From Cleveland Magazine April 2012 and written by Erick Trickey
In April 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. launched a drive in Cleveland to prevent another riot in Hough and help elect the city’s first black mayor. His aides and local leaders recall the struggles and tensions 45 years ago.
On Aug. 23, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived at Lafayette School in Cleveland, and kids from the Mount Pleasant neighborhood rushed over to see him. It was still summer vacation, but the schoolhouse doors were open that day, and Dr. King was standing just outside them.
Adults were coming in and out of the building, registering to vote in Cleveland’s 1967 race for mayor. It was the one day of the year that Clevelanders could sign up to vote without going downtown to the board of elections.
From somewhere came Dr. King’s resonant, amplified voice. Someone was playing a recording of King’s four-year-old, already-famous I Have A Dream speech. But King asked for it to be turned off. He had something else to say, something less lofty but also less dreamy, something immediate and real.
“Today is just the beginning,” he told the crowd. “Now you must vote, or tell your parents to vote, on Oct. 3.”
All that spring and summer, America’s most prominent civil-rights leader had been flying to Cleveland, every two weeks or so, reaching out to the city’s restless, frustrated black minority. Responding to an invitation from several local black ministers, who feared a repeat of the devastating July 1966 riots in Hough, King’s civil-rights group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had come north.
After a difficult effort against housing discrimination in Chicago in 1966, King chose Cleveland as the second and last campaign he ever directed outside the South.
In speeches in schools, rallies in the streets and sermons in churches, some of them carried live on the radio, King exhorted Clevelanders to choose peace over violence, activism over riots. He organized boycotts to try to win more jobs for black workers. And, most of all, he asked them to register and vote, while dropping obvious hints about whom he thought they should vote for: state Rep. Carl Stokes, who hoped to become the first black mayor of a major American city.
King knew Cleveland well. He’d visited in 1965 to raise funds for the voting-rights march in Selma, Ala., speaking to thousands at a downtown banquet and in churches in Glenville and Shaker Heights. He had friends and in-laws in the city, ex-Alabamians who’d moved north for a better life.
But Cleveland posed complex new challenges for his movement. The racial divide here was as deep as the Cuyahoga River valley. Black Clevelanders rarely traveled to the West Side. Many white Clevelanders were fearful of blacks, resentful, hostile. King’s peaceful confrontations with white society, his growing activism against the Vietnam War and the frequent insinuations that he had Communist ties made him a deeply controversial figure. His Cleveland campaign put the single person it was most designed to help, Carl Stokes, in an awkward political spot, a tension the two men never fully resolved.
King’s Cleveland drive began 45 years ago this month. This year, a rediscovered recording of his April 1967 speech at Glenville High School has sparked new interest in King’s intimate relationship with Cleveland during the last year of his life. Cleveland Magazine spoke to several people who witnessed King’s campaign here, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, to reconstruct the story.
The United Pastors Association, a group of black ministers formed after the 1966 Hough riots, invited King to Cleveland in April 1967 to join them in a campaign to improve conditions in Cleveland’s black neighborhoods. Teenagers on an arson spree had just burned down Giddings Elementary School in Hough. Many Clevelanders feared more summer rioting.
REV. E. T. CAVINESS was a member of the United Pastors Association. Then, as now, he was pastor of Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church in Glenville. The Hough riots were horrendous. They were devastating. They possibly did more damage to the fabric of the African-American community than anything else. It burned the stores. Instead of being able to shop in your neighborhood, you had to go out. All of our efforts were to obliterate that kind of activity from transpiring again. Martin almost was the symbol for us, a motivating factor, to let us know we could do it if we all stood together in unity.
