Eldridge Cleaver Discovers the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense

From the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense’s inception, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale considered the African-American community to be the Panthers lone buffer against state repression. The confrontation in front of the Ramparts building reinforced that belief. Toward ensuring the Black community’s support, Panther leaders began dispensing information that delivered their perspective of American racial matters via their news periodical, The Black Panther. The Black Panther not only provided much-needed publicity but also paved the way for a significant membership increase. The newspaper was the brainchild of the newest Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver.

Eldridge Cleaver’s initial exposure to Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and the Black Panther Party came during preparation for the aforementioned Malcolm X Day Celebration. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale’s arrival at the “Black House” to receive their security assignment from the Malcolm X Day Celebration steering committee startled Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver recalled, “I spun around in my seat and saw the most beautiful sight I had ever seen: four black men wearing black berets, powder blue shirts, black leather jackets, black trousers, shiny black shoes–and each with a gun!…Where was my mind at? Blown!” Cleaver, a communications master, eventually became the voice of Black Power. Not long after Cleaver became aware of its existence, he officially enlisted in the Black Panther Party and was appointed Minister of Information. Cleaver, a recent parolee from the California penal system after serving nine years for a rape conviction, was renowned throughout the Bay Area for his oratorical prowess and literary skill. Cleaver had much in common with other Panther leaders as many of them hailed from the Deep South; Cleaver’s roots lay in Arkansas.

Predictably, the Cleavers westward migration failed to solve their economic woes as they, like droves of other Black emigrants, landed in one of California’s housing projects. Considering his environs, it is not surprising that imprisonment was Cleaver’s inevitable destination. While incarcerated in Soledad, Cleaver honed the prodigious writing skills that facilitated his early release from prison. White Bay Area radicals became aware of his phenomenal literary skills via a series of essays that became the cult-classic best selling Soul on Ice. The aforementioned radicals diligently worked for his release and arranged employment at the leftist periodical Ramparts.

A disciple of Malcolm X, Cleaver was determined to bring Malcolm’s final secular vision, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, to fruition. Cleaver considered the uniting of African-American activists, artists, writers, and political theoreticians the initial step in accomplishing that goal. Such aspirations led Cleaver to create the “Black House” in San Francisco’s Fillmore district as a centralized location for the aforementioned individuals to assemble, strategize, and share information. The funds supporting this hub of African-American culture and politics were provided by Eldridge Cleaver’s white leftist benefactors. Newton and Seale thought that Cleaver’s most significant contributions would not be his phenomenal oratorical prowess or literary skill; rather his access to monies via speaking engagements and a network of wealthy white radicals. Indicative of such was Cleaver donating the residuals from Soul on Ice to the Panther Party. Cleaver immediately became the primary engine behind the Panthers most powerful communication tool and consistent fundraiser, The Black Panther.

Excerpt from Creating Revolution as They Advance: A Narrative History of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

© Manhood, Race and Culture, 2017

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