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Black History Essay Contest Winner: Soren Gjesfjeld

Second-place high school winner Soren Gjesfjeld from Bloomington High School.

This spring we're airing the winning entries from the Black History Essay Contest, sponsored by the City of Bloomington and its Human Relations Commission.

Here is the essay from second-place high school winner Soren Gjesfjeld from Bloomington High School. Learn more about the other winners and the Human Relations Commission.

"In 1998, Eldridge Cleaver, a former Black Panther, and longtime political activist died after years in exile in California. He had lived through the chaotic 1960s, as the Civil rights movement and Vietnam war were in full swing and the Black Panthers were reaching their zenith. A gifted writer and speaker, Cleaver questioned the status quo constantly as one of the party’s prominent members while advocating their brand of Black Socialism. However, late in his life, Cleaver disavowed much of his prior opinions, becoming a devout Christian and supporter of President Ronald Reagan. Cleaver’s story is important as it not only reveals the evolution of American culture from the 60’s to the 80’s but also is an interesting testament to how the search for equality can come in so many forms.

Cleaver was born in the small town of Wabbaseka, Arkansas. Cleaver’s abusive father moved the large family around a lot, and they eventually settled in Los Angeles. During this time, the harsh racial climate, rampant poverty, and domestic violence within his family began to turn him into an angry young man. He was arrested many times for petty crimes which led to him ending up in several youth detention centers, and eventually prison as a teenager and young adult. As he felt oppressed by the world around him, he later controversially claimed that he often committed crimes for the sake of racial vengeance, including rape. 

After entering prison in 1958, Cleaver expressed regret for his criminal actions, which he felt had deprived him of humanity. At San Quentin prison, he found a copy of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and started to read and write widely. He also read the writings of Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Emile Durkheim, and Malcolm X. Cleaver then became introduced to the progressive Ramparts magazine by his lawyer, where he wrote about the need for societal change and the need for Black people to defend themselves in the face of racism. 

Once freed, Cleaver joined the Black Panthers, and served as “Minister of Information.” During this time, his collection of prison essays, Soul on Ice was published, which gained widespread acclaim. In this book, Cleaver details his mixed feelings about the prison system, an institution he thought needed serious reform but was grateful for how he had gained access to his education there. Throughout Soul on Ice, he detailed many of the events taking place as he watched from his prison cell, criticizing American society as sick, with racism playing a prominent role. Finally, in the book, Cleaver discusses his relationships with white women, a subject very taboo among both Blacks and Whites people at that time. 

A rift began to grow within the civil rights movement between the “peaceful” activists, led by Martin Luther King Jr., and a more radical movement, once in the form of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X but now the Black Panthers, who intended to carry on X’s legacy. To give the organization a much-needed foothold in their communities, Cleaver helped the organization start social programs like free breakfast for children, health clinics, and citizen policing. 

After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Cleaver was involved in a shootout with police in which both an officer and fellow Panther Bobby Hutton were killed. Even though Cleaver had just been married and was running for President, he fled the country, first to Cuba and then to North Korea and Algeria. Cleaver began to detest the oppressive Communist regimes he saw and began to shy away from his Marxist beliefs, losing many of his old friends. After mysteriously converting to Mormonism, he began to advocate for peaceful protest and social justice worldwide. In addition, he became a Republican and stepped back from his prior Black Panther and Marxist ideologies. 

The complicated Cleaver constantly challenged the status quo all of his life: in prison, in American society, and even within his own movement. Cleaver’s life and work offer a glimpse of a man who overcame a harsh childhood to become one of the most important, controversial, and forgotten leaders of the civil rights movement.