Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States encompassed a period of vigorous and coordinated national civil rights action designed to prompt the enactment of legislation that would guarantee equality on such issues as employment, housing, education, health and welfare and voting rights. This period of intense, and occasionally violent, political confrontation, from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s was characterized by demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, picketings, and large-scale civil disturbances.

In Cleveland, this time period brought about events such as the riot at Little Italy’s Memorial Elementary School demonstration in 1964, the Hough Riots of 1966, and the “Glenville Shootout” of 1968. It would result also see the passage of equal opportunity legislation: Ohio’s Civil Rights Act of 1959, Cleveland’s Equal Opportunity Law of 1969, and the conclusion of the Reed v. Rhodes lawsuit in 1976, which led to the desegregation of Cleveland’s public schools.

Across the nation, numerous groups emerged to tackle rampant discrimination, brutality and segregation. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) played pivotal roles in asserting the need for universal civil rights recognition in the United States.

John O. Holly.  Courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

In Cleveland, some of the city’s earliest pioneers in civil rights were decades removed from the national movement, but their efforts to improve the economic, educational, and housing standards of African-Americans in the city helped set the stage for later coordinated action. Thomas Fleming became Cleveland’s first black city councilman in 1909, and helped African-Americans obtain municipal jobs and secure housing in the Central neighborhood. John O. Holly strong founded the Future Outlook League in 1935 to help blacks in Cleveland find  employment.

Several of the national civil rights organizations were present and active in Cleveland: NAACP (1912), the Urban League (1917), the National Negro Congress (1936), CORE (1963) and SCLC (1967). These bodies would work with local groups towards the passage of Ohio’s Civil Rights Act, the election of Cleveland’s first African-American mayor, Carl Stokes, in 1967, and the desegregation of Cleveland’s public schools.

A coalition of national and local religious organizations pushed for civil rights. The United Freedom Movement (UFM) was established in 1963 in Cleveland. It brought together civic, social, religious, and fraternal groups and leaders to address inequality primarily in housing, education, and employment. This group was very active in the struggle to desegregate the city’s public schools and UFM led many boycotts and demonstrations to this end. It was during one UFM demonstration against the tactic of building new schools to avoid integrating existing ones, that Reverend Bruce Klunder was accidentally killed by a bulldozer at the construction site of what would become Howe Elementary School on Lakeview Road.

Local churches and their leaders were heavily invested in the civil rights movement; in terms of direct community action, providing spaces and resources for activities and planning, as well as hosting speakers, churches were an essential ingredient to the success of the struggle. Cory United Methodist Church in Glenville hosted Dr. King in 1963 (and it was where Dr. King would later give his last speech in Cleveland). In 1964, Malcolm X gave his well-known “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech at the church.

Reverend David Zuverik of Glenville United Presbyterian Church, now known as New Life at Calvary, served as co-chair of the United Freedom Movement’s School Committee. During summer 1967, Dr. King and the SCLC personnel in Cleveland maintained offices at Glenville United Presbyterian Church.
Dr. King’s presence in Cleveland was requested by local Pastor Theophilus Caviness, of Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church in Glenville after the Hough riots. Pastor Caviness hoped that the presence of Dr. King and the SCLC could help prevent future disturbances, and he also wanted their assistance in the campaign to elect Carl B. Stokes. Pastor Caviness was active in the NAACP, CORE, National Action Network and other organizations, and his Greater Abyssinia Church served as the headquarters for the UFM.

St. Adalbert

Fairfax’s St. Adalbert, Cleveland’s first African-American Catholic church and also the church of the first black pastor in the Diocese of Cleveland, Father Gene Wilson, worked with the community service programs of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Cleveland. The group’s official presence in Cleveland was short-lived, from approximately 1969 to 1971, but it was successful in establishing several community services in Cleveland: free health clinic, busing to prison program, and education programs in League Park Center. The BPP, or the Cleveland Branch of the National Committee to Combat Fascism (as BPP chapters were named after 1969) was active in Kinsman and Hough.

Local militant groups, such as Lewis  Robinson’s Freedom Fighters, Harllel Jones’ Afro Set and Fred Evans’ Black Nationalists of the New Libya, advocated a more uncompromising and community-based position in regard to civil rights legislation and empowerment, yet these groups collaborated with national and religious groups. They had a community-based presence in centers such as Lewis Robinson’s Jomo Freedom Kenyatta House on Superior Avenue, Robinson’s Rifle Club on East 120th Street, and Fred Evans’ Afro Culture Shop. Fred Evans collaborated with Dr. King and Carl Stokes to try and stabilize communities between the Hough Riots and his own participation in the Glenville Shootout.

Harllel Jones’ House

As the influx of African-Americans into the city of Cleveland slowed toward the end of the Great Migration, fair housing programs and increased traction by community-based nonprofit service organizations helped to stabilize the housing conditions for many African-American families across Greater Cleveland.

The Ludlow Community Association (LCA), founded in 1957 by Walter and Christine Branch, helped provide a model for integrated neighborhoods in Cleveland and Shaker Heights. Shelly Stokes-Hammond asserted in her 2011 Master of Arts thesis “Recognizing Ludlow – A National Treasure; A Community that Stood Firm for Equality” that the community of Ludlow was a pioneer for civil rights in its successful model of integrated neighborhood creation and stabilization. In the 1950s, housing in the Greater Cleveland suburbs was highly segregated and African-Americans had few suburban housing options. As blacks tried to move into white neighborhoods, they were often met with hostility and, sometimes, violence. There was also the practice of whites selling en masse as blacks tried to move into a neighborhood. The LCA tried to counteract these trends.

Townley Road “straw buy” house

In 1964, Carol and Burt Milter, a white couple who lived in Ludlow, bought a house on Townley Road in the nearby Sussex neighborhood for Ernest and Jackie Tinsley, a black couple. The Tinsleys had been prevented from buying the house on their own due to racist real estate practices. Carol Milter worked for Operation Equality, a Cleveland housing program established in 1967 by the National Urban League to provide better housing for minority families. This was the first so-called “straw buy” in the city. The organizations like Operational Equality and LCA helped not only African-American families move into Shaker Heights, but also worked to keep existing white families in the city’s neighborhoods. The LCA provided short-term loans to buyers, maintained an integrated community and helped stabilize the neighborhood for decades. The success of the LCA encouraged the formation of other groups such as the Lomond Association in 1963 and Heights Community Congress in 1972.

Beyond the physical impact in the city’s neighborhoods, the racial unrest experienced during the mid-twentieth century had more long-reaching consequences for Cleveland and its suburbs. While the riots were a wake-up call for many to the economic and social disparities facing African-American households, affecting positive change was another matter. With decades of hard work, community organizing and improvement, learned through such civil rights organizations as the Future Outlook League, Cleveland Community Relations Board, and Ludlow Community Association, has created Cleveland’s nationally recognized network of community development corporations.