Courtesy of CSU Special Collections.
Carl Stokes discusses the education that he received from John O. Holly
I was formed by many forces. If I have been a lawyer, politician and TV anchorman, I am still a kid from the public housing projects and never forget it. I learned important lessons from (Cyrus) Eaton, even through his cool, Europeanized sophistication and crisp grooming. But twenty years earlier, when I was twenty-one, I had the honor of learning about the realities of politics from John O. Holly, a greasy haired, short, very black, homely man from Alabama who had successfully practiced confrontation politics in Cleveland a generation before anybody ever heard of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Holly was one of the most remarkable men I have known. His fame never went beyond Ohio, but he was a hero to our black community in the late 1930’s when I was a kid growing up. They didn’t call it black pride then, but if there was ever black consciousness and pride in Cleveland, it came through John Holly.
It is hard for people now to appreciate how extraordinary a phenomenon he was. He came along at a time when Negroes completely rejected any leadership from within. To be black-complexioned even minimized your mobility within the ghetto; the Negro community, with its churches and social groups, was as strictly hieratic as the brahmin structure of Boston. The black politicians of that time — and this is still true for most — learned only to get themselves insinuated into the white party apparatus. They had political expertise, but they never questioned their minority status, nor did they question being mere beneficiaries of the system rather than entrepreneurs in their own right. Other than Holly, none of them had that extra dimension it took to understand a mass politics that ignores ward lines. Even later, when younger men with supposedly new understanding came along, they too saw politics as an arena for personal aggrandizement and ended up in the same kind of subordinate status within the party system that choked off their predecessors.
Curiously, the Democrats and the Republicans were quite different in the way they worked their Negroes. A black Democratic councilman, for instance, was convinced by the party leaders that he could not go beyond the ward lines of his black neighborhood. The Republicans had a different discipline, for, I think, three reasons. For one thing, Republicans tended to function at a higher level, intellectually, than Democrats. And, being an elitist and therefore minority party, they hung together more easily. Finally, the Republicans were the ones who owned things in town, they determined what was going to happen, so they were not threatened by having Negroes on countywide tickets. From the late 1880’s until 1962, when I was elected to the General Assembly, there was almost always a black Republican legislator from Cuyahoga County, but no black Democrats, even though most Negroes are Democrats. There were those ironic effects. In 1959, a man named Clarence Sharpe, a Republican, ran for county commissioner. He carried the vote in prosperous white suburbs like Shaker Heights and Lakewood and lost in the black ghetto. His own people defeated him, not because they didn’t like him, but because he was a Republican.
In such a system a man like John Holly was almost unthinkable. Though lacking in formal education and ignorant of history, Holly understood that real power was in the hands of the man who could put the people together. In the 1930’s he organized sit-ins and boycotts and took over an absolute leadership that had all the recognized black leaders following him. Holly took on the local giants, the utility companies, and won. He put together the little guys, the Negro masses, for an exercise in confrontation politics and had clout. He raised the consciousness of Clevelanders about rights and the sheer wrongness of men and women paying utility bills to companies where they couldn’t get jobs.
Holly not only accomplished that, he formed a virtual union of the employed Negroes. It was called the Future Outlook League. It worked simply enough. Holly went to every store owner. The owner was told to hire Negroes or else he would be boycotted. Then whenever a black man got a job in that store, he had to belong to the Future Outlook League. So throughout the black community by 1940 every place had someone black working in it, and all these workers were dues-paying members of the league. So Holly was supported by his own people, and that made him independent. That was the single most important ingredient: self-sufficiency. Nobody could touch him.
When John Holly put it all together, the black aristocracy, the lawyers and doctors and schoolteachers, had no choice but to follow him. The white and black politicians and anyone else who depended on Negroes had to follow. It is a good thing the flush of victory brought with it so much pride, because it is disconsoling to realize that he had to force those black leaders to come up as much as he forced the whites to back down. It used to be marvelous to go into Holly’s office and see those old newspaper clippings on his wall. There was one with a picture taken after Holly was released from jail — he’d been arrested during a sit-in — and it shows Holly, Call & Post editor William O. Walker and City Councilman Lawrence Payne standing on the steps of the jail. What you see in their faces is pride. It’s the same kind of feeling some of the black councilmen in Cleveland had after my victory as mayor. For those four years I was in office, the councilmen and other elected black officials had an independence from the party machinery they had never contemplated.
