He’s the stuff of kitschy seminary teachers who like to make the Church hip to their edgy adolescents: Eldridge Cleaver. A real Alma the Younger story that those white kids in Utah Valley can understand.
For those of you over the age of 60, Cleaver was nothing short of an icon. After serving time in prison for assault (a time during which he wrote the famed black power memoir, Soul on Ice), he would be a co-founder of the Black Panthers with Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in 1966. He called then-governor Ronald Reagan a “punk” and a “coward” for opposing his appointment at a U.C.-Berkeley to teach a sociology. Cleaver was the minister of propaganda for the Black Panthers, a time during which he would run for President on the Peace and Freedom Movement. Shortly following his less-than-significant run, he was charged with an attempted murder in connection with a shootout in California. He left Dodge City for Algeria, the Soviet Union, and Cuba, chummed with Timothy Leary (and put him under “arrest” for being a counterrevolutionary–basically an act of political theater), and returned to America in 1975. He learned quickly that Marxism- Leninism was nothing like the revolutionary ideals he espoused–a realization that would be articulated in his second memoir, Soul on Fire.
By the late 70s, Cleaver had experimented with a number of religious groups–most notably Sun Moon’s. Not surprisingly, his views of Mormonism were strongly colored (no pun intended) by the negative views of the Church within the Black Power movement. Cleaver’s first “Mormon contact,” interestingly, was with Carl Loeber, an activist with the Peace and Freedom party that sponsered Cleaver’s presidential run who had joined the Church in 1970 as he renunciated the Black Power movement. Cleaver met with Elder Paul H. Dunn (then administrator for California) and would be later introduced by Loeber to Cleon Skousen during a Know Your Religion class in San Jose. Cleaver even traveled to Salt Lake City to meet with President Ezra Taft Benson. During this time, Cleaver maintained his relationship with the Moonies, but insisted that his work was simply to be a “spiritual guerrilla” for Jesus. He had no intention of following them. Along with Cleaver’s theological conversion came a political conversion. He began lecturing on college campuses, promoting conservative issues and campaigning for Ronald Reagan.
Contrary to reports of Cleaver’s “sampling” tendencies, Cleaver was playing an active role in the Mormon Church at this time. His parole would not be over until 1982, so he could not be baptized until then. His wife, Kathleen, received a scholarship to Yale and took the children with her, leaving Cleaver behind in California. While Cleaver tried to renew the marriage, his wife was less enthusiastic. When Cleaver was baptized in December 1983 (an ordinance performed by Loeber), his family did not attend.
Cleaver’s place in Mormonism might seem odd to the particularly progressive among us who quite understandably cringe and shudder at the Church’s past re: the priesthood ban. Cleaver felt differently; while the Church had undeniably racist policies, he acknowledged, it was not the Mormons who propagated the system of slavery in America. Indeed, Cleaver argued, the Mormons were among the few religious groups who, as an entity, did not. He simply found the claims that the Church was a “racist institution” to be unconvincing. Furthermore, Cleaver identified with Joseph Smith the presidential candidate and with the ideas of our literal relationship to God as children, not as creations. He appreciated how seriously Mormonism took the written scripture.
However, Cleaver had a difficult time turning around old habits. Before Kathleen had filed divorce proceedings, Cleaver had fathered another child (he had fathered several others). Further, he soon formulated an odd scheme to take over Treasure Island off the San Francisco coast in search of buried treasure–according to newspaper reports, he referred to himself as “Captain Cleaver” (whether he was being lighthearted or truly was out of his mind, it is hard to say). He was pulled over in Oakland for possession of cocaine. Cleaver maintained contact with Church officials (he later called a Mormon bishop when he found himself arrested). He never renounced the Church, and even remarked to Newell Bringhurst that an interview they conducted moved him to return to Church more actively. However, his activity never regained the fervor of the early 80s.
Ultimately, we might ask, why should we care? After all, those of us who have served missions know full-well of the passing convert, the fellow who for whatever reason decided to give Mormonism a whirl. Yet Cleaver’s prominence begs us to ask deeper questions, to find deeper answers about our susceptibility to celebrity-style Mormonism, to find “the one” who can make us feel better about our idiosyncracies, who can make us feel a part of the American discourse, even if that discourse was black militancy. What say you all?