King spoke at three Cleveland schools, asking students to embrace nonviolence. In Glenville High’s gymnasium, 3,500 teens from several schools sat on folding chairs to hear him. King stood at a wooden podium, facing a forest of microphones and wires. Speaking slowly, drawing out his words, pointing to the students to emphasize a point, King spoke to them in the same soaring oratory as his historic speeches and church sermons. When he switched from the word “Negro” to declare, “Black is as beautiful as any color,” the students erupted in a high-pitched cheer.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING, at Glenville High, April 26, 1967: Our power does not lie in Molotov cocktails. Our power does not lie in bricks and stones. Our power does not lie in bottles. Our power lies in our ability to unite around concrete programs. Our power lies in our ability to say nonviolently that we aren’t going to take it any longer. You see, the chief problem with a riot is that it can always be halted by superior force. But I know another weapon that the National Guard can’t stop. They tried to stop it in Mississippi, they tried to stop it in Alabama, but we had a power that Bull Connor’s fire hoses couldn’t put out. It was a fire within.
REV. JESSE JACKSON was a 25-year-old aide to Dr. King who often came to Cleveland with him in 1967. Jackson went on to found the civil-rights group Operation PUSH in 1971 and run for president of the United States in 1984 and 1988. The question was, would nonviolence work in the North? [With] urban frustration and job tensions, could you have the same kind of discipline you had in the South? We were picking and choosing which urban markets we could apply nonviolence in, so we could use the new Voting Rights Act to make an impact. Cleveland had the right combination of alliances and coalition potential. [It] was one of the northern areas where we had lots of relationships.
Discontent with Cleveland Mayor Ralph Locher was rising, from the black community and the business community, over his underwhelming reaction to the Hough riots and the state of Cleveland’s black neighborhoods. Support was building for state Rep. Carl Stokes, who had barely lost to Locher in the 1965 mayor’s race, to run again. The morning King came to town, Locher called King an “extremist” and declared he wouldn’t meet with him. That set off a war of words.
KING, at Glenville High: One of the things that we need in every city is political power. • Cleveland, Ohio, is a city that can be the first city of major size in the United States to have a black mayor and you should participate in making that a possibility.
King and the United Pastors wanted to help elect Stokes. But Stokes feared King would set off a white backlash. King’s 1966 fair-housing marches in the Chicago area had attracted violent attacks from angry whites.
CARL STOKES, from his autobiography, Promises of Power: In 1967, Dr. King’s great career was at a low point. He had just come out of Cicero, Illinois, with great disappointments, discovering just how profound are the white man’s hatred and prejudice. He desperately needed a victory.
Stokes met with King at the offices of the Call and Post, Cleveland’s black newspaper.
CARL STOKES: I explained to Dr. King that I had carefully put this whole campaign together. I had worked to get actual white votes. I couldn’t afford to do anything to aggravate the white voter. …
“You’re going to create problems that we do not have now and may not be able to handle. I would rather that you not stay.” •
“I will have to stay,” [King] said, “but I promise there will be nothing inflammatory.”
JACKSON: I remember that meeting. Carl was [concerned about] whites’ reaction to Dr. King. Carl felt he had to have a coalition to win. That meant relieving white fears. Between relieving white fears and black legitimate aspirations, there’s a tension. Dr. King was the anti-war guy. He was the challenging-the-white-power-structure guy. He was, for many, an object of fear rather than a source of hope. So I think Carl was walking that thin line.
King called a May 16 press conference at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church on Quincy Avenue. With four black ministers and local black nationalist Fred “Ahmed” Evans standing with him, King announced that on June 1, the SCLC would kick off efforts to register voters and boycott companies doing business in black neighborhoods until they hired more black workers. Afterward, he visited striking workers at St. Luke’s Hospital on Shaker Boulevard, stopping on the way to ask people on street corners about life in Cleveland.
KING, at the press conference: Like many of our nation’s cities, we find Cleveland a teeming cauldron of hostility. The citizens of the Negro community reflect the alienation of the total community, which has constantly ignored their cries for justice and opportunity and responded to their joblessness, poor housing and economic exploitation with crude methods of police repression rather than compassion and creative programming.
CAVINESS: Black people were not being hired. The only thing you could do around here was run the elevator. Basically, that was the norm.
JACKSON: It required a confrontation before negotiation. They’d been so locked in to one-way trade: We bought, they sold. We wanted to be reciprocal trading partners.
JOAN BROWN CAMPBELL was a local community activist. She later became a minister and executive director of the World Council of Churches’ U.S. office. There was a lot of pressure from more radical groups. I remember him being somewhat discouraged. His commitment to nonviolence was being challenged.
