Leroy Eldridge Cleaver was an influential member of the Black Panther Party and a respected author and intellectual. On August 31, 1935, Cleaver was born in Wabbaseka, Arkansas. His family moved to Phoenix before finally settling in Los Angeles. As a teenager, Cleaver often got in trouble with the law and was arrested for possession of marijuana and for theft. He served 30 months in prison. In 1957, he was convicted of assault with the intent to murder and was sent to San Quentin and Folsom, two of California's most notorious prisons, for a term of 2 to 14 years. While incarcerated, he wrote his first book, Soul on Ice, a collection of essays, published in 1968. This book later served to greatly influence the Black Panther Party and was hailed by critics as providing a raw look at race relations in America.
When Cleaver was released from prison in 1966, he joined the Black Panther Party, where he served as their spokesman. He was attracted to the Panthers because of their violent, radical ideology. Cleaver hoped that a revolution would overthrow the American government and replace it with a black socialist government. In 1968, he ran for president as the candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party, receiving approximately 35,000 votes. That same year, on April 6, Cleaver, along with seven other Black Panther Party members, was involved in a shootout with police. The Panthers were riding in two cars when they were pulled over by police. When the police began attacking, Cleaver and Bobby Hutton, another Panther member, hid in a basement while police fired on them for an hour. The two men decided to surrender after the police threw a canister of tear gas at them. Hutton, the first to exit the building, was shot 12 times by the police and killed. When Cleaver surrendered, he was arrested for attempted murder. He was released on bail in November 1968 and immediately fled the United States. He lived in exile in Cuba, Algeria, and France until 1975.
While abroad, Cleaver began to change his political perspective. He and Huey P. Newton, the leader of the Black Panther Party, had several conflicts, leading to Cleaver's expulsion from the Panthers in 1971. By the time he returned to America in 1975, he fully renounced his involvement with the Panthers and stated that he believed he would get a fair trial for what transpired in 1968. He also became a born-again Christian. The court, seeing how much Cleaver had changed, was lenient on him. He was found guilty of assault and sentenced to five years probation and 2,000 hours of community service.
During the 1980s, Cleaver transformed once more. He became a staunch supporter of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party. Elements of his past still followed him, though, as he was still heavily involved with drugs. In 1988, he was convicted on charges of cocaine possession and burglary. In 1992, he was again convicted of cocaine possession. In 1994, after suffering an injury at the hands of a drug dealer, he finally stopped doing drugs. At the time of his death on May 1, 1998, he was working as a diversity consultant.
See also Black Panther Party; Newton, Huey (1942–1989).
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