In the 1960s, no black political group stood for grassroots in insurgency more than the Black Panther Party. And the figure who embodied their militant and controversial spirit more than anyone was Eldridge Cleaver. Charismatic, brilliant, and courageous, Cleaver built a base of power and influence that struck fear deep in the heart of white America.
It was therefore shocking to many left-wing radicals when Cleaver turned his back on black revolution, the Nation of Islam, and communism in 1975. While Cleaver seemed sincerely disillusioned with radicalism, his erratic behavior over the next two decades revealed something that had been a latent part of his psyche all along—narcissistic megalomania. His influence declined significantly through the 1980s until he found himself back on the streets committing petty crimes. By the time he died, in 1998, he was largely viewed as a turncoat who had betrayed the cause of black freedom.
How can we make sense of Cleaver’s precipitous decline from his position as one of America’s most vibrant black writers and activists? And how do his contradictory identities as criminal, party leader, international diplomat, Christian conservative, and Republican politician reveal that he was more than just a traitor to the advancement of civil rights?
In Revolution or Death, acclaimed biographer Justin Gifford answers these questions and many more by providing, for the first time, the life story of one of the most notorious black revolutionaries in history. He explores the audacious dreams and spiritual transformations of the eccentric radical and places him squarely within the context of his changing times. Gifford was granted exclusive access to declassified files from the French police, the American embassy, and the FBI, as well as Kathleen Cleaver’s private archive, and he explored previously unseen documents from archives around the world. He draws from a massive body of materials to reassemble the story of a man far more compelling and complex than most have given him credit for.
In a country defined by its extreme political positions on the right and left, Cleaver embodied both ideologies in pursuit of his conflicting ideals. His inability to resolve these competing desires ultimately destroyed him.