In a couple of conversations I was in with black ministers, he would take people to task. [He’d say,] “We can’t afford to be giving up on nonviolence. We can’t afford to move in a direction of violence. We’re making progress, fighting with the right tools.”
JACKSON: The Hough district was very violent, very threatening. I spent a lot of time down in Hough, developing relationships as a street organizer. [I remember] how desperate and poor people were in Hough. That stands in my mind.
ANDREW YOUNG was executive director of the SCLC and an aide to King. He later became a congressman, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and mayor of Atlanta. I remember we were going down Euclid Avenue, and a group of possible prostitutes were on the corner. They saw [King] in the car, and they said, “Ol’ Uncle Tom, we don’t need you up here! Go on back down to Georgia.”
The driver pulled off, and Dr. King said, “Stop this car.” He got out and went to speak to them.
He said, “Ladies, I’m sorry. I understand how you feel about me, but I’d like an opportunity to explain to you why we’re here. I’d be glad to have a cup of coffee with you back at my hotel, if you could come back there at about 3 o’clock.”
We got back a little later, about 3:30, and there must have been 15 to 20 prostitutes in the lobby saying they were there to see Martin Luther King. We got the boardroom and invited them all in. We ordered coffee, donuts, cookies and sandwiches, things like that.
He said, “Look, it’s obvious that all of you are very intelligent young women, and you probably have children, and you probably would rather do something other than what you’re doing.” He said, “You’d probably be good schoolteachers. You could probably do anything in this society if you had had the educational opportunity and a helping hand to do that. Those are decisions that are politically controlled.
“One of the reasons why we think we ought to be represented in the government, in the board of education, is so that young women like you would not have to do this as the only means of survival.”
They were grateful for being treated like people, with respect. When they finished their coffee and cookies, they started trying to clean off the table and he said, “No, no, no, you don’t have to do that.” They promised that they would register to vote and that they would spread the word around the neighborhood.
King and his aides befriended “Ahmed” Evans, the black nationalist and astrologer who had predicted more riots in Cleveland.
CAVINESS: Violence was on the table with Ahmed Evans. It was “by any means necessary,” [like] Malcolm X. There were people who looked upon him as being courageous, no-nonsense. “We’re prepared to die, do it or die.” Angry young people would look at that and say, maybe this is the way to do it.
YOUNG: [Evans] was quite loud and boisterous on the news. But when he sat with Martin Luther King, he was very quiet and gentle, and they had a really peaceful conversation.
CAMPBELL: It was very like Dr. King to reach out to someone like Ahmed Evans. And he would get criticized for it. That was the most magical thing about him. He didn’t play his cards safely.
Evans joined the voter registration drive, a signal to his fellow angry young men to work within the system. Other forces were also in play; Stokes and Call and Post publisher William O. Walker convinced white businessmen Ralph Besse and Lawrence Evert to pay black nationalists a total of $40,000 to keep the peace.
Violence did not break out in Cleveland that summer, but it did in Newark, N.J., and Detroit. On July 28, the last day of the Detroit riots, King toured Cleveland’s East Side, exhorting audiences not to burn down their neighborhoods, but to embrace black pride and vote.
LOUIS STOKES, Carl Stokes’ brother, was a lawyer for the Cleveland NAACP in 1967. He was elected as Ohio’s first black congressman in 1968. Dr. King rode on a flatbed truck. You would see him standing on that flatbed truck at places like 55th and Woodland, 79th and Cedar, 105th and St. Clair, and numerous other places. He had a bullhorn and he would be exhorting people in that community to register to vote.
What I noted most was that voice, which was like no other voice. When he spoke, something moved all through your body and your mind.
KING, in a discount store parking lot at East 105th Street and St. Clair Avenue, July 28, 1967: I want to say to everybody under the sound of my voice this afternoon that you are somebody. Don’t let anybody make you feel that you are nobody. You are somebody. You have dignity. You have worth. Don’t be ashamed of yourself and don’t be ashamed of your heritage. Don’t be ashamed of your color. Don’t be ashamed of your hair. I am black and beautiful and not ashamed to say it.
