The Black Panther Who Was Banned From the Ballot

A segment of American voters want insurrectionist candidates. Who are election officials to deny them?


Donald Trump was not the first celebrity presidential candidate who could reasonably be accused of insurrection against the United States. Many decades before Trump, another best-selling author and charismatic leader in a rowdy movement to upend dominant American political mores aimed for the U.S. presidency—Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers' minister of information and the author of Soul on Ice.

Unlike Trump, who this year overcame challenges from Colorado, Maine, and Illinois about his eligibility due to the Constitution's Insurrection Clause, Cleaver couldn't be caught up by the 14th Amendment, Section 3, since that explicitly only bars insurrectionists who had already been government officials. But Cleaver faced his own eligibility hurdles.

In 1968, as the first presidential nominee of the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP), formed mostly by antiwar radicals disenchanted with Lyndon Johnson's Democratic Party, Cleaver was below the constitutionally mandated age of 35 and would have been so still on Inauguration Day in 1969. At least three states did eliminate his name, if not his party, from the ballot for this reason.

Many states, however, allowed someone absolutely constitutionally disqualified to remain on their ballot; in Iowa, as reported in the Davenport Times-Democrat, the secretary of state "ruled that he must accept the certification in the absence of positive proof that Cleaver is not of eligible age."

While the various charges haunting Trump during his current campaign involve less violent crimes, Cleaver, four months before receiving the PFP nomination with 74 percent of the delegates' votes, engaged in a firefight with Oakland police that resulted in another Panther's death. He was thus campaigning while out on bail, pending trial for three counts of assault and attempted murder.

As the PFP's candidate, Cleaver certainly sounded like an insurrectionist, not that there was anything (constitutionally) wrong with that. In a campaign speech, as printed in a 1968 issue of the North American Review, Cleaver said: "What we need is a revolution in the white mother country and national liberation for the black colony. To achieve these ends we believe that political and military machinery that does not exist now and has never existed must be created."

The PFP, aligning with the Panthers, pushed Cleaver as its presidential hopeful with a dual agenda, as expressed by member Richard Yanowitz in an online memoir of PFP history: "immediate withdrawal from Vietnam and support for black liberation and self-determination."

During the PFP's inaugural California convention, Cleaver said that he regarded black members of the PFP as "misguided political freaks," but he eventually embraced the alliance and accepted the PFP's national nomination, saying on the campaign trail that "we believe that all black colonial subjects should be members of the Black Panther Party, and that all American citizens should be members of the Peace and Freedom Party." The Panthers' intention, he said, was to "use our papier-mâché right to vote to help strengthen the Peace and Freedom Party and to help it attain its objectives within the framework of political realities in the mother country."

The leftist political tumult out of which the PFP arose in 1968 had many elements that echo modern-day political dynamics. Debates raged about whether black activists should have influence above their numbers and whether the movement should explicitly oppose Zionism. The same sorts of petition barricades to getting a new party on the ballot existed then, though the PFP's campaign in California in particular was a huge success, with 105,000 signatures gathered when only 66,000 were needed.

But rumors persisted about how clearly petitioners informed signers that they were officially registering with the party. PFPers insisted they let signers know they could change their registration back after the PFP got ballot access and before the election. And indeed, the PFP got over 70 percent fewer votes for the presidential race in California than it did petition signatures.

Despite his patent ineligibility and being knocked off the ballot in a few states, Cleaver's PFP campaign garnered over 36,000 votes nationwide. In late September, he polled at 2 percent in California but received far fewer votes on Election Day—a common fate for third-party candidates. Shortly after his electoral defeat, Cleaver fled the U.S. rather than face trial for the Oakland incident, not returning until 1975, after which he served less than a year in jail along with lots of probation and community service.

The cases of Trump and Cleaver illustrate a persistent American theme. Whether because they are mad at the perverted communists dominating the Democratic Party (as per MAGA) or the colonialist and imperialist white power structure (as per the PFP), a segment of American voters want insurrectionist candidates. Who are election officials to deny them?