ELDRIDGE CLEAVER BIRTHPLACE

I walked into the city hall storefront and asked where I could find the Eldridge Cleaver birthplace.

"The who birthplace?"

"Eldridge Cleaver. You know who Eldridge Cleaver is, don't you? He was born here in Wabbaseka. 'Soul on Ice?' The Black Panthers?"

"Wait a minute. Was this the sixties?" asked the young lady at the desk.

"Yes, the sixties."

"Oh," she said, waving her hands at the side of her head as if the sixties could be cleared like cobwebs from her brain, "That was before my time."

"Isn't there a marker or a sign or anything? Whether you thought he was a criminal or a revolutionary he was still a fairly important historical figure."

"And he was from here?"

"Yeah."

217 South Mulberry Street, Wabbaseka, AR"I know the house you're looking for." An elderly woman sifted up from the back of the room past a jumble of distracted kids and identified herself as a distant relative of the Cleavers. She walked me out into the street and gave me directions. Straight on down to the old cotton gin and turn right. 217 South Mulberry.

So here it is. The original house is long gone, but this is the address. Eldridge Cleaver was born here in 1935. When he was still young his family left Arkansas and moved to Southern California to look for work and escape racism. I had a good laugh about that.

Cleaver was a delinquent in Southern California and he ended up in jail. He managed to educate himself by reading a lot of history and social sciences. In 1968 he published "Soul on Ice," which gave intellectual form and direction to the fledgling Black Panther Party. He had his differences with the Black Panthers, though. He finally quit the group, complaining that they weren't violent enough. (He once challenged Ronald Reagan to a duel and offered Reagan his choice of weapons.)

He fled the country after a shootout with police and lived in exile until 1974. While he was away he softened a bit, undergoing a Christian religious conversion and renouncing communism. Many of his old colleagues regard his conversion as a cynical ploy to reenter the country. Whether cynical or sincere, it's pretty clear that he found conditions in all the countries he lived in as an expatriate at least as bad as those he encountered in the U. S.

He lived more or less quietly in Southern California, working at La Verne College as a "diversity advisor" until his death of a heart attack on 1 May 1998.

Wabbaseka straddles highway 79 between Pine Bluff and Stuttgart.

If you're interested in reading more detailed accounts, here are some links to internet articles on Eldridge Cleaver:

Horowitz Article from L.A. Times | Reginald Major story from Pacific News | A transcript of a PBS Frontline interview | Encarta Encyclopedia article | Who2 Encyclopedia article | CNN obituary | Worldbook Encyclopedia article | And so on and so forth

RTJ--2/1/2000


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