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One Journey Home: Eldridge Cleaver's Spiritual Path

by Linda Neale

EarthLight Magazine #50, Spring 2004

I’m sometimes up and sometimes down,
Comin’ for to carry me home,
But still my soul feels heavenly bound
Comin’ for to carry me home!

—Harry Thacker Burleigh, (1866-1949)

Eldridge Cleaver is one of those people whose name became symbolic of an entire era. For those of us who came of age in the 60s, his name is indelibly linked with the Black Panthers, student unrest, civil rights, and the FBI. Few people knew that this was only part of his story. Eldridge Cleaver refused to be kept in the box of his own history.

I met Eldridge Cleaver four months before he died. In 1998 I was the Executive Director of the Earth & Spirit Council in Portland, Oregon. We were sponsoring a major Earth Day conference called "Honoring the Connection," and having difficulty finding an available speaker who would articulate the connection between spirituality and the environment. My friend Janet sent me an LA Times article in which Eldridge wrote:

"Right-wing conservatives and left-wing radicals here in the U.S. must be willing and able to sit down at the same table, look across the table at each other and see not an enemy, a target or a statistic, but a brother, a sister, a fellow American, another child of God. We must expand our hearts and enlarge our identity beyond ‘my people’ to include and embrace all of Creation."

This did not sound like the Eldridge Cleaver I had grown up with—the Eldridge Cleaver of Soul on Ice, who, along with Bobby Seal and Huey Newton, co-founded the Black Panthers; the Eldridge Cleaver who was involved in a shoot-out with the Oakland police; the Eldridge Cleaver who was declared a fugitive from justice by J. Edgar Hoover and faced 82 years in prison; the Eldridge Cleaver who spent seven years in exile in Cuba, Algeria, and France. Amazed by the transformation suggested in his article, I knew I wanted Eldridge for the conference. I wanted to understand how he had made that spiritual journey from 1968 to 1998.

Finding him was a challenge. He didn’t have a phone. The LA Times thought he lived in Pasadena, but no one there could find him. Someone from the Chamber of Commerce thought he was a minister at a Church in the San Fernando Valley, but no one there knew him. Someone else thought he’d been spotted in Sacramento. After a week of phone calls, I located the author of the newspaper article who told me that he frequented the "Serve-u-Java Café" in Fontana. I called the café, and the owner said, "Oh, yes, Eldridge is right here—I’ll let you talk to him."

Eldridge was excited. "Earth & Spirit. That’s a good name," he said, "of course I’ll come to your conference." I was surprised at how eager he seemed. What I didn’t know was that one of his ex-girlfriends had been encouraging him to get involved in the environmental movement for some time.

Eldridge was a giant of a man in more ways than one. He was over six feet tall, he ignored the social and political "rules" that most people operate by, and he loved being the center of attention. He could weave the spoken word into a web that would capture the most reluctant skeptic. Although he was sixty-two years old, in some ways he’d never grown up. He wasn’t good with money; he had unpaid phone bills all over California. He had many great ideas, and many silly ones (at one point he tried to market men’s pants with built-in codpieces). He always had an artistic bent, and built flower pots in his later years. He married only once, to Kathleen Neal Cleaver, but he had had many girlfriends and sired three children.

Over the next few weeks a friend got him an email account at the University of LaVerne in Southern California, and Eldridge and I began e-mailing each other. Since he didn’t have a phone, I could only talk to him in person when he was at the Serv-u-Java Café. The two of us spent hours discussing "the statistics" regarding the state of the planet, and the responsibility of humans to respond in a caring way. I suggested the title for his keynote address: "Earth’s Soul on Ice," and he loved it. Each time we talked, he had learned more about the environmental situation on the planet, and was more excited about the conference.

Eldridge lived hand to mouth. When he had money, he spent it or gave it away. He was a consultant at the University of LaVerne, and made a meager living on stages where he was a prophet, a preacher, and a resident historian of the 60s civil rights movement. He had settled into the Fontana Church of Religious Science, a new thought church, after a long spiritual journey including time where he was identified as a Marxist, a Black Panther, a Mormon, a fundamentalist Christian, a drug addict, and a Moonie.

Eldridge was never one to believe what people told him—he relied solely on his own experience. An avowed communist in the 60s, he needed to experience life in Cuba and Algeria before he changed his political persuasion and wrote in the New York Times, "With all its faults, the American political system is the freest and most democratic in the world." He sought out community wherever he went, looking for people who would understand his mystical experiences and accept him for who he was. But too many people wanted him to stay a political figure, and were disappointed when he pursued his spiritual journey with the same determination that he had devoted to the Black Panthers.

