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Ex-Panther Eldridge Cleaver: 'I Just Wish I Could Be Born Again Every Day'

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Eldridge Cleaver was once considered the most impassioned black militant of all. He was “Minister of Information” of the Black Panther party during its rampaging heyday. His 1968 book, Soul on Ice, was probably the definitive expression of black rage—a searing account of rapes he committed, prisons he endured and ghettos that taught him violence. But that Eldridge Cleaver is no more. Eleven months ago he returned from seven years of fugitive exile in Cuba, Algeria, China, Russia, North Korea, North Vietnam and France. He faces six counts of assault with intent to kill, arising from a shootout in 1968 with Oakland, Calif. police. Now 41 and living in the Bay Area with his wife, Kathleen, and their two children, Cleaver has made a remarkable political and personal turnabout. He says he had a powerful religious experience in the South of France last year that led to his return. One night he saw faces in the moon—his own, then Castro’s, then Chairman Mao’s and, finally, the face of Christ. He began to weep uncontrollably and recited the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. Cleaver talked recently about his transformation with Donn Downing for PEOPLE:

Would you describe yourself now as a born-again Christian?

The label doesn’t bother me. I just wish I could be born again every day. The Lord showed me the way back home. I had a stereophonic experience, and I was not the same. From being confused I knew clearly what to do. From being depressed I was elated. I saw my way out of a blind alley.

Are you referring to your life with your family in exile?

Yes, my whole life was at a dead end. As far as children and family were concerned, the stresses and strains of our life abroad were intolerable.

In what way?

At first I was trying to force Kathleen to leave me. I knew it would be better for her and the children in the U.S. I could only deal with that if I got mad at her. And it was the same with her. She couldn’t do it unless I drove her to it. So I was doing that, but it was not something I wanted. That is where the depression came in. I really felt trapped.

It’s been reported you were disillusioned with life in Communist nations.

I found the bureaucratic arrogance in those countries tyrannical. Members of the Communist party were the most disgusting, hypocritical, phony, see-through kind of people—bureaucrats playing the same little games of power, juice and connections that you find everywhere. But they are worse in those countries because they aren’t accountable to anybody except their own little clique.

Some of your old friends denounce you as a right-winger. How much have your politics changed?

I have the same criticisms of this country. I think my criticisms are even more to the point, more surgical. But I am interested in resolving any differences that can be resolved with people on the right. One of the things I agree with them about is the need for a guaranteed defense. The Russians are dangerous. They’ve got rockets that can reach Mars too. We cannot fall into a slumber that assumes there can be no more Pearl Harbors.

Where do you think your old political allies have gone wrong?

A lot of people were born into a situation of criticism, of strife and anti-Americanism. They went through grammar school, high school and college when their parents and peers were talking about the United States as the worst place in the world. Well, I think that’s going overboard. There are still people running around this country with the red book [Quotations from Chairman Mao]. You don’t even see much of that in China anymore. People here are talking about Fidel Castro as some revolutionary god. The Cuban people call him a big fat pig. The left have to disabuse themselves of some of their political icons.

How do you feel about your alienation from the political left?

I’m glad to be able to give people on the left nightmares. Last time it was people on the right.

You recently met with Charles Colson, the White House aide who helped wage the Nixon administration’s war on the left and who has since had his own spiritual conversion. How did that go?

Before the meeting, I was sure that I would not like him. But then I read his book [Born Again] and I was impressed. The guy is really okay. He comes through as a human being. I’ve seen him a couple of times, and I consider him a friend and a brother in Christ. Billy Graham was another one of those people I never particularly wanted to meet. But I was happy and honored that he took the time to talk to me.

How do you account for all this mellowing toward Establishment figures?

I used to have the attitude that people were out to do me in on a physical level. That is why I used to relate to guns a lot. But I tell you, ever since that strange experience, I haven’t met a person I didn’t like. I haven’t. It might be some kind of failure. Maybe some tubes and fuses were blown.

And what about your future? Are you going to undertake some sort of Christian activist crusade?

I have no plans like that. I picture myself as a writer and speaker and that is what I will do. If that constitutes a crusade, then it’s just another of what must be a million crusades in this country. I just participate in the whole marketplace of ideas.