Eldridge Cleaver loomed larger in the late 1960s than his idol Malcolm X did — and his story would make a wilder film. Published on Feb. 12, 1968, Soul on Ice, his autobiography, told of a life spent in and out of jail for marijuana peddling and assault. With the sexual humiliation of black men as his theme, Cleaver, then 32, touched a deep chord of anger in racially torn America. ”We shall have our manhood,” Soul thundered, ”or the earth will be leveled.”
Paroled in 1966 after serving time for assault, Cleaver was one of the New York Times’ top 10 authors of 1968, along with such giants as André Malraux and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Cleaver ”literally went from solitary confinement to running around with Norman Mailer,” said a friend.
Having joined the Black Panthers in 1967, Cleaver narrowly escaped death two months after Soul’s publication in a bloody police raid on Panther headquarters in Oakland, Calif. Arrested and charged with violating his parole in the melee, he jumped bail and fled to Algeria, Cuba, and North Korea.
In 1975, Cleaver came home a fervent Christian, denouncing racism abroad. He knelt with Billy Graham and had a potential 72-year sentence reduced to 1,200 hours of community service. Turning to capitalism in 1978, Cleaver blew $60,000 trying to market men’s slacks with a built-in codpiece.
The subject has become an obsession. ”My pants have not been given a fair chance,” says Cleaver, now 57. ”The world is dying for them. The penis is wilting on the vine!” Cleaver now lives quietly in the Bay Area, writing screenplays; he plans to plow any film profits back into pants.
Some doubt that Cleaver will produce another book. ”He’s so disorganized,” says his ex-wife, Kathleen Cleaver, a law professor at Emory University. Cleaver admits that the pain between male and female — the subject of Soul — still hasn’t healed. ”I was torn apart when my marriage fell apart,” he says of his 1987 divorce after 20 years of marriage. ”I’m almost tempted to believe it won’t fall back together until I fall in love again.”
Time Capsule: February 12, 1968
The Confessions of Nat Turner mastered readers; on TV The Andy Griffith Show was No. 1. Moviegoers found Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner inviting, and the top tune was ”Love Is Blue.”