Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver in the early 1970s. (Image Source)
I’m currently reading “PTL:”The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire” by John Wigger. Spoiler alert: my next entry in “The Preachers” series is on the long, tumultous ministry of Jim Bakker. While reading about some of the PTL’s guests from the late 1970s, I came across a passage about Eldridge Cleaver, former Black Panther. While I knew he had made a huge swing to the Political Right in the 1980s, I wasn’t aware that had come about years after a jailhouse Born Again Christian conversion in the 1970s, including hobnobbing with various Evangelical notables of the day.
To fully appreciate the magnamity of Cleaver’s 180, let’s briefly go back to the 1960s. From his New York Times’ 1998 obituary, we learn that he had a rough and tumble childhood, was arrested multiple times in his early teens, spent time in reform school, sold drugs, committed a series of rapes and wound up doing hard time in prison. While incarcerated, he earned a high school diploma and wrote the highly lauded “Soul on Ice” (True story, my parents kept a copy on our bookshelf for like ever; it was still there during my childhood in the 80’s and 90s; although I started reading it, I never finished it.). Let’s go to The Times obit:
He became first a jailhouse Black Muslim convert, then after the split in the Nation of Islam followed Malcolm X. In mid-1965, eight years into his term, he wrote to Beverly Axelrod, a well-known white civil liberties lawyer in San Francisco asking for help in pleading for parole.
Ms. Axelrod took his essays to Edward M. Keating, Rampart’s owner and editor. When Mr. Cleaver went before the parole board, he was a published writer with the support of literary lights like Mr. Geismar, Norman Mailer and Paul Jacobs.
Freed in December 1966, with a job reporting for Ramparts in San Francisco, Mr. Cleaver helped organize Black House, a cultural center, where he met Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the co-founders of the Black Panther Party, which they called an organization for ”self-defense” against the police.
The Panthers were a growing presence in Oakland, shadowing police patrols, whom they accused of brutalizing the black community, and openly displaying weapons. Mr. Cleaver quickly joined the party as minister of information — chief spokesman and propagandist.
‘‘We shall have our manhood,” Mr. Cleaver declared. ”We shall have it or the earth will be leveled by our attempts to gain it.”
Mr. Cleaver also began teaching an experimental course at the University of California at Berkeley in fall 1968, which infuriated then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, who declared, ”If Eldridge Cleaver is allowed to teach our children, they may come home one night and slit our throats.”
At the time, Mr. Cleaver regularly referred to Mr. Reagan as Mickey Mouse in his speeches. It is a measure of Mr. Cleaver’s many changes that in 1982 he was booed and hissed by the Yale Afro-American student society for supporting Mr. Reagan.
As tensions between the Panthers and the authorities rose, Mr. Cleaver was caught up in a shootout in April 1968 in which a 17-year-old Panther, Bobby Hutton, was killed and Mr. Cleaver and two policemen were wounded. Facing the revocation of his parole and new charges, Mr. Cleaver jumped a $50,000 bail late that year and fled into exile, first to Cuba and then to a home in Algeria, then a leftist haven.
Mr. Cleaver married Kathleen Neal in 1967, the daughter of Foreign Service officer. She followed him to Algeria, and they had two children, a son, Maceo, now 29, and a daughter, Joju, 28. The couple divorced in 1987, and Mrs. Cleaver is now a lawyer and teacher.
At first Mr. Cleaver toured Communist countries triumphantly, hailing Kim Il Sung of North Korea, among others. But disillusion set in, and there was increasing friction between the Algerian Government and Mr. Cleaver’s entourage. There was an internal struggle between Mr. Cleaver and Mr. Newton, too, and Mr. Cleaver broke with the Panthers in 1971.
”I had heard so much rhetoric about their glorious leaders and their incredible revolutionary spirit that even to this very angry and disgruntled American, it was absurd and unreal,” Mr. Cleaver wrote later,
The family moved to France. There, Mr. Cleaver said, contemplating suicide one night with a gun in his hand, he suddenly had a vision in which his old Marxist heroes disappeared in smoke and a blinding light led him to Christianity. In 1977, he returned to the United States and surrendered to the F.B.I. under a deal with the Government by which he pleaded guilty to the assault charge stemming from the shootout. Charges of attempted murder were dropped, and he was sentenced to 1,200 hours of community service.
