Radical of the '60s outlived his time Cleaver: The militant nTC Black Panther changed, but his "Soul on Ice" remains a literary time capsule from a decade that seemed to be boiling over.

Sun Journal

May 03, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

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.

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