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Eldridge Cleaver

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Eldridge Cleaver was a man who made a significant imprint on our times, and not for the best. But I mourn his passing nonetheless.

I first met Eldridge when he was Ramparts magazines most famous and most bloodthirsty ex-con. "Im perfectly aware that Im in prison, that Im a Negro, that Ive been a rapist," he wrote in a notorious epistle that Ramparts published. "My answer to all such thoughts lurking in their split-level heads, crouching behind their squinting bombaridier eyes, is that the blood of Vietnamese peasants has paid off all my debts." This became an iconographic comment for the times, a ready excuse for all the destructive acts radicals like us committed.

No one doubted that Eldridge was the most articulate and colorful tribune of the Black Panther vanguard. But what he most articulated was a limitless, radical rage. Eldridge was indeed a rapist, and possibly a murderer as well (he boasted to Timothy Leary, whom he held hostage in his Algerian exile, that he even had a private graveyard for his enemies). It was Eldridge who accused Panther leader Huey Newton of betraying the radical cause when Newton reversed his famous summons to "pick up the gun" and begin the revolution. Eldridge split the Panthers and became spiritual godfather to the Black Liberation Army and other violent revolutionary factions.

In the 70s and 80s Eldridge had a change of heart, or rather many changes of heart. He became a Moonie, and then a Christian, and a Republican. Those of us who knew him, saw these various incarnations as a political street hustle, designed to secure new support systems for an extraordinary individual who lacked a moral center. Still, it took a certain courage and integrity to tell even a part of the truth. It meant, for example, detaching himself from the radical gravy train, which was just beginning to cash in on the criminal past. His Panther comrades David Hilliard, Bobby Seale, and Elaine Brown were busily taking advantage of a national false memory syndrome which recalled the Panthers not as the street thugs they were but as heroes of a civil-rights struggle they had openly despised. (In their heyday, Panther leaders liked to outrage their white supporters by referring to its leader as "Martin Luther Coon.") On campus lecture tours, in Hollywood films, and in a series of well-hyped books celebrated by institutions like the New York Times and the Washington Post, they rewrote their own past to fit the legend.

But Eldridge chose the lonely and more honest course of admitting what he had done. His most famous encounter with the law had been a shootout that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King.



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