The cover of John Oliver’s 1977 book on Cleaver.
From John Wigger’s “PTL“:
In January 1977 a PTL Club regular, George Otis, published a hastily written account of the [April 1968 police] shootout and Cleaver’s subsequent conversion, likening it to the Apostle Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. When Cleaver appeared on the PTL Club, shortly after publically declaring his newfound faith, Jim Bakker appealed to viewers for money to defray Cleaver’s legal expenses.
Bakker and other evangelicals could not resist the allure of Cleaver’s celebrity (a real Black Panther!). If a former badass revolutionary and international fugitive could come to Jesus, anything was possible. But Cleaver was never conventionally evangelical, particularly with regard to his sexuality. He later admitted that he obtained political asylum in France because he and the president of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, shared the same mistress. While living in France, Cleaver was responsible for one of the worst fashion designs ever, a pair of pants with a pouch in the front to show off a man’s penis. One observer suggested calling them “meat cleavers.” Cleaver continued to promote the pants even after his conversion, though one can hardly imagine that they were a hit with PTL’s audience. By 1979 Cleaver had taken up with Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. He later became a Mormon.
That man really loved his conversions. Anyway, I dug up this 1978 Washington Post article about a meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters Association:
Riding the crest of the wave of born-again evangelical fervor that is sweeping America, more than 2,000 television and radio religion broadcasters are gathering here in the Washington Hilton for the four-day, 35th convention of the National Religious Broadcasters Association.
Singer Anita Bryant will help begin the convention tonight, singing “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace” in the concert, as Washington’s homosexual community stages a series of demonstrations to protest her presence in the city. Former Nixon political enforcer and born-again Christian Charles Colson will show his film on prison reform tonight.
“It’s a breath-taking week,” predicted NRB public relations man William Bray. “I can’t think of anything that shows better what’s happening in this country. You’ll see a slice of everything – brand new converts like Larry Flynt. Eldridge Cleaver will speak . . .”
And many more. A fantastic cast of characters will gather under the common tent of deep personal commitment to Christ. Besides Flynt, the converted Hustler magazine publisher, and former Black Panther Cleaver, speakers will include marabel Morgan, author of “Total Joy” and “Total Woman;” Labelle Lance, wife of former Carter administration official Bert Lance: British essayist and iconoclast Malcolm Muggeridge, and Catherine Marshall, author of “A Man Called Peter.”
Many of the religious broadcasters are among the country’s best-known radio and television personalities – Billy Graham with his “Day of Discovery”; Pat Robertson with “700 Club” out of Virginia Beach; “The Oral Roberts Show”; Rex Humbard’s “Cathedral of Tomorrow” from Akron, Ohio; Robert Schuller’s “Hour of Power”; Jerry Falwell’s “Old Time Gospel Hour,” and Jim Bakker’s “P.T.L. Club” from Charlotte. These are on television.
And on radio: Theodore Epp’s “Back to the Bible Broadcast”: Billy Graham’s “Hour of Decision,” and Richard DeHaan’s “Radio Bible Class,” among others.
This fervor, these programs – all of it grows out of what the evangelicals call a deep new hunger for spiritual values in America today, and an equally deep disappointment with the achievements of mere politics.
“I think the spiritual revival is the kind of thing that has developed since the disillusion of the ’60s,” said Armstrong. ” . . . There’s a conservative trend in the country, (and) in the religious field it seems people are getting back to the age-old standards . . . back to Christ-centered religion . . .”
Wait, “mere politics”? That was certainly a very different time in the history of American Evangelicalism, that’s for share. Anyway, despite Cleaver’s on-to-the-next style of religiosity, he remained on the Republican Right throughout the 80s, running as a conservative for various offices during the Reagan years. By the 90s, he became addicted to crack cocaine, and later, returned to Christianity before his death in 1998- thirty years after his infamous shootout.
Want some more? Check out this interview between Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Cleaver from PBS’ “Frontline”, or this entry from the African American Registry. Curious about those Cleaver pants? Head over to see them at Messy Nessy (btw, they really are horrible… like way horrible).You can also watch Cleaver discuss his radical change from the Black Panthers to being a conservative Christian at the 1981 BYU Freedom Festival below.