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Civil Rights Movement in Cleveland Remembered—and Revisited—50 Years Later

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On Friday, July 20, our event for the day was a Cleveland City Club program in which author, historian, and attorney Mr. James Robenalt reviewed the historical data contained in his book, Ballots and Bullets: Black Power Politics and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland.

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Prior to the start of the program, we spoke to Mr. Robenalt and told him that during the Q and A we would ask him a question about the potential for the Cleveland community to be a positive force in the the campaign for constructive, comprehensive immigration reform due to its tremendous diversity; in fact, we believe that what is taking place today regarding the need to counter the regressive policies of the Trump administration is comparable to the civil rights struggles of the 1960's. Mr. Robenalt expressed his admiration for Ms. Wong and said he would welcome our question.

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Later on, when we got to ask the above question, Mr. Robenalt readily agreed with us and recalled, while growing up in Cleveland, a time in which the families of most of his friends had immigrated to the United States from somewhere else and, for the most part, despite tensions with African Americans, they all got along fine and took pride in their heritage. As far as what is taking place today being comparable with the civil rights movement, Mr. Robenalt cited research that eerily showed that the notorious Sheriff Bull Connor of Birmingham, Alabama, sometimes resorted to locking up African-American children in cages who participated in the civil rights marches, much like what has been happening recently.

We also spent a moment speaking to Ms. Joanna Connors, the wife of Mr. Robenalt, who told us she is very proud of her daughter-in-law who is very involved in the immigration program at the Cardoza School of Law in New York and was prominent in the demonstration at JFK Airport when Trump imposed the initial travel ban in early 2017.

Other people we spoke to that day at the City Club were: 

  • Ms. Sue Adams, who worked with now-U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown when he was Ohio's Secretary of State (1983-1991)
  • Mr. Oliver Henkel, one of the key figures in former U.S. Senator Hart's campaign for the U.S. Presidency back in 1984. We talked with him about the possibility of having Hart speak again in the near future at the City Club about the current state of the union. 

During his address, Mr. Robenalt squeezed quite a bit into the half hour he was given. He centered his speech around the tragic shootout that occurred in Cleveland's Glenville area 50 years ago—on July 23, 1968. Mr. Fred Ahmed Evans, an African-American militant, was the primary instigator. Mr. Robenalt put the incident in a fair, historical context and talked about both the incidents that lead up to the catastrophe and its aftereffects.

Along the way, he talked about historical figures of the time like Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. He also mentioned prominent local Clevelanders who also played a role in the civil rights struggle and were there in attendance at the City Club with us, such as Mr. Fred Vierow, Secretary of the City Club at the time, who was instrumental in setting up U.S. Senator Kennedy's engagement there.

Very much a reflect of those tumultuous times was Malcolm X's speech, "The Ballot or the Bullet," initially delivered in Cleveland (later in Detroit) in April of 1964 at the Cory Methodist Church. According to Wikipedia, "Malcolm X advised African Americans to judiciously exercise their right to vote, but he cautioned that if the government continued to prevent African Americans from attaining full equality, it might be necessary for them to take up arms. It was ranked 7th in the top 100 American speeches of the 20th century by 137 leading scholars of American public address. 

Besides the loss of life that occurred in the course of the shootout, perhaps the most unfortunate thing to come out of this tragedy was a backlash against the civil rights movement that lead to the narrow election of former Vice President Richard M. Nixon in November, 1968 to the U.S. Presidency over the current Vice President Hubert Humphrey. This was because Vice President Humphrey had pledged to help Mayor Carl Stokes raise over one billion dollars for the Cleveland Now! project that would have been, in effect, a Marshall Plan for the area, and probably would have been replicated in other parts of the nation.

Mr. Robenalt cited the Kerner Commission Report issued in February, 1968 as evidence that such actions were necessary. We, ourselves, took Mr. Robenalt's lead and did some research on the report, which maintained that "white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it." 

We urge our readers to check out an article by Ms. Alice George that appeared in Smithsonian Magazine on March 1, 2018: The 1968 Kerner Commission Got It Right, But Nobody Listened.

Accordingly, at the close of the program, Mr. Robenalt encouraged us as voters to support additional spending for social programs that had the potential to remedy some of the inequities that are still so apparent. He also urged us to learn from such people as Mr. Don and Mrs. Norma Freeman (also present), who live in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood and have devoted their lives to social justice.

One of the community partners of the day was Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, so Ms. Jennifer Lumpkin, its Civic Engagement Strategy Manager, was given a few minutes to tell us about its Cleveland Votes project, "a nonpartisan voter engagement and mobilizations initiative. We aim to educate, connect, and empower the citizens of our community, and in doing so, build democracy based on an informed and mature citizenry." 

Ms. Lumpkin went on to say: "We cannot imagine a better time to have this discussion. It's truly disheartening that many of the inequities experienced here and nationwide back in 1968 are still present today. Our nation and even closer to home—Cleveland—is seeing an uprising and revitalization in development. Let's ask ourselves, are we building our people? So what are you doing now and what can you do? Cleveland Votes acknowledges that there are multiple ways to be an engaged citizen and one of the most direct ways is to vote!"

After we left the City Club, we walked to our car with the Reverend John Rinehart, Minister of Justice at Dover Congregational UCC in Westlake. We talked about Teatime for Peace once held there in which people of different ethnic groups and religious faiths sat down and got to know each other. Along with voting, we believe that this is a truly constructive action.

 

Michael Patterson

Community Liaison

Margaret W. Wong & Associates, LLC

 

 

Aimee Jannsohn