Cleveland’s Earliest Pioneers in Civil Rights

Thomas Fleming became Cleveland’s first black city councilman in 1909.
John O. Holly founded the Future Outlook League in 1935.

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 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 B. Stokes, in 1967, and the desegregation of Cleveland’s public schools.

Carl B. Stokes, Cleveland’s first African-American mayor, 1967.

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.

Theophilus Caviness of Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church in Glenville requested Dr. King’s presence in Cleveland.

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.

Diocese of Cleveland, Father Gene Wilson worked with the community service programs of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Cleveland.

Fairfax’s St. Adalbert, Cleveland’s first African-American Catholic church was also the church of the first black pastor in the Diocese of Cleveland, Father Gene Wilson. Father 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.

Lewis Robinson – Freedom Fighters

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.

Fred Evans’ Black Nationalists of the New Libya.
Harllel Jones leader of the “Afro Set”.

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.

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