Eldridge Cleaver and the Afterlives of 1968

*Fifth and final instalment of E. James West’s article series on the 1968 Presidential campaign*

Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party and presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party. speaking at the Woods-Brown Outdoor Theatre, American University (Library of Congress).

In the November 7, 1968 issue of the New York Review of Books, the literary magazine’s letters to the editor section featured a correspondence under the heading of “Cleaver for President.” The letter, produced by the “Eldridge Cleaver for President Fund,” attempted to rally support behind the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Information, who had emerged as one of the nation’s most prominent Black radical activists following his release from prison at the end of 1966. Running on a platform of support for the Black liberation struggle and immediate withdrawal from the war in Vietnam, Cleaver was presented as the only viable electoral challenge “to the discreditable politics of Nixon, Humphrey and Wallace.” The letter announced that Cleaver “will be on the ballot in some twenty states,” and encouraged readers to send donations to the Cleaver Campaign fund address, care of the Peace and Freedom Party, at 682 Sixth Avenue, New York.

Cleaver’s base of support was rooted in his connections to the New Left. His prison memoirs had been serialized through influential leftist political magazine Ramparts, and, following his release from prison, he became a staff writer for the publication. In the spring of 1968 much of this autobiographical work was collated into a single text, Soul On Ice, which received generous reviews from mainstream publications such as the New York Times and the New York Review of Books.1 Several months later, Cleaver secured the presidential nomination of the Peace and Freedom Party at its convention in Ann Arbor, beating out the challenge of rival candidate and popular Black comic Dick Gregory, who would later run as a write-in candidate for a splinter organization.2 A smooth-talking and streetwise activist, Cleaver became a darling of sorts to an interracial coalition of radical leftists organized around the twin goals of Black liberation and an end to American imperialism.

At the same time, Cleaver was a wildly unsuitable candidate. In the first instance, he did not meet the age requirements for presidential eligibility established by the US Constitution. Cleaver’s goals were similar to that of other fringe Black candidates such as Charlene Mitchell, the presidential candidate for the Community Party, and Paul Boutelle, the vice-presidential candidate for the Socialist Workers Party; namely to “use the traditional election process to win an audience and to organize for the radical movement.”3 However, he showed little appetite for political campaigning except as a means of advancing his own notoriety. The scattershot nature of his campaign was evidenced through its letter to the New York Review of Books, which was published two days after the election had been held. Thirdly, Cleaver’s campaign was overshadowed by a violent confrontation between Black Panther activists and the Oakland police department in April 1968 which led to the death of teenage Party activist Bobby Hutton and saw Cleaver announce his candidacy for president from California State Prison after his parole was revoked.4 Prior to the inauguration of Richard Nixon in January 1969 Cleaver had abandoned the United States for political exile, first in Cuba and then subsequently in Algeria.5

In this concluding post in my series on Black third-party candidates and the 1968 presidential campaign, I want to focus less on Cleaver’s inauspicious bid for the presidency and more on what his subsequent political trajectory, and the trajectories of Gregory, Mitchell, and Boutelle, might tell us about the afterlives of 1968 and the Black radical imagination. Cleaver’s own metamorphosis provides perhaps the most dramatic political shift among these figures. After returning to the United States in the mid-1970s to face murder charges connected with his altercation with Oakland police, Cleaver remodeled himself as a born-again Christian and a Reagan supporter. In 1968, Cleaver had challenged the Gipper to a duel with ‘a gun, a knife, [or] a baseball bat.’ Less than fifteen years later, the former Black Panther was embarking on a campus tour sponsored by the conservative religious groups; an opportunity he used to praise Reagan, champion the United States as ‘the world’s greatest and most democratic nation’, and rally against illegal aliens.

For Ashley Lavelle, this transformation was a function of Cleaver’s psychological make-up, which underpinned “an almost never-ending quest for meaning and identity” that saw the activist’s political and religious philosophy fluctuate throughout his life. However, I would like to suggest that Cleaver’s Republican renaissance was also a product of the fragmentation of the Black liberation struggle during the late 1960s and early 1970s which, for many activists, made the dream of a radical future increasingly difficult to sustain. Cleaver’s “experience of defeat” and subsequent turn to the right was part of a larger pragmatic shift during the 1970s and 1980s, which, as scholars such as Tom Adam Davies have noted, saw many Black politicians and political activists enter into uneasy alliances with individuals and organizations they had previously rejected.

Where some Black political activists eschewed radicalism for pragmatism, others continued to imagine Black radical futures through new networks and political projects. Comedian Dick Gregory’s activism following his presidential campaign offers another window into the afterlives of 1968, this time expressed through the guise of radical humanism. By the mid-1970s Gregory had become one of the nation’s leading advocates of a plant-based diet—better known for his extreme fasting and ultramarathons against world hunger than his acerbic comedy routines. Gregory’s activism can be linked to what might be called an ecological turn within Black radical and nationalist thought during the years following 1968, as Black activists sought to reassess their relationship to the land be this through Black participation in the community garden movement, a turn towards more sustainable diets and lifestyles, or the rise of the environmental justice movement.

If the trajectories of Cleaver and Gregory offer two examples of how the radical energies of the Black liberation struggle evolved in new and often unexpected ways during the aftermath of 1968, the continued work of Mitchell and Boutelle demonstrated their steadfast commitment to a Black radical future predicated on the rise of international socialism. While their organizational affiliations may have changed—Mitchell would later become a vocal presence within the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, an independent offshoot from the Community Party, while Boutelle left the Socialist Workers Party to join Socialist Action and then the Socialist Workers Organization—their political ideologies remained remarkably consistent, particularly when contrasted against the more capricious impulses of figures such as Cleaver. Perhaps more significantly, as Black radical activists such as Mitchell and Boutelle became increasingly marginalized during the decades following 1968, this consistency underscores the broader rightward turn in American political thought during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

  1.  Lindsay Patterson, “Eldridge Cleaver,” New York Times, 27 April 1969; Geoffrey Wolff, “Spiritual Odyssey of a Black Prisoner,” Washington Post, 2 March 1968.
  2.  “Cleaver Foreseen as Nominee of Left,” New York Times, 18 August 1969.
  3.  “Cleaver of Black Panthers is Nominee of Leftists,” New York Times, 19 August 1968.
  4.  “Imprisoned Black Panther Enters Race for President,” New York Times, 14 May 1968.
  5.  Sean Malloy, Out of Oakland (Cornell, 2017); Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas ed., Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party (Routledge, 2001).
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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.