault with intentions of murder. 

Needless to say, Cleaver needed to be reeled in, or at least find a refuge to get his mind right. And after being sent to two reform schools within his youth and not showing any indication(s) of rehabilitation, he would be sent to the big boys. While serving a two-year sentence at Soledad Prison, he wrote his most notable classic, Soul on Ice, which in the words of Cleaver, details, “What it [means] to be Black in white America”. 

 A year after serving that two-year bid, Cleaver was sentenced to 2-15 years in San Quentin prison for the rapes, assaults and trafficking of marijuana that he committed. Then, amid his transition from San Quentin to Folsom, he converted to Islam like his idol, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), and wrote a proposal to Beverly Axelrod, a lawyer, for a potential parole plea. 

As another good deed besides getting Cleaver out of prison and on parole, Axelord also assisted on getting Cleaver’s essays that formulated into Soul on Ice published.  

Upon Cleaver’s release in 1966, he’d become allies with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, co-founders of the Black Panther Party. He’d become the minister of the party shortly after befriending Newton and Seale. But unfortunately, all that was brewing whilst being a member of the Black Panther Party was a whole heap of trouble.

If you know anything about the Black Panther Party, you’d know that they were a militant organization, and prided themselves on being the front line of defense of the Black community in Oakland because the police in Oakland were notorious for brutalizing and oppressing Blacks.

So, one day, there was a shootout between the Black Panther Party and the Oakland Police Department. Obviously, a parolee cannot partake in shootouts, so after being identified as one of the people responsible for the wounding of an officer, Cleaver fled to Algeria, where he’d restart his life again.  

When he returned to the United States, Cleaver was the polar opposite of himself. A Christian, in fact. The radicalism of Cleaver was merely a thing of the past. He was slowly becoming a shell of himself, and battled with addiction, and out of respect to him and his spirit, I won’t get into the semantics.  

Cleaver died in 1998, and may have rubbed many people the wrong way with his radicalism and tainted past. But, what some may view as a notorious criminal, I view a revolutionary who released one of the most important pieces of literature in Afro-American history.

I see the man that said, “If you are not part of the solution, you are a part of the problem,” and, “The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.”

These are powerful sentiments that are pertinent to any era in history.  

Hero and role model? Perhaps not, but all things considered, Eldridge Cleaver left his mark on revolution, as he intended to.  

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