Here is how he described the beginning of his spiritual quest:

"I embarked upon a search to try to find out what was the truth. That led me to checking out all different kinds of religions. Because I knew that there must be some truth out there somewhere. But I found out that every time I went and checked out a religion or a sect or a denomination or a cult, people started calling me by names. I thought I’d better go check out the Mormons, so I went and studied their material, their doctrine. And People started calling me a Mormon... And then I went and checked out the Moonies to see what Rev. Moon was talking about. But I tell you, I was very reluctant, because after following Mao Tse Tung, and Ho Chi Ming, and Kim El Sun, I wasn’t ready for another great wise man from the East. And I said ‘Hey, I’m not a Moonie, I’m not a Mormon, I just got to the M’s!’

You know, it’s a logical progression, it’s a metamorphosis. And what I found was that my heart was growing, I became more and more inclusive to be able to relate to more and more people on this planet.

I used to be a Marxist and I used to think all our problems were economic and political. But at the end of the day I found out that our main problems are spiritual problems. Because the connection between people and between Creation and the creator is not a political connection, it’s not an economic connection, it’s a spiritual connection. Your creator lays down markers in your life—you don’t know what all this is happening for."

Later he told me about the mystical experience that led to his awareness of the root of the world’s problems. He was in exile in France in the 70s, and one evening, while looking at the moon, he saw what appeared to be "almost like a movie." He saw images of his communist heroes—Karl Marx, Lenin, Mao Tse Tung—parade across the face of the moon. One by one, each image fell away, until an image of Jesus appeared and stayed. He realized then that his answers were not political or economic, but spiritual.

Because of his turn away from politics, many of his former Panther friends felt he had abandoned their cause. "A lot of people said I sold out. The biggest drug dealer in Oakland said to me: ‘You know, you flipped out, man.’ I said, ‘No I flipped back in.’"

For a while, he thought Christianity was The Answer, and he wrote his second book, Soul on Fire, believing this to be true. But Eldridge found any doctrine to be too confining. Eldridge eventually came to understand that all religious paths held an element of truth. It was spirituality, not religion, that was most important. So he left fundamentalist Christianity and continued his search for a community that would understand and nourish his soul.

When Eldridge came to Portland he was ill with diabetes, but he still had the energy of three men half his age. Each speech he gave felt divinely inspired. He spoke to a group of black students at Portland State University about the history of the Black Panthers and the civil rights movement. He spoke to a Catholic Girls High School, calling for a woman to be the next U.S. president. He gave a sermon at a Black church in North Portland on forgiveness, his own spiritual journey, and moving past racism. He delivered the keynote address at the Earth & Spirit Conference about building a new movement for "Creation Rights."

The Oregonian and all the community newspapers covered his appearances. He was featured on two radio stations and on local and national television. Portland loved him, and more importantly, audiences accepted him and seemed to understand what he was saying.

Although we didn’t know it, his keynote address for the Earth Day conference was to be his last major speech. At the conference, he mentioned the dialogue that was to change his life and mine:

"I emailed back and forth with Linda and she said she thought it would be well to name my talk ‘Earth’s Soul on Ice.’ I thought that addressed the subject. I emailed her and said I wanted to deliver a state of Creation address. Because I was overwhelmed by the statistics involved. And I ’ve thought about almost nothing else since then. It’s begun to reframe my whole outlook on life as I began to look at everything I was up to and doing in a new way. I just started thinking about my life and I saw a very logical progression which she touched on from civil rights and preoccupation with the rights of my people, to human rights and concern for the rights of all people, and even beyond that to what I call ‘Creation Rights’ and the rights of all living beings.

"The same life that is in me is in you. And the same life that’s in you is in these trees and flowers and animals. That is the spirit of God that animates all of Creation. How can you neglect any part of Creation knowing that that is neglecting part of God? And I saw that mankind is waging a war of extermination against Creation. And I didn’t want to stand by like a good Nazi and stand by while Mother Earth was being ravaged."

With his new expanded awareness, and the recognition of a possible role in the environmental movement, Eldridge wanted to dive in. A change came over him, as he spoke to me about loving the trees, about feeling that he had come home. Within five days of arriving in Portland, Eldridge told me he wanted to move to Oregon and begin writing his first book in twenty-five years—a book on Creation Rights. I sensed the importance of who Eldridge could be in the spiritual environmental movement in the country, and I was excited about his potential to involve more people of color in a movement that was almost entirely white. He and I had made a deep connection around a common goal and purpose. We set up a time for him to return to Portland in a month.

The day after Eldridge returned to California, I received this email from him:

Hi, Linda, I miss Portland terribly. I don’t want to be here. Everything was wonderful, except I didn’t get enough salmon. My plane was delayed last night. But that was great because it afforded me the opportunity to dialog with a lot of other stranded voyagers.

Several of them had seen us on tv and read articles about Earth Day activity. I feel like I am in exile. I really want to come back up there and get busy. You mentioned something about your organization sponsoring a speaking tour. I want to do it because I think the entire region is ready. We must set something up with another black church. This is historic. I can’t wait. I hope you didn’t forget.

