Free at Last

updated 04/15/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/15/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ON THE STAGE AT MIAMI SPRINGS Senior Community School, the man is dispensing his verities. "Drugs are diabolical—that stuff will hook you," he tells 200 high school students. Holding up a dogeared Bible, he says, "Do not be prejudiced against this book. There are some good messages in there for you."

Instead of fidgeting, the students sit rapt—but it's not just the rhetoric they're savoring. The graying, goateed speaker before them is Eldridge Cleaver—author, former radical, multiple ex-con and recovering crack addict. As he admits, in understatement, "I got some miles on me."

Twenty-eight years after Cleaver first found fame as the militant minister of information for the '60s radical activist group the Black Panthers, his life's tortuous journey has led him here. Now 60, the man who epitomized black rage in his incendiary 1968 polemic Soul on Ice has renounced his identity as a revolutionary—and several intervening identities—in favor of studying the Bible at the Daniel Iverson Center for Christian Studies in Miami and preaching love to all who will listen. "The main thing we need in America," he says, "is for people to shake hands with each other. Christianity is my reality now." Not that you'll see him joining a Pat Robertson prayer group. "I don't have the same concepts these right-wing Christians do," Cleaver says. "And I still have enthusiasm for social change. I just think people are better off when they have a spiritual life."

It's a lesson he had a hard time learning. After a rough East L.A. childhood that included stints in reform school for drug-related crimes, Cleaver, the son of a train porter and a housewife, landed in prison in 1956 for assault. ("I shot at some people," he says.) During his nine-year incarceration, he says, "I became interested in the black movement." On his release, he met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who had just founded the Panthers in Oakland, and signed on, only to find himself a fugitive from justice two years later after a gunfight with police.

Cleaver and Kathleen Neal, a fellow Panther he had married in 1967, spent the next eight years in Cuba, Algeria and other countries. Along with book royalties, it was crime that paid the way for the couple and the two children they had while in exile (Maceo, now 26 and a grad student in religion at a Sudanese university, and Jojuyounghi, 25, who is at Sarah Lawrence College). "I am resourceful," says Cleaver, who specialized in selling stolen European cars.

But in 1975, disillusioned by oppressive Communist regimes and tired of running, he experienced his first spiritual awakening. "I saw a path of light in the sky, and I said, 'This is God, and those are my marching orders,' " says Cleaver, who had been an atheist. "I have to go into that prison but have faith that I'll come out the other side."

In fact, Cleaver served only eight months in California correctional facilities before a plea bargain won him a 2,000-hour community service sentence. For a while, he stuck to the straight and narrow. After settling in Palo Alto with his family, he wrote in Fire and Ice about his conversion and made ends meet by working as a tree surgeon, selling the clay flowerpots he had learned to make in reform school and even designing clothes—men's trousers equipped with codpieces. But his marriage was foundering. "There were other women," admits Cleaver, who was divorced in 1985 and the next year fathered a son, Riley (who suffers from Down syndrome), with a girlfriend. Around that time, he began experimenting with crack. "I had always smoked pot," he says. "I got curious."

By 1991 curiosity had become an addiction so fierce that Cleaver was recycling bottles to feed his habit. It was Maceo who helped him see the light. In 1994, after Cleaver had nearly died from a blow to the head delivered by a fellow crack user, Maceo told him, " 'Daddy, take this as a wakeup call from God—our people need you,' " Cleaver says, his eyes filling with tears. "That's what did me—just yesterday, he was a little squirt. I stopped doing dope." He contacted his friend Bill Iverson, who offered him a spot at his Miami evangelical center. "I wanted to change my life," Cleaver says. "I was ready."

Today, Cleaver lives free of charge in Iverson's spacious Spanish-style home, ministering alongside Iverson at local schools, juvenile halls and jails, trying, he says, "to talk to prisoners about getting control of their lives." He hasn't lost touch with his radical pals, occasionally hitting the lecture circuit with Bobby Seale, or with his social ideals. And Cleaver still has some worldly dreams: He is trying to sell a screenplay about the right-wing militia movement. "There was a time," he says, "when I might have sold it and gone out on a boat with a kilo of cocaine and a bevy of women. Now? I don't think so. I have things to do."

MEG GRANT in Miami

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