Eldridge Cleaver

Sentenced to prison for rape, first at San Quentin and later at Folsom, Cleaver (like Malcolm) read voraciously, joined the Nation of Islam, and became a leader in the state’s burgeoning prison movement, pushing for books and classes in African history. In 1965 he wrote a radical Bay Area attorney named Beverly Axelrod, who took up his case. She gave some of Cleaver’s letters to editors at Ramparts, who enjoyed them so much that they promised to hire him, as they did, when Axelrod managed to secure Cleaver’s release, in December 1966. Cleaver, who became Axelrod’s lover, said years later that he had been romantically “gaming” her in a cynical bid to gain his freedom.

At Ramparts, Cleaver became an instant celebrity, by far the most prominent black radical in the Bay Area. Angry, sometimes funny, and frequently sexual, his letters and articles portrayed Cleaver as a kind of cross between Malcolm and Barry White, an angry, charismatic lover man with his own revolutionary spin on hoary black stereotypes. Cleaver viewed blacks as sexual supermen, envied by whites and too often rejected by uppity black women. And, like Huey Newton, he argued that the most genuine “revolutionaries” were those who were most oppressed: black prison inmates and gangbangers—an idea that appealed strongly to white radicals yearning for a taste of black authenticity. Unlike Stokely Carmichael, Cleaver embraced white radicals, who adored him. They flocked to Black House, a kind of Black Power salon Cleaver co-founded, where he held court with every Movement figure who visited San Francisco. Cleaver’s rise would be capped in 1968, when his letters and Ramparts articles were packaged into a memoir, Soul on Ice, an international bestseller that sold more than two million copies in just two years. Critics hailed Cleaver as a powerful new literary talent, a symbol of black political and sexual repression. The New York Times named Soul on Ice one of the ten best books of 1968.