From Black Panther to Mormon: The Case of Eldridge Cleaver

RussellMormon 30 Comments

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.

Enter Mormonism.

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?

Comments 30

  1. Ah, I never knew of another convert from the Unification Church.
    I found out about this guy on wikipedia a week back and turns out my father met him while he studied with CARP, the college ministry Sun Myung Moon’s church has.

  2. Having lived in San Jose at the time, this was quite the big deal among some people. I had a number of close friends who were directly involved and they were definitely star-struck. On the positive note, there was great hope that the Gospel could influence someone with a sordid past for good and a major change in his life. Looking back now, it is hard to see how that could have happened. But there was that great hope at the time.

  3. Real “conversion” truly is difficult, and the more that needs to be changed (and the more deeply ingrained that which needs to be changed is) the harder such conversion becomes.

    Your question about celebrity is an interesting one, as I’ve often wondered whether well-known celebrities get a bit of a pass even in our own religious culture – if we are unable collectively to divorce secular stardom from religious egalitarianism. I think the fact that we are caught up in it is evidenced in the fascination we have with famous Mormons – Dale Murphy, Rick Schroeder, the Osmonds, Katherine Heigl, Steve Young, etc. It’s also seen in how ready our culture is to believe other famous people are Mormon – like the stories of Steve Martin, Lionel Richie, Yoda (Pres. Kimball), etc.

  4. I recently purchased Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. If you go to the Special Features, there is some info on Eldridge Cleaver. I’d be really surprised if Cleaver wasn’t aware of Brigham Young statements, as I believe that most black members are aware of this. There are certainly plenty of antagonists more than willing to let black church members know about all the horrible things that early church leaders said.

  5. I remember hearing about Cleaver wanting to be LDS because 1982 was when I joined the Church also. But the (apparently false) rumor I heard back then was that he was having trouble getting approved for baptism because he had killed one or more people. Somebody told us we should therefore pray for him. Since I’d read one of the more notorious passages from Soul on Ice — the part where he discussed his use of rape as a political/racial weapon — I didn’t feel very enthusiastic about praying for him. I doubt that I ever did.

    1.  I personally met with Eldridge Cleaver in the early 70’s where he was adamant that he never killed anyone.

  6. I have always shied away from celebrity worship. For the last (almost) 30 years, I have heard unconfirmed rumors about this or that celebrity “taking discussions” or getting baptized. My reaction has always been ho-hum.

    Did I like Gladys Knight & The Pips in the 1970s? Yes. And I really loved the stuff she did after she joined the Church; she breathed a breath of life to the staid Mormon spiritual music – you know, not everything has to be real solemn and go to a higher key after each verse.

    But is my testimony stronger because a celebrity joined the Church? No. I understand, that we have the idea that if a person, whom everyone seems to know, joins us, it somehow “validates” us in the eyes of other people. For a religion so often considered primarily weird, this is a major thing in its own way.

    Finally, Eldridge Cleaver was something of a legend for the 1970s European teenage rebellion. I think I heard about him back when he joined the Church, but communication was much slower then than now, and I had forgotten all about that.

    Myself, I had talked to a friend (back in 1979), who was being taught by the missionaries – she told me stuff that the missionaries told her, but it was in one ear, out the other – and then attended her baptismal service. I did that, because I knew her family was adamantly against her decision, and wouldn’t be there. I wanted her to have a friend there. Three weeks later I was baptized, after turning my life completely around (I had no pending legal action or probation going on, or other like liabilities). It did become clear to me, in time, how hard it really is to put aside the natural man, but I have never given up…

    1. God bless you, Velska. Yes, putting our Lords commands over our natural instincts is a constant struggle. If it’s not one natural desire that tugs at us, then it’s another. I doubt it ever gets completely easy. It hasn’t yet for me. Blessings to you. -Randall G.

  7. This is the most accurate synopsis of these events I have seen … Newell Bringhurst the historian wrote in the journal Mormon History but there were inaccuracies there as might me expected with all reporting .. I will be happy to give a fuller description of events to anyone who wants to ask .. I will try to write something here later when I have more time ..

    In a few words .. Cleaver was well deserved of his notoriety .. he was intelligent, extremely expressive and original for our day, he spoke with very as few can in an educated style yet not out of date of course .. I had contact with him from 1968 until the late nineties .. I have been active in the church since 1970 .. you can reach me at .. send your phone number if you want to speak ..

