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A SPARK PLUS A SPARK PLUS A SPARK
Cleveland, July 23, 1968
The city in summer, bright afternoon dimming in the sky. The narrow jigsaw streets of Glenville tangle along the hills on Cleveland’s edge, brick double- and triple-deckers slotted tight on modest lawns fizzy with bugs. Windows were wide open to the heat. Porch radios murmured. Ronnie Bridgeman, a peewee-sized ten-year-old with nothing heavier sitting on his mind than his sister’s birthday party the next day, scuttled carefree down the alley next to his house. He was looking for his friend Kenneth. Together, they were going to do some garage hopping, jumping from one tin roof to the next. But when he popped out on Auburndale Avenue, he saw the men with guns.1
They looked like movie bandits, young heavies with bandoliers strung over their dashikis. Two hefted long M1 carbines. The third gripped a .45 caliber submachine gun. Ronnie recognized all three from two houses down. The man he knew as Ahmed—an ex-army grunt and felon born Fred Evans—was the guy on the block if you wanted to get into heavy talk about cosmic law or astrological signs or UFOs. Maybe a notch or two stranger than the rest, but Ahmed wasn’t much different than the half dozen other young black men in the neighborhood, guys preaching Afro-pride, community betterment, and black nationalism. But the guns were new.
“Hey,” Evans said. He nodded to the porch of Ronnie’s house, where the boy’s mother was yammering into the phone. “Tell the seniors to go in. There’s fitting to be some trouble up here on the corner.”
The police had been there all day. Ronnie knew that. Impossible to miss—a car full of white guys just sitting in Glenville, binoculars steady on Evans’s house. What neither Ronnie nor Evans and his followers knew then was that it was really a botched surveillance job. The FBI had alerted the Cleveland police about possible violent plans being hatched by Evans’s group. The police higher-ups ordered rolling surveillance—black officers only. Somehow the message was hacked up in translation, and now these cops—some of them legally drunk—were just sitting in the open.
“Mom!” Ronnie told his mother, pulling on her arm. “Mom!” Bessie Bridgeman swatted her son away. Then suddenly the Tuesday afternoon split with sound.
Thunderclaps of gunfire rolled in from down the street, where Auburndale crossed East 124th Street. More ripped out from Beulah. Mrs. Bridgeman dropped the phone and shouted for her children to come inside. Ronnie fell to the ground, crawling on his stomach for the house like a soldier bellying up a Normandy beach. Safe inside, he crept up to the front windows. He wanted to see.
Somewhere close to 8:20 P.M., gunshots pelted the two unmarked cars assigned to watch the militants. The vehicles roared off, bullets giving chase. Within a minute, a city tow-truck driver hauling an abandoned Cadillac around the corner on Beulah was blasted in the back with a shotgun.2
An “all units” distress call blurted on the police radio at 8:30 P.M. Across Cleveland, patrol cars left their assignments and headed into what had suddenly become an urban war zone. The police had been waiting for this. They abandoned their patrol cars on the Glenville curbs, some engines still puttering, and blitzed the scene with no plan other than pouring rounds into every twitching shadow in the hazy twilight.
After an hour of shooting, twenty-two people were dead or wounded. Three officers and three black nationalists died in the street. A high-powered rifle round punched into the motor of a police car, blowing the cruiser into a fireball. One cop had to wrench a shotgun from his bleeding partner’s hand in order to cut down a sniper firing from the bushes. Evans’s men shot from alleys and apartment balconies. Tear gas clouds soured the air. Homes on Lakeview began to burn.
The chaos seemed to give off a contact high, reignite familiar feelings. Two years earlier and less than a ten-minute drive away, black Clevelanders in the Hough neighborhood had rioted for six nights in July. Now it seemed that whatever outrage propelled that earlier violence had not been dispelled but only suspended, momentarily unplugged. A block north from the shooting in Glenville, where a group of black residents had gathered, police and rioters picked up where they had left off two summers earlier. Arriving emergency vehicles were pelted with rocks. A Molotov cocktail wrapped flames around a police cruiser, while a crowd pulled another officer from his car and beat him bloody. A panel truck driven by a white man plowed into pedestrians; the driver was wrenched from the cab and attacked while the vehicle was flipped and burned. Looters busted into the storefronts on Superior Avenue. Arriving Cleveland police officers removed their badges so no one would be able to identify them. A group of cops marched into a Glenville bar, firing into the ceiling and pistol-whipping the clientele. When two local black men tried to carry a wounded black nationalist out on a stretcher, they were attacked by Cleveland police. “Leave that nigger here to die,” the cops reportedly said.
Gunshots stopped, but the looting and fires picked up. By 11:00 P.M., the militant leader Evans emerged from a nearby house to surrender. “You police have bothered us too long,” he told the cops when asked why they’d attacked. Later, however, the black nationalist acknowledged that whatever forces were loose in the city now were beyond his control or planning. “I had come to be the leader,” Evans would say. “But the night of the twenty-third, there was no leader. After we got our guns, it was every man for himself.”
Nose to the windowsill, Ronnie Bridgeman watched it all play out. The window frame might as well have been a television screen—it was like The High Chaparral, but live action, real time, more vivid than Technicolor. The little boy was dazed and enthralled. It was cops against robbers. Good guys versus bad. Ronnie watched, even though he didn’t completely understand everything happening as the guns jumped and the night shadows stretched and pooled.
