Leroy Eldrige Cleaver was born August 31, 1935 in Wabbaseka, Arkansas near Pine Bluff. When his father began work as a dining-car waiter on the Super Chief, a train running from Chicago to Los Angeles, the family moved first to Phoenix and then to the Watts section of Los Angeles. Cleaver spent most of his teenage years in youth facilities, first serving a year for stealing a bicycle and later for marijuana sales.
When arrested again as an adult in 1954 for selling marijuana, he served two and a half years at the state prison in Soledad, where he earned his high school diploma and began reading works by Karl Marx, W.E.B. DuBois and Thomas Paine. After his release he returned to marijuana sales, as well as committing a series of rapes. He was convicted of assault, and sentenced to two to fourteen years which he served at San Quentin and Folsom prisons.
During this prison sentence Cleaver became a follower of the Black Muslims, influenced by the ideas and rhetoric of Malcolm X. He also began writing essays on race, gender and politics, as well as on his own prison experiences. The first of these were published in The Negro History Bulletin in 1962.
Cleaver became eligible for parole in 1965 and began corresponding with San Francisco civil rights attorney Beverly Axelrod. She was able to have his essay "Notes on a Native Son" published in Ramparts magazine, as well as the promise of a job at the magazine when he was released. Further essays attracted the support of writers such as Norman Mailer, and Cleaver was paroled in 1966.
He became an editor and contributor at Ramparts, and his essays and letters to Ms. Axelrod were published two years later in the best-selling book Soul on Ice. The book was viewed as the ultimate handbook for the student activists and Black Power activists of the time, as well as a scathing critique of American culture.
During this time he established Black House, a cultural center for young African Americans in Oakland. There he met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, founders of the Black Panther Party. Cleaver soon became the party's Minister of Information, publishing its newspaper and making public appearances around the country. UC Berkeley sociologist Laile Bartlett said this about him:
"Under his leadership, the Black Panthers had developed from a local Oakland organization into an international movement being copied by liberationists around the world. As a writer--his Soul on Ice was a bestseller--Cleaver was both symbol and spokesman for a public that transcended race and class."With the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Cleaver was one of the most influential African American figures of the time. He created an alliance between the Black Panther Party and the mostly white left-wing Peace and Freedom Party to nominate candidates for local, state and federal offices. Cleaver himself ran for president, receiving about 35, 000 votes.
He was wounded in a gun battle with the Oakland Police in April 1968, during which fellow Panther Bobby Hutton was killed. He was arrested for parole violation but released two months later. A higher court overturned the release and added charges from the shootout. He left the country in November to avoid arrest, settling first in Cuba and later in Algeria and North Korea.
Although he was greeted as a revolutionary hero in these countries, Cleaver became disenchanted with the repressive Communist regimes. "What made Marxism-Leninism unworkable was that there was no humanity in it, no love," he said in a Reader's Digest interview after his 1975 return. "I'd rather be in jail in America than free anywhere else." Imprisoned when he first returned, his conservative politics and new-found Christian faith found him a wide range of supported and all charges were dropped by 1978.
In that year Cleaver published a second book Soul on Fire addressing his conversion experience, although he later rejected the commercialism of evangelical Christianity and joined the Mormon Church. He was active in local politics, even challenging incumbent Alan Cranston in the U. S. Senate primary.
By the 1980's Cleaver began to have problems with drugs again, being arrested several times for cocaine use. He died on May 1, 1998 in Pomona, California at the age of 62.