1968 - The Eldridge Cleaver teaching controversy


Black students political history at UCB


In 1966 black students made up a mere 1% of the student population at UC Berkeley.  The lone black student political group was the Afro-American Student Union (AASU).  The AASU did not support the "Black Power" concept of black-only political organizations.  They opposed the October 29, 1966 "Black Power and it's challenges," conference in the Greek Theatre, calling it "farcical," "insidious" and "detestable."

Black students pursue courses relevant to black experience - Social Analysis 139X and Cleaver


By 1968, the number of black students on campus began to rise.  Early that year, a coalition of black student activists and local community members demanded the creation of a Black Studies Department.   In response to a demand for such a program, published in the Daily California, Chancellor Roger Heyns promised the establishment of a new department by the Fall of 1969.  In the meantime, black students worked with the College of Letters and Sciences to offer a selection of courses on the "Black Experience" during the 1968 school year, including a course titled "Social Analysis 139X: Dehumanization and Regeneration of the American Social Order," which was co-organized by four university faculty, but was to be "guest taught" by controversial author and Black Panther Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver.  However, as students began to enroll in the course, conservative Governor Ronald Reagan and state legislators pressured the Board of Regents to pass a new rule limiting guest lecturers to a single lecture per semester.

Prelude to the Third World Liberation Front Strike of 1969


The last-minute censorship of Cleaver's participation in a course designed around his ideas, set off a new controversy over academic freedom on campus and helped spur the mobilization of the Third World Liberation Front, a coalition of black, Latin American, Asian-American and Mexican-American students that organized the longest student strikes in U.S. history and led to the creation of a diverse ethnic studies program at Berkeley.  Ultimately, Cleaver gave six lectures on campus in 1968.

There was enthusiastic student support for Cleaver's class, and mass rallies were held in which the students made that support clear.  Of note was a sit-in in Eshelman Hall in support of Cleaver and academic freedom.

Eldridge Cleaver - Who was he and what did he do in life?

Author and admitted serial rapist:  The word "controversial" has been widely used in reference this figure.  In 1966 Cleaver published "Soul on Ice," In that widely read book of semi-autobiographical essays, Cleaver admitted that he had committed numerous rapes of black women and white women.  He described these crimes as politically inspired, motivated by a conviction that the rape of white women was "an insurrectionary act." In "Soul" he renounced rape and all his previous reasoning about it.

Eldridge's violent activities and a growing "rap sheet." As a teenager and young adult, Cleaver spent time in Folsom and San Quentin, convicted of charges of rape and assault with attempt to commit murder.  He claimed to have been radicalized in prison when he was given a copy of Marx's "Communist Manifesto" and other socialist and revolutionary literature.  On his release in 1966, he joined the newly-formed Black Panther Party, attracted to the Panthers' advocacy of armed struggle.  In the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. King on April 4, 1968, there were riots across the nation.  Two days after King's murder, Cleaver and 14 other Panthers led an ambush of Oakland police officers, during which two officers and Cleaver were wounded and 17-year old Panther Bobby Hutton was killed.  In addition there is some evidence that he murdered a man who had become Kathleen's Cleaver's lover.  He was never charged for that alleged crime.

Husband and father:  Cleaver met Kathleen Neal, a young, middle-class black woman from Tuskegee, Alabama, where she had become involved in SNCC.  She and Eldridge met in the Bay Area In 1967.  They married in 1968, and Kathleen joined Eldridge in the Black Panther leadership, where she took the position of Communications Secretary, given the task of organizing meetings and rallies and writing agitational materials.  She was, like Eldridge, an attractive,  articulate, effective speaker.  She became first female to become part of the Panther's official leadership.  By 1971 Eldridge had been expelled from the Party over the his strong ideological differences with Huey Newton and others in the Panther leadership.  Kathleen exited the Party the same year.  In 1968 she and Eldridge fled his attempted murder charges and they settled in Algeria, where they were given a place to live by the government.  In Algeria they had a son and a daughter.  By 1981 the couple had separated over Eldridge's alleged spousal abuse, and were officially divorced in 1987.  Kathleen has since remarried and is a professor of law at Emory College.


Attempts to become a figure of local, national and international influence:  In 1968 Eldridge Cleaver was a Presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party, garnering 0.05% of the vote.  While he gave his series of lectures at UC Berkeley in 1968, he was under indictment for attempted murder of the policemen. 


In late 1968 he jumped bail to flee to Cuba, where he was briefly treated as a hero.   After he left Cuba he headed to Algeria, where he attempted to network with revolutionaries from all over Africa.  In 1971, Cleaver was expelled from the Black Panther Party because . he refused to go along with the Panthers' new emphasis on doing good works in the black community, rather than continuing to alienate potential followers and supporters with fiery rhetoric advocating "armed struggle."

Religious and political "conversion," sickness and death:  Cleaver left Algeria in 1972, moving to Paris, France, becoming a born-again Christian and promoting his line of "Cleavers," which were pants with codpieces, twhich he claimed liberated men from "penis binding."  In 1977 he returned to the U.S. to face the unresolved attempted murder charge, and by September 1978 he was out on bail as legal proceedings dragged on.  During this time he ran a "Cleavers" factory and a West Hollywood retail store for his "fashions."

He was baptized into the Mormon Church in 1983 and became a conservative Republic, speaking at various. He continued to try to obtain a pulpit for his wildly fluctuating ideas, and ran for Berkeley City Council and for the Republican nomination for the US Senate.  He was defeated in both attempts.  In 1990 he entered drug rehab for a stated crack cocaine addiction.  He was arrested for twice for drug possession in the mid-nineties.  He moved to Southern California in 1994, and fell into poor health.  He died at age 62 in Pomona, California.

Cleaver - a tortured soul?:  Researching this theme, I feel sadness at Cleaver's desperate attempts to find meaning and purpose in his life.   He apparently suffered from personality and emotional issues that were never addressed because of the degree of unquestioning adulation he seems to have received  


In any case, I have long felt that such intense involvement in fractious politics as Cleaver experienced can bring with it soul-crushing isolation, especially when deep, personal connections are forfeited in the quest for attention and approval.


Eldridge Cleaver speaks to a crowd at UC Berleley.  Cleaver was a celebrity in a way that few other black activists could match.  I remember buying his book "Soul on Ice," and reading it voraciously.    His public persona was exciting and glamorous compared to other activists, and many of us gave him a pass on his violent, rapist crimes and accepted his claims of remorse for them.


Cleaver conveyed a passion for change that was irresistible to many white students.  His movie-star good looks and Panther black leather coat were part of his charisma.


Rally on the steps of Wheeler Auditorium supporting the right of UCB faculty to determine the content of their courses.  The mostly white student population at UCB were ready to support the demands of the black community, and the thousand or so black students, for University courses relevant to the experiences and needs of people of color. 

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Mass rally in Sproul Plaza in support of Eldridge Cleaver teaching a class on the UCB campus.


Students block entrance to Eshelman Hall in support of Social Analysis 139X


Sit-in in Eshelman Hall in support of Cleaver course.


Students improvise to get food to sit-in in Eshelman Hall