1968 — The Eldridge Cleaver teaching controversy

 

The Afro-American Student Union (AASU) at UC Berkeley

 

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 that did not want support by majority-white organizations..  The AASU opposed the October 29, 1966 "Black Power and it's Challenges Conference" hosted by SDS in the Greek Theatre (actually a rally where only one radical point of view was represented), 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 lobbied the administration for the creation of a Black Studies Department.   In response to a demand for such a program, published in the Daily Californian, 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,"  This proposed class, which was co-organized by four university faculty, and 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 Republican 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 Regents attempt at censorship of Cleaver's participation in a course designed around his ideas, set off a fresh controversy over academic freedom on campus and helped spur the mobilization of the Third World Liberation Front, a coalition of black, Asian American,  Latino/Mexican American and native American students that organized the longest student strike in U.S. history and led to the creation of a diverse ethnic studies program at Berkeley.  Ultimately, the Regents gave in to student and faculty pressure and 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 polarizing 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. 

Husband and father

 

Cleaver met Kathleen Neal, a young, middle-class black woman from Tuskegee, Alabama, where she had become involved in the Student National Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights organization that was very active in voter registration and sit-ins at segregated lunch counters..  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 the first female to become part of the Panther's official leadership.  By 1971 Eldridge had been expelled from the 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."  Kathleen exited the Party the same year.

 

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.  That year, Kathleen and Eldridge fled his charges of attempted murder of the two policemen involved in the shootout, and settled in Algeria, where they were given a place to live by the government.  In Algeria they had a son and a daughter.  Later they fled to Cuba, where he was briefly treated as a hero.  After he left Cuba the family headed to Algeria, where he attempted to network with revolutionaries from all over Africa.  By 1981 the couple had separated over Eldridge's alleged spousal abuse, and were officially divorced in 1987.  There is some evidence that he murdered a man who had become Kathleen's Cleaver's lover. Kathleen has since remarried and is a professor of law at Emory College.

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, which 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 Republican, frequently speaking at Republican functions. 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 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 1998, in Pomona, California.

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Eldridge Cleaver speaks to a crowd at UC Berkeley in 1968.  Cleaver was a celebrity in a way that few other black activists could match.  White activists remember buying his book "Soul on Ice," and reading it voraciously.  His public persona was exciting and glamorous compared to other activists, and many gave him a pass on his violent crimes and accepted his claims of remorse.

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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.

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A 1968 rally on the steps of Wheeler Auditorium supporting the right of UC Berkeley's faculty to determine the content of their courses.  The mostly white student population at UCB was ready to support the demands of the black community and 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 UC Berkeley campus.

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

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Sit-in at UC Berkeley's Eshelman Hall in support of the Cleaver course.

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Students improvise to get food to the sit-in at Eshelman Hall.