'Soul on Ice' thaws: Eldridge Cleaver preaches democracy, patriotism to the college crowd

''I feel good about Ronald Reagan!'' the husky, slightly balding speaker declared.''

A mumbling roar of disbelief rippled through the collegiate audience.

Eldridge Cleaver, once the radical, foul-mouthed minister of information of the bold, militant Black Panther Party, author of the revolutionary's guide book , ''Soul on Ice,'' continued:

''Reagan? I have no illusions about him, but I know that (former President Jimmy) Carter and the Democrats betrayed black people, and they deserved to be punished. We blacks had a choice - Ronald Reagan, not ideal. But Democrats had made blacks parasites on the federal government, always waiting for more handouts. And our leadership was unable to deliver. We need ownership, jobs, salaries, not handouts from politicians!''

A mixture of jeers and cheers. This was Eldridge Cleaver at Harvard, a scene repeated at other college campuses in New England during the past week.

Any similarity between the Cleaver of today and the Cleaver of the 60s is unintentional. During the 60s, the militant young author was a curious combination of a criminal, a converted Black Muslim, unconverted by the assassination of Malcolm X, and an anti-white individual ready to rip the ''system'' apart. Now 46 years old, he claims to be a ''born again Christian,'' but not a member of an organized religion, once a follower of the Black Muslims, now a ''student'' who tastes of the offerings of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and the Unification Church (Moonies), a supporter of the administration, but not a Republican.

And the ''centerpiece of all this,'' says Mr. Cleaver, is a national system of identification, ''an ID card for everybody.'' His audience disagreed.

He still advocates ''revolution,'' but not the ardent ''black power,'' strong-arm tactics of his Black Panther days. His updated revolt calls for democracy in preference to communist or ''third world'' dictatorships, and an ardent patriotism to the United States. Mr. Cleaver makes four points - do not accept the world as it is, but transform it; be patriotic, and recognize the United States as the world's greatest and most democratic nation; be international, and join with peoples from other nations who fight against oppression from the left or right; and seek the inner peace found through religion ''that makes us brothers and sisters.''

He is not the Cleaver of 14 years ago (32 years old with one-third of his life in prison), on the run from murder and other charges to avoid another possible 75 years of incarceration. He disliked Ronald Reagan, then governor of California. In 1968 he shouted to a Stanford University audience that he was challenging Mr. Reagan ''to a duel'' with a choice of weapons, ''a gun, a knife, a baseball bat, or marshmallows.''

He refers often to his runaway days - eight months in Cuba where his son was born in 1969, a short stay in North Korea where his daughter was born in 1970, four years in Algeria, two years in France including brief visits to various nations until 1975 when he and his family returned to the United States to ''face the charges.'' His legal status was finally settled in 1980 - a sentence to 2,000 hours of community service.

''Why aren't you in jail?'' one Harvard skeptic asked. ''You must have made a deal with the government.''

''My lawyer negotiated for me,'' Cleaver responded. ''No deals were made. I am happy to stay out of the 'pen.' ''

A high school dropout, he received his ''basic education'' in jail, he says. ''Prison offered me hour after hour to read books, to learn many subjects, economics, law, sociology, communism, atheism,'' he said in an interview. ''I rooted out Christianity and all restraints on myself. I worked to become ruthless. I was successful.''

No longer sporting a bouyant Afro hairdo, a bushy beard, the drab Panther wardrobe, the scowling, angry posture, Cleaver travels from campus to campus, praising President Reagan and using no curse words. This tour is sponsored by the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles (CARP), a Unification Church organization.

Hecklers follow him to challenge his ''Americanism'' and his sponsor. He says he is neither a Moonie nor a member of CARP. He sticks to economics as the key to progress.

He advocates revamping of the banking system including the Federal Reserve System; redefining the American worker more as a technologist and computer analyst than as assembly-line worker; establishing unique institutions such as a ''First National Bank of Debtors'' and a union for the unemployed, and revamping home ownership and health care systems.

''Illegal aliens'' should be kept out of the United States, Mr. Cleaver says. International students dispute him. He responded sternly. He told a Chicano, an American citizen, ''You have an identity problem. You will have to decide for yourself whether you are a Mexican or an American.

Today's college students know very little about him, he says. ''Many come to see me for curiosity.'' Students question his message.

''You have been brainwashed!'' shouted one dissenter. ''You accept America as a democracy. Look how this country has treated your people! You discount communism! How can you call yourself a revolutionary?''

The United States is ''all we have - our country,'' he responded. He added: ''I know you have studied your books here at Harvard, but I have learned about communism by living in those nations. It was a shock to me to see that the people in Cuba don't love (Premier Fidel) Castro. I saw the snitch system of fear, people afraid of one another. Communism is not the answer to America's dilemma.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.