GEORGE FORBES, a young city councilman from Glenville, joined King on the truck for many of his rallies. Forbes became city council president in 1973. There was an Operation Breadbasket Band, headed by [a saxophonist] named Ben Branch. They would come in on the back of these big trucks. They would go to these places like Pick-N-Pay [a grocery store] and sites where black people would gather. The band would play jazz music. People would come from all over the neighborhood, saying, “Dr. King is here.”
KING, at East 105th and St. Clair: Every politician respects votes, and we have enough potential voting power here to change anything that needs to be changed. And so let us set out to do it and to do it in no uncertain terms. And finally, I want to say to you that if we will organize like this, we have a power that can change this city.
It wasn’t easy to register to vote in Ohio in 1967. There was no mail-in registration, and people were removed from the rolls if they didn’t vote in two straight elections. So the Stokes campaign and the SCLC both organized bus trips and car pools to the board of elections downtown. They spread the word about the one day when people could sign up to vote at neighborhood registration stations: Aug. 23.
King visited several registration sites that day. He took a break to eat a home-cooked lunch — fried chicken, ham, macaroni and cheese, greens — and play some football in the front yard at a home on Van Aken Boulevard in Shaker Heights.
YVONNE WILSON was a homemaker and mother of five. She and her husband, Moddie Wilson Jr., had moved to Shaker Heights in 1964. I had friends who worked with the SCLC. Someone called and said, “Do you mind having Dr. King over for lunch?”
He was with Jesse Jackson and Andy Young. They had a little meeting to plan for the afternoon, for voter registration.
He was just like a regular Joe. He was trying to recognize everyone who was there and be patient with people. Everyone seemed to be thrilled to be in the company of him.
MODDIE WILSON III, an accountant in Los Angeles, was 10 when King came to lunch. He brought [his sons] Dexter and Marty. They rode my bike. Dexter broke one of the mirrors. I said, “You gotta pay for that! I don’t know who you guys are!” So he went in and got $3.60 in nickels, dimes and quarters from his father.
[King] was like a dad figure. We threw the ball around for 15 or 20 minutes. We all went out for passes. He was a pretty good quarterback.
I have some pictures where he’s sitting in my dad’s library, talking to my dad. He said he was going to come back next summer, and bring his wife and daughters and family, and they were going to spend the night. My dad said he was under a lot of stress. He said, “You could tell this guy had a lot of pressure on him, the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
At least 20,000 black Clevelanders registered that summer, including 8,600 on Aug. 23 alone.
THE PLAIN DEALER, AUG. 24, 1967: Ray C. Miller, director of elections, • gave much of the credit for yesterday’s turnout to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Said Miller of Dr. King: “He must be magic.”
FORBES: Carl would have disagreed with this, but he would not have gotten elected if he had not had that strong registration drive. [King] was the motivating force behind the registration drive. Now, you [also] had a good candidate to go register to vote for!
Just before the primary election, the local Democratic Party published a series of inflammatory attacks on King and Stokes.
NEWSLETTER FROM CUYAHOGA COUNTY DEMOCRATIC EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE, late September 1967: Will Dr. Martin Luther King actually be the mayor of Cleveland if Carl Stokes is elected Tuesday? This would give the noted racist control of his first city in the United States.
The scare tactics didn’t work. In the Oct. 3 Democratic primary, Stokes beat Locher 110,769 to 92,033. He combined almost all of the black vote with 15 percent of the white vote.
KING, in a press release: Yesterday Cleveland made a significant step toward making America a color-blind society. … Stokes’ victory was a result of a coalition of Negro and White voters and reminds us that black and white together, we shall overcome.
In November, Stokes faced Republican Seth Taft, grandson of President William Howard Taft and a former mayor of Pepper Pike. Vote-counting went late into the night. Stokes supporters and the press gathered outside Stokes’ headquarters.
JACKSON: The night we won, it was such a great urban victory for Dr. King, one of our urban victories, working in the north. We expected that night for Dr. King to go down on the stage, with Carl, to be presented.