  8. I saw Eldridge Cleaver speak at the Hinckley Institute of Politics “Coffee and Politics” series in 1981, and he announced he was going to be baptized into the LDS church, but I subsequently heard he went another direction. I guess he did both.

  9. Hmm, I wonder if he’s read any of the choice quotes by Abraham Lincoln on the issue of race, or freeing the slaves and sending them to live in Liberia or even if he heard of any of the “blackie” jokes that Lincoln was so fond of telling….
    It’s intellectually dishonest to transfer our politically or socially correctness back onto another time.

  10. Even a confessed rapist and someone who blew apart my beloved Oakland, threatening our lives and property and possibly involved in things beyond our belief should be allowed to repent… right ?  No.. what is wrong with people who don’t recognize false prophets, selfserving soul searching, and seekers of the  “Light”

      1. That’s what it sounded like to me. Even the most vile sinners deserve the opportunity to repent, be baptized and come to Christ. We’ve been taught that we’re supposed to love our enemy and do good to them who despitefully use us. There’s no clause in there that exempts any one of us from that under any circumstance.

        1. So, in retrospect, do you think that Cleaver’s (who certainly qualifies as a “vile sinner”) repentance was sincere?

          Note the weasely tone of the article, too. “Before Kathleen had filed divorce proceedings, Cleaver had fathered another child (he had fathered several others).” Well, now, why wouldn’t he? He was, after all, a married man. You mean, with another woman? – or women? Then , say so. While you gloss over his truly abominable character, you “cringe” over the church’s rayciss past..

          It’s this kind of PC inversion of moral values in the church that will ensure that I will never again enter a Mormon church. Don’t take it personally, I won’t enter any other church, either. They’re all hopelessly corrupt. Looks like we’re about due for another “Restoration”.

  11. lol who ever believes this is a joke. It’s either done by someone who think’s they’re funny, or a white supremeses group. Treasure Island? Come on.

    1. Yeah, I thought there were some points that the author made which were, quite frankly, irrelevant to the main subject of the article. I read that and thought.. what does that have to do with Mormons and the Black panthers?

      1. It has to do with his struggles in life. From violence to repentance and drugs again possible violence. Even though he repented and joined the Mormon Church doesn’t mean he will be a perfect person. For example alcoholics have a constant battle with resisting alcohol after giving it up.

  12. Interesting, I was chatting with a member of my ward, a “I have insight that nobody else has, and that means I’m more special than everyone else” type, and he mentioned this “conversion” to me.  I viewed it with the huge amount of skepticism I have developed whenever this person makes any comment, but apparently Eldridge Cleaver was baptized.  I was a missionary in Northern California, but did not hear any buzz regarding a “celebrity conversion” while I was serving.  The opportunity to repent and be baptized is available to all of Father’s children, the key is do they continue to proceed to walk the straight and narrow path that leads them home, or do they get lost in the “mists of darkness and wander”? 

  13. Wow I had no idea of this part of his life! I thought he would have been associtated with the likes of Marxist Rev Wright’s Church the 1 obama went to for over 20 yrs!

  14. I didn’t have any idea either about Eldrige Cleaver’s conversion but found out about it today while researching his life because I am going to read a piece from his book to my class. I have to say I was surprised but can understand his fascination with Joseph Smith. He was obviously a man searching for answers trying to find or create a better society. I think that after all he had been through it must have been difficult to get rid of all his demons and vices. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. I would like to have met him.

  15. As we are studying the Doctrine and Covenants, I was reminded again of Eldridge Cleaver and I found this article. Some of the facts do not exactly reflect my own experience. I was at Stanford University, attending the student ward in 1970. Eldridge Cleaver came and talked to us there and I was under the recollection that he was a baptized member of the Church. From this information, I must assume that he considered himself a member of the Church even though he had not been formally baptized due to his probation status. He gave a heartfelt talk and I found him to be convincing and believable; I had no reason to question his sincerity. I believe that like all of us, he was flawed and continued to make severe mistakes, but I believe he tried to put his heart in the right place. The most memorable thing I remember from that night was his acceptance that he was not yet eligible to receive the Priesthood and his acceptance of that. He said, wait until we get the Priesthood; then we will do even more wonderful things- or something to that effect.

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