Eldridge Cleaver missed his chance at martyrdom. If he had died in the 1968 shootout with Oakland police, he would probably have become a revered icon.
We'd forever see him in his glory, a beautiful black man staring out from the cover of "Soul on Ice," a revolutionary wearing a black leather jacket and shades, an uncompromising intellectual standing beside bullet-riddled posters of himself and Huey P. Newton.
That didn't happen. Bobby Hutton, 17, died in the shootout April 6, 1968. Cleaver went on to run for president and later jump bail. He survived the 1960s and died Friday in a California hospital at age 62. He had changed so much in 30 years that it was hard to believe he had ever been Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party.
The Marxist became a born-again Christian, then a Mormon, then a Republican. He apologized on talk shows for writing words many took to heart and used to help shape their view of the world. The one-time prince of the revolution became just another East Bay crackhead scavenging recyclables to buy a high.
So, was all the talk and anger merely political-racial theater? Was he just a slick chameleon, playing his role in the time of Radical Chic and Black Power? Did he even write "Soul On Ice," the collection of essays that helped define an era? Cleaver lived long enough for these questions and doubts to surface.
Few doubted him in the 1960s and early 1970s. His words were bombshells then, challenges to anyone sitting on the sidelines. "You're either part of the solution or part of the problem," he said.
Nobody wanted to be part of the problem. America was in for radical change, or so it seemed. The revolution wasn't going to stop with voting rights for blacks and equal opportunity. Wealth was going to be redistributed. Capitalism was on its way out. Idealism and hope sent thousands of people into the streets, shouting, "Power to the People!"
The 1960s were in full swing by the time Cleaver was paroled from Folsom prison, after having served nine years for assault with intent to murder. It was 1966 and the country seemed to be boiling over with riots, demonstrations, political assassinations. The founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been shoved aside by a new crew who kicked out the white members and chanted, "Black Power!"
Black folks were getting comfortable with calling themselves black, not colored, or Negro. Afros were a political statement. It meant solidarity with the struggle. Hair straightened by chemicals or a hot comb indicated a mind sadly out of step with the times.
A generation of young blacks and whites found themselves in a (( country stumbling toward integration. A white girl could send her family into paroxysms by bringing home a black man. If you need a reminder, rent a copy of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."
An old paperback copy of Tom Wolfe's "Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers" shows a black man in Army fatigue jacket and ski cap sitting in a chair, one arm around a white woman sitting on his lap. Both hold their fists outward in a power salute.
You couldn't escape the sexual dynamic of the time. Cleaver wrote that for him, rape was "an insurrectionary act," an expression of anger he perfected against black women before moving on to white women. Later, he admitted he was wrong, that he had strayed "not so much from the white man's law as from being human, civilized "
"The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less," he wrote.
It was with that frame of mind that he headed for Oakland, worked for the radical magazine, Ramparts, and joined the Black Panther Party. The militant group kept J. Edgar Hoover up at night. They ran breakfast programs for children, taught classes and provided great street theater, once showing up en masse at the California Legislature with rifles. The weapons were empty, and the law said that was OK.
With their black leather jackets, berets, dark glasses and fierce defiance, the Black Panthers embodied a generation that had tired of Martin Luther King Jr.'s approach. During one 1960s riot, a white reporter asked a black man to explain his motives. The man responded by striking a match and glaring at the reporter.
"What's my manifesto?" he said, surprised it wasn't clear in all the smoke and destruction. Then he pointed to the tiny flame. "That's my manifesto. Burn, baby. Burn!"
Cleaver was much more eloquent. His book, written during his prison years and published in February 1968, became a bible. People carried dog-eared copies around college campuses and high school hallways. "Soul On Ice" was required reading. Like "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and similar works, it offered insight and harsh truths about race and America. It was brutally honest, at times disturbing.
Nowadays, hardly anyone talks about revolution. Cleaver's words seem overblown, too incendiary to be believed or taken seriously.
"We shall have our manhood," he wrote. "We shall have it or the earth will be leveled by our attempts to gain it."
Puh-leeez, we might say now. Yet back then, black sanitation workers striking in Memphis, Tenn., wore placards that read: "I Am A Man." In those days, people read Cleaver's strident words, nodded their heads gravely, raised fists and said, "Right on!"
The times were dead serious. No gray areas. There were two wars going one: one in Vietnam, the other at home. And the
outcome was still in doubt. Cleaver fled before the issues were decided.
In the fall of 1968, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan tried to bar him from lecturing in a course at the University of California, Berkeley. Hundreds were arrested in the student demonstrations that followed. He ran for president that year on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket and picked up 30,000 votes.
In November, facing attempted murder charges from the Panthers' shootout with Oakland police, he jumped $50,000 bail and went overseas. He said he would "rather be shot down in the street" than return to prison.
He came back to America in 1975 and worked out a deal, pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to community service. The 1970s saw plenty of fashion horrors, including his "Cleaver sleeve" pants that featured a codpiece. He became an odd figure, showing up as founder of the Cleaver Crusade for Christ, or head of a quasi-religion -- Christlam -- that had a peculiar auxiliary called Guardians of the Sperm.
By 1997, students caught up in the current wave of black nationalism would walk out on him, rather than listen to him talk about forgiving whites for slavery. To them, he had become irrelevant.
"He betrayed it all in a very opportunist way," says George Kauffman, who knew Cleaver during the heady days of the Panthers and Berkeley. "This can be forgiven because of the role he played in society. I can forgive him that. The role was simply bringing black people into the mainstream of American life where they should have been to begin with."
"Soul on Ice" made you think. It might have even emboldened you because the author became your role model and his words said what you could not. Cleaver caught the spirit of the time, but that wasn't his sole purpose. He offered one man's struggle and insights to anyone who would listen. In the 30 years since its publication, "Soul on Ice" has sold more than 2 million copies.
Cleaver wrote from his heart, and then he changed. Those who praised the ex-con and cheered the in-your-face politics of that time grew up and moved on. Yet "Soul on Ice" remains, a literary time capsule. Its final chapter, an open letter from all black men to all black women, is part apology and part love song. It is so much a part of its time, you can almost hear someone playing a conga drum. But that's all right, "Soul on Ice" was what many of us needed back then.
"This book is a classic because it is not merely about that decade, regarded as demonic by some and by others as the most thrilling and humanistic of this century. 'Soul on Ice' is the sixties," Ishmael Reed wrote in the introduction to the 1992 edition. "The smell of protest, anger, tear gas, and the sound of skull-cracking billy clubs, helicopters, and revolution are present in its pages."
Pub Date: 5/03/98