YOUNG: My recollection is that [Stokes] asked us to wait in a hotel and he would send for us.
When we saw him on television, claiming victory with us still up there in the hotel, we realized he didn’t want to be seen with us.
For almost 45 years, there have been two versions of where King was on Stokes’ election night. King aides remember him waiting in a hotel room for a call from Stokes’ campaign that never came. But Clevelanders remember King coming to the Rockefeller Building late that night.
MICHAEL D. ROBERTS, now a Cleveland Magazine columnist, covered the election night for The Plain Dealer. The media was looking for Martin Luther King. [The Stokes rally] took place in the Rockefeller Building. We were looking for him, we heard he was there, but nobody would lead us to him.
FORBES: I saw him on the sixth floor of the Rockefeller Building [Stokes’ campaign offices]. Lou [Stokes] and I stayed up and talked to Dr. King when he came over. And then Carl was downstairs in the headquarters for that night when the vote was being announced.
Stokes beat Taft by only 1,679 votes. Cleveland, a majority-white city, had elected a black mayor.
LOUIS STOKES: My last memory of Dr. King here was the night of my brother Carl’s election. Dr. King was in our headquarters. I guess it was about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning when we finally got word that Carl had defeated Seth Taft.
Carl had not yet gone down to greet all of the people. There was a throng of people outside our headquarters. They all wanted to see Carl.
He went down and took everybody in the headquarters with him, but it was decided Dr. King would not go down. Carl came to me and said, “Lou, would you stay upstairs with Dr. King while we go down?” and I said, “Sure.”
As I recall, Dr. King was very, very happy that night. I guess he could see how his work here had helped bring this night about.
He spoke of what Carl’s victory, politically, meant to black Americans in this country. But he also said that with this achievement politically, we also had to concentrate on economic achievement.
He stressed the fact that no ethnic group seeking power in America had acquired meaningful equity and parity without achieving both political and economic empowerment.
JACKSON: To keep our movement growing, you needed credits. Would the nonviolent movement work in the North? Would the voting-rights movement apply to the North? All that happened. It was a great victory. He would have savored the victory, but he was not allowed to in that instance.
YOUNG: Dr. King was very understanding. He said, “Look, he’s got to run this town. He doesn’t want it to seem that civil rights is his only issue. He’s got to appeal to the broad base of the Cleveland population.” Some of us were kind of upset, and he spent his time explaining to us why Carl had to do it this way. He might have taken offense, but he didn’t admit it.
CAVINESS: I was disappointed. I thought King should have been on that stage. His magnetism and all of his resources were brought to this town to get it done. So we felt a little bit at odds about it. But Carl was the leader. He called the shots. Carl knew that in order for him to govern, now that he was elected, he was going to have to demonstrate that this was an indigenous movement here in Cleveland.
King visited Cleveland three more times. In mid-November, he announced an end to the boycott of the Pick-N-Pay chain after it agreed to hire more black workers. He also made a public appearance in December and a private visit in early 1968.
King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, six days before he was to return to Cleveland to rally support for the Poor People’s Campaign, the SCLC’s protest on the Washington, D.C., Mall that spring. Carl Stokes led Cleveland’s mourning for him. Some 35,000 Clevelanders gathered in Public Square outside a memorial service at Old Stone Church. A photo of Stokes in tears at church ran on The Plain Dealer‘s April 6 front page.
CAVINESS: [Stokes] loved him. It brought tears to his eyes, because he knew how much he’d meant to the struggle, how much the man had given, how much he’d sacrificed. And he also knew he was the beneficiary of so much of his love and concern.
Stokes served as co-chairman of a committee of mayors who supported the Poor People’s Campaign that June.
In July, Ahmed Evans and a few followers, who had stockpiled guns in a home in Glenville, got into a shootout with police. The incident sparked the Glenville riots, which wounded Cleveland again and punctured the atmosphere of hope that had grown around Carl Stokes. He was re-elected in 1969 but chose not to run again in 1971.
One of the first bills Louis Stokes co-sponsored in Congress in 1969 was a proposal to create a holiday honoring King. It became law in 1983.