When I was fifteen, at the beginning of my sophomore year in high school, the faculty advisor of the Madison M News handed me a photocopied press pass and told me to report on a lecture that evening in the school auditorium. It was my very first assignment, and the sum total of my preparation consisted of brushing my hair and putting on lipstick. Lipstick is not enough when you come face to face with Eldridge Cleaver, one of the big three in the Black Panther Movement.
To this day I do not comprehend why my teacher gifted this assignment to the class peon, or why I was too stupid to ask for the name of the lecturer. Of course, even if she’d worn a sign that said, “Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers,” I would have assumed he’d blown his knee playing football, and now stumped out a living as a motivational speaker. Why else would he come to Rexburg, Idaho?
Mr. Cleaver was charming and affable, with impeccably timed jokes. He had plenty of white in his hair, which to my fifteen-year-old eyes marked him as ancient, though he would have just recently celebrated his forty-seventh birthday, younger than I am now. He talked about growing to understand the American freedoms through living abroad. I clearly remember him saying of foreign police, you can’t lock your door, “they’ll come through the wall.” The delivery was perfect, and we all laughed, but even now I remember the weight that ghosted behind the story. I also got an odd sense that the man in front of me was newer, not fully born until a different Eldridge Cleaver had fought a hard battle, and finally gone into remission.
He talked about the Black Panthers some, but it was all shorthand and broad strokes, as though he could simply name the team and we’d all know the stats, except me who only knew Black Panthers from the zoo. I’ve decided that might have been for the best. At such a tender age, if I’d known as much history as I know now, I think I would have been too angry to see the man waving from beyond the monster.
The Black Panther Party was born two weeks before I was, the Revolutionary, Socialist, Political brainchild of two Marxist college students, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. They aimed to empower their black brothers and sisters to claim their rights and privileges, a worthy and noble goal. By 1969 the movement had created the wonderful Free Breakfast for Children charity, and free community healthcare clinics, but in 1966 the guns came first. Newton stated, “they learned from Malcom [X] that with the gun, they can recapture their dreams and bring them into reality.” Chants included “The Revolution has come, it’s time to pick up the guns. Off the Pigs!” The first shotguns were purchased by bulk buying Chinese Communist leader Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, and selling it on the Berkeley College campus for triple the price. For the first years they intentionally recruited largely from the criminal classes, to maintain their street cred, and while their stated ideals were excellent, the organization took on more than a few earmarks of a mafia.
Just barely sixteen, Bobby Hutchins was their first recruit in December 1966, while I was still a screaming newborn, keeping my parents up at night. Eldridge Cleaver was paroled from jail on December 12, 1966, where he had been serving on a rape charge since 1958. He joined the Black Panthers shortly after Bobby Hutchins, serving as Minister of Information, and becoming second in power only to Huey Newton.
In 1968, at age thirty-three, he ran for President on the Peace and Freedom Ticket, which seems rather at odds with April 6th when he led an ambush, deliberately provoking the Oakland Police into a shootout in which he and two officers were wounded. After the shootout, young Bobby Hutton stripped down to prove he was unarmed, and put his hands up to surrender, but police shot him twelve times. He died at seventeen. Cleaver believed the police thought they were shooting at him. He recovered from his wound and received 36,571 votes in the presidential election, even though he was legally too young to run.
In 1968 he also wrote a book entitled Soul on Ice in which he admits to multiple rapes, claiming to have practiced on poor black women in the ghetto, then moved on to white “prey.” He wrote, “I was defying and trampling upon the white man’s law, upon his system of values . . . I felt I was getting revenge.”
There is much more to that quote, but it’s just too horrifying for me to put down. In Soul on Ice he makes it very clear that he was wrong, that his justifications did not excuse his behavior. However, after 1968 he racked up plenty of different, though equally serious sins. He’d seen the light in one area, but remained critically blind in others.
I knew none of this at age fifteen, but I remember my head was spinning from everything I’d heard that night. Out of pure, unadulterated idiocy, I left without going up to speak to him. The auditorium was not remotely full, and I’m sure he would have talked to me, even without my official high school press pass. Instead, I did what painfully shy people do, I observed, taking in the details. The next day I didn’t write about the past, I wrote about the man who had stood in front of me.
I don’t know if that article still exists in an archive somewhere. I don’t even remember what I actually wrote, but I do remember my teacher shocked me by calling it “the best of the best,” which I think was code for putting punctuation in all my sentences. It also led me, the lowly sophomore, to getting my own column in the school newspaper in which I wrote about whatever I wanted.
But what about Eldridge Cleaver? I got my cool article, and I impressed my teacher, why does he still matter to me all these years later? As a little girl, after I first heard about Adolph Hitler, I started asking a question: Are some people evil, or are they just crazy? It’s a difficulty I’ve been chewing ever since, gleaning answers in bits and pieces wherever I could. Eldridge Cleaver was a murderer and a confessed rapist, I should hate him, but I don’t. Today I understand that the answer to my question is a varied as the population of the earth, but I do need to kneel down and explain to little girl me that human beings all have some evil and some crazy, and what we do with our circumstances often hinges on what we choose to feed.
By 1980 Eldridge Cleaver had become a conservative Republican, and had consciously explored several religions. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans qualify as God’s party, but putting politics and any specific religion aside, a person traveling from the far communist left to the conservative right indicates he is on a journey, looking intently to discover what is right and best in a flawed and troubling world. The more I see of his story, the more I understand that he spent his life on safari in a jungle of anger, injustice, screaming, and desire. He seemed determined to learn everything the hard way, but he did remain determined to learn.
In 1980 he was defeated in a run for the U.S. Senate, and by 1988 he got probation for burglary, and was briefly jailed for cocaine. Later he did a stint in rehab, but was again arrested for drug possession in 1992 and 1994. He passed away May 1, 1998 at age 62, three months after my first child was born, and thirteen years before I would move to communist China, on a purely capitalist visa.
Eldridge Cleaver’s life was never a straight trajectory from bad to good. I have no idea what it looked like when he finally had to stand and make an accounting before a God who loves both him and the women he raped. I am not capable of speaking for the people he hurt, and certainly not qualified to be his judge. I am merely an observer, and at age fifteen I wrote a positive article because I saw a man who was trying. Even as a teenager I knew I would never follow the roads Eldridge Cleaver trod, but thirty-eight years later, as I carry the wounds and bruises of my own life, I still want to give him the benefit of the doubt. If his journey had hope, then mine does too.