Eldridge Cleaver, the son of a nightclub piano player, was born in Wabbaseka, Arkansas, in 1935. The family later moved to Los Angeles. As a teenager he was sent to reform school for stealing a bicycle and selling marijuana.
Soon after his release he was arrested for possession of marijuana. Found guilty he was sentenced to 30 months in Soledad Prison. While in prison Cleaver became interested in politics and read the works of Karl Marx, Tom Paine, William Du Bois and Lenin.
Cleaver was released in 1957 but the following year he was arrested and charged with attempted murder. Found guilty, he was sentenced to a term of two to fourteen years in prison. While in San Quentin he began reading books on black civil rights and was particularly influenced by the writings of Malcolm X.
After leaving prison in 1966 Cleaver joined the Black Panther Party (BPP). Soon afterwards he was appointed the organization's minister of information. Cleaver was now a committed revolutionary and called for an armed insurrection and the establishment of a black socialist government.
Cleaver married Kathleen Neal on 27th December, 1967. The following year he published his memoirs, Soul on Ice (1968), established him as one of African American's the most important political figures.
The activities of the Black Panthers came to the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Hoover described the Panthers as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country" and ordered the FBI to employ "hard-hitting counter-intelligence measures to cripple the Black Panthers".
On 6th April, 1968 eight BPP members, including Cleaver, Bobby Hutton and David Hilliard, were travelling in two cars when they were ambushed by the Oakland police. Cleaver and Hutton ran for cover and found themselves in a basement surrounded by police. The building was fired upon for over an hour. When a tear-gas canister was thrown into the basement the two men decided to surrender. Cleaver was wounded in the leg and so Hutton said he would go first. When he left the building with his hands in the air he was shot twelve times by the police and was killed instantly.
Cleaver was arrested and charged with attempted murder. He was given bail and in November, 1968, he fled to Mexico. Later he moved to Cuba. He also spent time in Algeria.
While in exile Cleaver had disagreements with Huey Newton and in 1971 he expelled him from the Black Panther Party. Soon afterwards Cleaver formed the Revolutionary Peole's Communication Network and Kathleen Cleaver returned to the United States to establish the party in New York.
Soon afterwards Cleaver underwent a mystical conversion to Christianity. He now rejected his former political beliefs describing the system in Cuba as "voodoosocialism". He also wrote an article for the New York Times where he argued "With all its faults, the American political system is the freest and most democratic in the world."
Cleaver returned to the United States in 1975. Tried for his role in the 1968 shoot-out, Cleaver was found guilty of assault. The court was lenient and Cleaver, now a born-again Christian, received only five year's probation and directed to perform 2,000 hours of community service. David Hilliard, on the other hand, charged with the same offence, had received a one to ten year prison term.
After his trial he ran the Cleaver Crusade for Christ. Later, he came up with a plan for "Christlam," a plan to combine Christianity and Islam. He published Soul on Ice (1978) and for a time he advocated the religious ideas of Sun Myung Moon and became involved with Mormonism. During the 1980s he became a supporter of Ronald Reagan.
Cleaver, who for a time worked as a tree surgeon, divorced his wife, Kathleen Cleaver, in 1985. He continued to struggle with drug problems and in 1994 was seriously injured when he was knocked unconscious while buying cocaine from a drug dealer.
On his release from hospital he worked for the Black Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco . He also taught at a Bible college in Miami. However, in 1998 he was placed on probation in 1998 after convictions for burglary and cocaine possession.
Eldridge Cleaver died at Pomona Valley Medical Center on 1st May, 1998. His family requested that the hospital did not reveal the cause of his death.