It was not until 1948 that I really got to know Holly and learn some lessons from him. I was twenty-one I’d been in the Army during the days immediately after the war and then returned to finish high school and graduated in 1947. I got involved with the Young Progressives, the young people’s group of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party. At that same time I had become friends with a man named Bert Washington, who had been thrown out of his post-office job for alleged involvement with the Communist Party. Bert was a local casualty of the Senator Joe McCarthy witch hunts of the time. We in the Young Progressives spent long hours with Bert Washington arguing the comparative merits of socialism and capitalism. And we’d all go to all the political meetings, especially when a speaker for Wallace or for Harry Truman would appear. We’d go to those meetings and harass the speakers for Truman and generally raise hell or get into intense discussions with the young people who were for Truman.
It was through Bert Washington I met Paul Robeson. Paul made several trips into Cleveland campaigning for Wallace. After the rally, a small group would meet with Robeson at Bert’s. There was this tall, imposing and yet gentle man, who filled the room with his presence, would talk at length of the nationwide effort to rally the workingman behind Wallace. He softly talked about the long labor struggle, the deaths, imprisonment and economic and social ostracism of those committed to raising the level of the working poor. Paul Robeson’s lessons and example heavily influenced my philosophy of government and the positions I later took with organized labor. At the same time I was going through the exhilaration of this more intellectual approach to government, I was learning the hard basics of politics from John Holly.
Holly was travelling around Ohio putting together the Federated County Democrats of Ohio for Lausche. Frank J Lausche was running fore his second term as governor. Holly’s job was to organize the black Democrats for his campaign. I went to Holly for a job, and he said, “I need somebody to drive my car.” So Wallace Connors, a friend of mine, and I drove Holly around the state.
As we’d go down the highway, I’d be asking Holly all sorts of questions. Holly loved to talk, anyway, and he was more than happy to show off his know-how, which was considerable. How do you get to the people of Steubenville? He would tell of such-and-such a leader there he knew about, and about a woman in town whom Holly had known for fifteen years and who was close to the leader, and a man who working in the Highway Department who got his job during Lausche’s first term as governor. It was like that with any town. And then when we’d get into a town, Connors and I would serve them while they were meeting. If we didn’t bring liquor with us, we’d go out and get liquor and some setups and then serve them. So we would always be in the room where they were talking. We heard the details of how to put together a local chapter of a campaign organization: who should go for the money, who would see to it that they got a storefront for headquarters, whom you should watch out for in town, who was for you, and who only seemed to be with who was working against you. This was an approach he could take in a town like Dayton, for instance, where he was working with C. J. McLin, Sr., an old, established black politician. It was different in a town like Lima, smaller and more rural, where there was no established leadership and no organization. He would have to put it together, and in those cases you would hear a lot of threats, telling people who had low-level jobs in local government they would lose their jobs, and telling others they could get a job if they worked on the campaign. All this time I would be asking Holly who was so-and-so and how had he gotten to be this and that.
Holly’s responses and the actual experience of being with him as he put together a state-wide political machine were my primary-level education in politics.
These cumulative experiences taught me to be a hardheaded realist in most ways; as one who took to politics as a duck does to water, I quickly developed a sure eye and an ability to sense the other man’s bottom line.
Such things are necessary for political success. And yet that success is hollow without commitment to some social goal that carries a man beyond his own petty concerns. This is the paradox of political reality: the mainstream (what most people do most of the time) is a flowing system for mediating petty concerns, and the man who tampers with it does so at his peril; whenever he tries to divert its energies for the purposes of the disenfranchised, the poor, he finds himself on the wrong side of the floodgates. Underneath all the high talk, the campaign promises, the idealist theories, politicians are mostly interested in perpetuating their privileged positions. No matter how well a man understands this, no matter how hard he is, if he fights for the have-nots he will find himself alienated from most of his fellows, and they will do their level best to wear them down, to break him. He may, if he is good enough or sharp enough or powerful enough, win some particular and even important victories. But eventually, he will be driven out.
Cyrus Eaton may have an empire of his own, but to his colleagues he is a pariah. When the energies of the Future Outlook League began to dissipate, Holly’s independence began to crumble. The traditional politicians were able to break him and bring him into their fold. Robeson left the country. I am writing this book.