Just rushed to write this to you. I will write again tomorrow. There is so much to cover. Talk with you tomorrow. Right on. Eldridge.

As we continued to email, our connection grew, and I could feel his sense of renewed purpose. On April 29th, 1998, I received my last email from Eldridge Cleaver.

"Hello Linda. Let’s make it the weekend of May 8-9. It will be a turning point in history. I miss you guys terribly. It sure will be nice to be in Portland again. Really looking forward. Love, Eldridge."

Two days later, on May 1st, I received a phone call from Tawny, Eldridge’s girlfriend. She was crying. Eldridge Cleaver had died during the night. There would be a funeral in LA, and she wanted me to be there. She told me "That trip to Portland was so important to him. He couldn’t stop talking about it. It was like he had a new purpose, a new direction."

It’s difficult to describe my sense of loss. Not only was I sad over losing a friend, I also felt incredible sorrow that the world would never see the fruition of Eldridge’s new vision. It was more like witnessing the death of a child than an elder.

On May 3rd, when I arrived at the Earth & Spirit office, there was a large package waiting for me. The return address said "Eldridge Cleaver, Pomona, CA." My hands shook as I opened the package and found a large painting. It was Eldridge’s symbol of the unity of all religions that he’d painted years ago and had been hanging in his living room. He’d planned to use it as a personal logo for his work on Creation Rights. Tawny later told me that mailing the painting was one of the last things he did before he died.

As I read the obituaries in the various media, I began to realize that few people understood the real Eldridge Cleaver. The newspapers mostly gave a snapshot of him from the 60s. To the world he was still a Black Panther radical who had been involved in a shoot out with the police and wanted by J. Edgar Hoover. I felt that the last part of his spiritual journey was important to share with his larger community, and decided to accept the invitation to his funeral. My friend Constance, an Episcopalian priest, decided to go along. Friends helped make 350 copies of his last speech to take with me to distribute to the media.

There were few white people in attendance at the funeral, which was held at the oldest Black church west of the Mississippi—Wesley African Methodist Episcopal in Los Angeles. Constance and I sat down in one of the forward pews. Soon Tawny came to us and asked if we would join her in the procession. We retreated to the back and as the organ began to play, we marched down the aisle alongside Tawny and the minister from the Church of Religious Science.

Three ministers officiated at the funeral, a high school choir sang their hearts out on the anthem "Lift Every Voice" and we handed out our copies of his Portland speech to CNN, ABC, the LA Times, Eldridge’s family, and everyone else. Geronimo Pratt was there, recently released from San Quentin. Eldridge’s regal ex-wife Kathleen was there (I remember him telling me he didn’t blame her for divorcing him—if he’d been married to himself, he would have gotten a divorce too). And Karen was there, the 50’ish white radical from Berkeley, mother of Rilie, Eldridge’s ten-year-old son with Down’s syndrome. Lots of Panthers attended—Bobby Seale sent a message that was read to the congregation by another ex-Panther.

But the highlight of the funeral ceremony was Ted, the short Ross Perot look-alike who interrupted the service to tell his story. The ministers at the altar tried to shush Ted who stood up and exclaimed "I’ve flown here from Maryland to tell the story of how Eldridge Cleaver saved my life!" He was finally permitted to tell his story when the congregation began chanting, "Let him speak, let him speak, let him speak!"

Ted was a self-proclaimed redneck, who, in 1980, hated Eldridge Cleaver and everything he stood for. Ted told the congregation that he’d made plans to kill Eldridge, but after Eldridge was "born again," he almost killed himself instead. With the gun pointed at his own head, Ted thought of Eldridge and said to himself, "If God loves Eldridge enough to forgive him after all the Big Time Trouble he was in, maybe I might have a chance." So Ted got down on his knees and prayed like Eldridge did, and "this led to my salvation." We all cried after Ted sat down. The ministers shook his hand. Eldridge would have loved it.

After the service, we drove in the funeral procession to the cemetery. As Constance and I walked to the gravesite, Karen approached. "Are you from Portland?" she asked me.

When I said yes, she hugged me and continued, "I want to thank you so much for inviting Eldridge up there. I always used to tell him he should get connected with the environmental movement. You gave him a tremendous gift. I saw him on television when he was there, walking in the forest. He was so happy. He looked like he was in paradise."

Later that day after Eldridge was in the ground, I walked in a Los Angeles neighborhood and found a small park. In the park was a stone circle. Around it was carved the words "To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die." I knew then that Eldridge Cleaver would continue to live in my heart.

To some, Eldridge’s legacy may be Soul on Ice, the Black Panthers, or Soul on Fire. But to me, his legacy will be his unrelenting commitment to following his own path wherever it led him. Just like in Burleigh’s spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," Eldridge’s path was "sometimes up, and sometimes down," but it finally led him home.

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