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Ex-Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver dies

Published Sep. 13, 2005

Former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who achieved prominence as a 1960s revolutionary, author and presidential candidate but spent his later years as a conservative idealist concerned with the environment, died Friday at a hospital in Pomona, Calif. He was 62.

A spokeswoman for Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center declined to reveal a cause of death, citing a family request, but a neighbor, Peter Apanel, who was with him Thursday night said the onetime seminal spokesman for the Black Power movement had complained of what he believed was a reaction to various medications. Apanel said Cleaver was battling prostate cancer and also taking insulin.

Cleaver had lived in the Pomona area, east of Los Angeles, for several months and at the time of his death was a consultant to the Coalition for Diversity at the University of La Verne.

"He was a beloved and respected friend here," Apanel said, adding that many evenings he could be found reading poetry at a neighborhood coffeehouse while building up a repertoire of speeches he hoped would improve his economic situation.

He crafted ceramic pots and told whoever would listen of his concerns about environmental pollution.

By February of this year he had moved his life to a point where he exchanged pleasantries at a gathering of Pasadena, Calif., police officers to which he had been invited, telling them, "You'll never know how happy I am to meet you under these circumstances."

All this from a once-fierce advocate of violence who was one of the earliest apostles of America's black power movement. A self-educated man with a gift for language, he was perhaps best known for writing Soul On Ice, a collection of eloquent essays on prison life, interracial relationships and on being black in white America. The book, which he wrote while in California's Folsom State Prison on assault charges, earned him praise as one of the most compelling black writers and social critics of the 1960s.

After his release, Cleaver joined the Black Panther Party, attracted, he once said, by its "revolutionary courage." Branded "the nation's greatest threat" by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the militant group with its trademark black berets pursued goals ranging from shadowing Oakland, Calif., police with gun-toting monitors to providing free breakfasts for poor children.

Nicknamed "Rage," Cleaver was appointed the Panthers' minister of information, and quickly became the era's embodiment of black militancy.

"We were like those who staged the Boston Tea Party," Cleaver once said of the Panthers. "We refused to go along with oppressive practices. We fought it as best we knew how."

In the fall of 1968, he became a cause celebre when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan tried to bar him from lecturing in a course at the University of California, Berkeley. Student demonstrations over the action resulted in hundreds of arrests. That same year, Cleaver ran for president as the candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party, winning 30,000 votes.

But then, facing attempted murder charges in connection with a Panthers' shootout with Oakland police, he jumped $50,000 bail and fled the United States. Thirty-three at the time, he said he would "rather be shot down in the street" than return to prison.

Cleaver remained abroad seven years, a Marxist searching for political and racial utopia in Cuba, Algeria, North Korea and the Soviet Union. It was a wrenching time. He missed America, became disillusioned with communism and felt his life had evaporated into a desperate meaninglessness. "It was like watching the blood flowing out of my veins," he once told the Los Angeles Times.

In 1975, Cleaver returned home _ a stranger to those who had known and idolized him before. As leftists looked on, incredulous, he renounced his revolutionary past, praised the U.S. government and declared himself a born-again Christian, saying he had seen the face of Jesus in a full moon. The old attempted-murder charge was reduced to assault, and Cleaver was sentenced to 2,000 hours of community service.

Cleaver's life from that point on became an often perplexing, often tragic series of zigzags _ a search, it sometimes seemed, for his real self.

In the late 1970s, he dabbled in fashion, designing trousers with a codpiece-like pouch _ called the "Cleaver sleeve." But America apparently wasn't ready for the Cleaver sleeve, so its creator turned to making decorative flower pots, working for a San Jose, Calif., tree-trimming company and sampling religions.

In 1979, he founded the Cleaver Crusade for Christ and bought 40 acres in the Nevada desert, planning to use it for his ministry's headquarters. A year later, he formed his own amalgamate religion _ Christlam _ along with a peculiar auxiliary he called Guardians of the Sperm. Mormonism came next.

By the late 1980s, Cleaver's once-resonant voice had fallen silent and he slipped into anonymity, earning a meager living scavenging bottles and broken-down chairs off the streets of Berkeley. In those years, the only time his name popped up was on the police blotter, for arrests related to cocaine possession and burglary.