Back in the early 1980s, I was sitting in Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley with hundreds of other students, waiting rather impatiently to see a man who clearly embodied much of the turmoil, outrage, and overall ethos of the 1960s: ex-Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.
Cleaver combined his roles as radical philosopher and warrior for the oppressed to serve the Black Panthers as Minister of Information shortly after his release from Folsom prison in 1966. Cleaver hit the national stage in 1968 when he published a collection of his prison writings, Soul on Ice, which combines a visceral hatred for America with black liberation theology, admissions about "insurrectionary" rape, a spiritual odyssey, and a search for personal meaning in a racist environment.
Perhaps Shane Stevens of The Progressive captured the essence of Cleaver's book best when he said in a review, "The hell is there, and its name is America." Indeed, the raw power of Cleaver's remarkable and revealing eloquence in Soul on Ice made him a favorite on college campuses and also among legions of leftist intellectuals.
I read Soul on Ice as a teenager and was floored by the radical difference between the violent and turbulent streets of Cleaver's young life and the strawberry fields and apple orchards that girded the quiet dirt roads I strolled along during my own youth on a farm.
Cleaver's life took yet another violent turn in April of 1968 when he helped organize an ambush of the Oakland city police. The resulting shootout left fellow Panther Bobby Hutton dead, two police officers injured, and Cleaver charged with attempted murder. To avoid more time in prison, Cleaver left the country for Cuba and other communist destinations such as North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union, where he was heralded as a celebrity by authorities in each government, who also helped provide for his living.
By 1975, however, Cleaver had learned firsthand about the crushing weight of the state in the communist world. He experienced a personal transformation that left him longing for life back in America. And despite being vilified and called a traitor by his colleagues on the left, Cleaver began openly defending American values and traditions in speeches and interviews upon his return.
Sitting in the crowd at UC Berkeley some years after Cleaver's repatriation, I again thought about what this compelling and exotic man might be able to teach me about America. When the audience began hissing and sneering, I realized that Cleaver had arrived.
It has been over twenty-five years, but I still remember Cleaver's imposing figure strolling across the stage, unfazed by heckling and howling that met him from some in the audience. As Cleaver rested his large, black hands on the podium, I heard voices in the back snapping with anger and calling out in rapid succession, "You're a traitor, Cleaver!"
As I remember, Cleaver began his speech by defending the conservative American values of self-reliance and entrepreneurship and warning against the dangers of statism and collectivism. Shortly into his speech, however, as the heckling reached intolerable levels, dozens of protesters began marching down the aisles of the auditorium, headed for the stage...