Eldridge Cleaver

This Day in History, August 31st: Black Panther Minister Eldridge Cleaver Was Born

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Former Black Panther Minister, Eldridge Cleaver, Was Born

Author, activist and former Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party, Eldridge Cleaver, was born on August 31, 1935, in Wabbaseka, Arkansas. Cleaver spent much of his youth in reform schools and prisons in California before setting himself on a path of activism.

The former Black Panther was first arrested and sent to a reform school as a teenager after stealing a bicycle. However, Cleaver would again be arrested as a teenager for possession of marijuana. During his incarcerations, Cleaver began to develop his own political philosophy. He was released from prison but returned in 1958 for assault.

While in prison, Cleaver spent most of his time reading works by Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Karl Marx and Richard Wright. He was also inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X who was assassinated during his incarceration. These writers influenced him to pick up his pen and start writing a collection of essays on race and the Black revolution.

In 1966, Cleaver joined the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and became the Party’s first information minister. In this role, Cleaver edited the newspaper, created catchy slogans and became the voice of the activist group. The following year he married fellow Black Panther Party member Kathleen Cleaver. Then, in 1968 Cleaver published Soul on Ice, which was a collection of all of his prison essays, and the book went on to become a bestseller. 

The same year Cleaver released his book, he was also involved in a shootout with the police that left a fellow Black Panther dead. He was jailed and released, but ultimately he would have to return back to police custody. Rather than do another stint in prison, Cleaver went on the run and fled to Cuba and then France where he became a born-again Christian. Cleaver’s charges from the shoot-out in 1968 were eventually reduced to assault and he was sentenced to community service. 

After his return to the United States, Cleaver went through a political and ideological shift in beliefs. He joined the Republican Party and even ran for office several times. Cleaver removed himself from the political scene in the late 1980s. 

In his later years, Cleaver developed a drug addiction which caused him to be arrested several times. However, he ultimately recommitted himself to Christianity and died in Pomona, California on May 1, 1998, at the age of 62. 

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