Some in the audience at Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center last month were dismayed. Here was a top black militant of the ’60s—ex-Minister of Information of the Black Panthers, incendiary author, ex-fugitive and current parolee—and he was talking like the Establishment. Dressed in a three-piece suit, guest speaker Eldridge Cleaver was calling the U.S. “the most democratic country” and urging blacks to work within the system. There were groans in the SRO crowd, but Cleaver’s wife, Kathleen, once a Panther herself and now a student at Yale, applauded fervently.
If the author of the 1968 polemic Soul on Ice and the 1978 autobiography Soul on Fire were to write a new book, it might be Souls in Mainstream. On his return in 1975 from seven years of self-exile in Cuba, Algeria and France, Cleaver faced multiple criminal charges (including attempted murder). Today, at 46, the onetime revolutionary no longer walks on the wild side. Says Earl Anthony, an ex-Panther who is now an L.A. playwright: “Eldridge changed from one of the most vicious dudes against the system into a person who is reaching out. He’s become a nice human being.” Anthony rejects claims by other ex-Panthers that Cleaver’s change of heart stems from a deal struck in return for leniency in the courts. (He was convicted on an assault charge only and sentenced to 2,000 hours of community service, since cut to 1,200 hours.) “Eldridge believes what he says,” Anthony insists. Henry Gates, an assistant professor working on Yale’s Eldridge Cleaver Archives, which will contain the ex-Panther’s writings, adds: “He has the sophistication to shed his skin when it’s worn out.”
Kathleen’s evolution has been equally dramatic. In her Panther days, she says, “The party line was all I wanted to talk about.” But at 36, she is a relaxed junior with an A average and plans for law school. Her new philosophy, she says, is the one she was raised on—”that you should be generous and kind, you shouldn’t shoot and steal, you shouldn’t lie.” She adds: “All revolutionaries lie.”
Since Kathleen moved to New Haven last August with the couple’s son, Maceo, 12, and daughter, Joju, 11, Eldridge has been baching it in San Jose. He works for a Mormon who operates a tree service, and lives in a house shared by nine other employees. Cleaver himself has become a Mormon investigator—which means he’s learning about the church, but hasn’t yet been baptized. He’s writing a book about evangelicals, building a business of design flowerpots, and fulfilling his sentence by, among other things, helping the handicapped.
Kathleen is less bothered by their separation than Eldridge. “Marriage is more interesting if you spend some time apart,” she claims. She is also busy studying (on a full scholarship) for a B.A. in history, writing her autobiography, working at the Connecticut Afro-American Historical Society, and caring for the kids. Often she labors in her kitchen past midnight writing course papers. “Being a single parent is a negative,” she admits. “But Yale is everything I wanted.” While she will graduate in 1983, Eldridge will have a commencement of sorts this June when he completes his sentence. “It will be the first time in 33 years he’s not been embroiled in the California criminal justice system,” Kathleen notes.
Eldridge was born in Arkansas, moved to Phoenix when his father, Leroy, became a dining car waiter, but essentially grew up in L.A. His parents separated when he was 13. He went to a reformatory a year later for bicycle theft, and was soon sent back for selling marijuana. Then, at 18, came a two-and-a-half-year term in Soledad prison for possession of marijuana. That was his first felony conviction, and one of the few past episodes about which he remains bitter. Possession of small amounts of pot was later made a misdemeanor in California.
He resumed hustling drugs and, as he once wrote, became a rapist who “started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto.” A 1958 conviction for assault on a white woman got him nine years in prison, where he wrote the impassioned essays on black pride and power that were published as Soul on Ice. After his 1966 parole he joined the fledgling Panthers.
Kathleen’s road to radicalism was far different. Her father, Ernest Neal, was a sociology professor at Tuskegee who became a Foreign Service officer. She grew up in India, the Philippines, Liberia and Sierra Leone. “I was happy and protected,” she recalls. She spent a year at Oberlin, went on to Barnard, then dropped out to become an idealistic volunteer worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It was at SNCC’s Nashville office that she first encountered Cleaver in 1967.
“It was a meeting of the spirit,” Kathleen says. “I was becoming a revolutionary and I was impressed by his statesmanlike quality.” She was also awed by the galleys of Soul on Ice that he let her read. For Cleaver it was “love at first sight.” Her family objected, but they married nine months later.
Cleaver was so angry in those days that he was even scorned by the Panthers’ Supreme Commander, Huey Newton, for antagonizing the black community. Eldridge concedes he felt “there was no hope of effecting real freedom within the capitalistic system. I was the guy who demanded we go down shooting.” Kathleen recalls how “the Panthers were serious and meant to die”—as at least 19 did in the ’60s. She adds: “It was exhilarating in a way, believing what we were doing would alter history. But it was also terrible—people getting killed.”
Four months after the wedding, Cleaver and two policemen were wounded in an Oakland shootout in which another Panther was killed. Eldridge fled to Cuba, Algiers (where Kathleen joined him), then Paris. Maceo was born in Algiers and Joju on a visit to North Korea. From Hanoi, Cleaver urged U.S. soldiers in South Vietnam to assassinate their commanders. Through it all, Kathleen fondly called him “Papa Rage.” But gradually they found Marxist solutions both oppressive and ineffective. Eldridge derides Cuba’s system as “voodoo socialism,” and says North Korea and Algeria are “even worse, because they have been doing it longer.”
Though Kathleen found exile “awful,” the marriage survived. “Boredom tears apart more marriages than pressure,” Eldridge says. Kathleen adds, “If you can handle the fact that you might be killed any minute, you can handle a lot.” There were storms over Eldridge’s affairs in his Panther days. “He had groupies,” she says. “In a revolutionary situation it’s hard to follow Christian morality. Now he’s a reformed husband.” To which Cleaver responds, with a laugh: “Kathleen is beautiful, sincere, very intelligent—and a little too moral for me.”
Cleaver’s legal bills totaled more than $350,000, much of it paid by donations. “It’s cheaper to be conservative,” Kathleen jokes. “I decided to go to law school to make use of the experience I had gained dealing with lawyers.” Eldridge has tried to make ends meet by writing, lecturing and—at one point—designing men’s pants with a codpiece (they didn’t sell). He has vigorously pursued religion; before embracing Mormonism, he led a Cleaver Crusade for Christ and was baptized by a lay evangelical in a California pool where Esther Williams once performed. He enjoys “rescuing” copies of Soul on Ice from secondhand stores to give to friends, and strongly denies he’s “mellowed.” “That implies your ideas have changed because of age,” he says. “I’ve changed because of new conclusions.”
As for his kids, “I want them to educate themselves,” the onetime Papa Rage says. “I would like Maceo to be a lawyer or a general, a revolutionary in the sense that he will continue to do the work that has been done from generation to generation, improving the conditions of people and being a source of freedom.”