A little over a century before race hate split the city open for the second time in as many years, Cleveland bowed its head for John Brown.
The radical abolitionist who led the failed slave revolt at Harpers Ferry swung from the gallows in Charlestown, Virginia, on December 2, 1859. When the news hit the settlement lapped by the fresh waters of Lake Erie three hundred miles to the northwest, Cleveland went dark with mourning. Shops closed. Flags lowered. Church bells echoed through the city. Brown’s own words—I do not think I can better honor the cause I love than to die for it—were draped in a banner over a main road. At night, fourteen hundred Clevelanders—about one adult for every fifteen on the census roll—gathered to honor Brown and his cause. It was the largest public event in the community’s short history.3
The town was shifting gears then, pushing off from an early start as a young frontier outpost stuck on a foul swamp. Cleveland was founded as a business hustle. Early colonial surveyors dubbed the flat land rolling off the hills of Pennsylvania the Western Reserve. The area was claimed by the Connecticut Land Company; but after first planting the flag in 1796 where the Cuyahoga River met Lake Erie, the absentee landowners had little interest in structural improvement or community building. They just wanted to sell deeds. Picture the giddy New Englander, land purchase agreement in his pocket, trekking hundreds of rough miles west, only to find a muddy, malarial nub of land frequented by, in the words of one early visitor, “itinerant Vagabonds” and “a phalanx of Desperadoes … setting all Laws at defiance.”4 In 1800, Cleveland boasted one permanent resident. Two years later, a visiting churchman was shocked by what he found. “There were five families here, but no apparent piety,” he wrote home. “They seemed to glory in their infidelity.”5
But when canal and lake traffic gave Ohio and other lakeside settlements a straight shot to the East Coast, Cleveland’s significance as a trade port greatly increased. The swamps were cleared, waterways improved. In 1840, the town tallied six thousand residents; a decade later seventeen thousand people called Cleveland home.
Most of these new arrivals were from New England—early-model WASPs. They set the social tone. Still fevered by the religious and social energies behind the abolitionist movement, the expat East Coasters remade Cleveland as a progressive place on the question of race. With Canada across the lake, the city was a natural stop for the Underground Railroad. But the city’s moral stance was consistent aboveground as well. As Kenneth L. Kusmer noted in his book A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870–1930, southerners seeking fugitive slaves in Cleveland were arrested, tried, and convicted of kidnapping as early as 1819.6 The Cuyahoga County Anti-Slavery Society pressured local public officials to come out against the practice throughout the 1830s. In 1859, an effort to build an all-black school was drowned out in public outcry over segregation. The local courts were also exceptionally favorable to early civil rights actions. A lawsuit in 1864 triggered by an effort to segregate streetcars led to court-ordered integration. Four years later, when a black Clevelander was turned away from a skating rink, he successfully sued for three hundred dollars in damages.
This moral high ground set Cleveland apart from the rest of the Buckeye State. “Whites in southern and central Ohio, where hostility to blacks was widespread and growing during the 1850s, often expressed incredulity over the egalitarian or antislavery sentiments of many Clevelanders,” Kusmer wrote.7 Clevelanders, however, seemed to embrace that distinction. “An indication of the civilized spirit of the city of Cleveland,” one newspaper editorial boasted in the 1860s, “is found in the fact that colored children attend our schools, colored people are permitted to attend all public lectures and public affairs where the fashion and culture of the city congregates, and nobody is offended.”8
But some tectonic shifts were coming. Post–Civil War, southern blacks, pulled in by reports of the city’s equality, arrived at a steady clip. In 1870, thirteen hundred African Americans lived in Cleveland.9 Two decades later, the number was three thousand, and that figure doubled over the next ten years. This pipeline ran parallel to another: European immigrants. Beginning in the 1870s, Cleveland received a steady flow of German and Irish arrivals, followed by Hungarians, Russians, Romanians, Poles, and Slavs. Each group bedded down in a distinct part of the city, pockets that became synonymous with specific ethnicities. Slavic Village. Little Italy. Little Bohemia. These encampments created a city that was less a civic whole than “essentially a group of juxtaposed tribes more or less at war with one another,” a contributor to Forum Magazine wrote in the 1920s. “She is a melting pot that never melted but continues to boil.”10
Cleveland’s blacks also followed the demographic realignment, mostly collecting along Central Avenue, just southeast of downtown. After enjoying an integrated city for so long, local blacks weren’t prepared for this new social isolation: thanks to the liberal spirit of the city before the Civil War, Cleveland had no tradition of all-black schools or businesses or hospitals. Kusmer also pointed out that as the century slid toward its close, the upper-class WASPs, traditionally in the corner for blacks, moved out to the new suburbs carved out of the land east of the city. This sliced the “paternalistic” cord that had connected the two groups for so long.
It may have been that new isolation. Or the lack of all-black institutions. Or the new ethnic arrivals—many crossing the Atlantic to escape political chaos—bent on grabbing their own prosperity and holding tight. But chasing close behind the geographic segregation were systemic, policy-bound stabs at discrimination—the kind that would have shocked Cleveland’s proud progressives of the 1850s.
In 1910, Luna Park, a popular amusement park, began allowing blacks in only on special “Jim Crow Days.” Five years later, the Women’s Hospital implemented a new policy of taking black patients only on Saturday. White-linen restaurants and hotels downtown stopped hiring black waiters. The most significant exclusion, however, was the ban on blacks in unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. This block kept Cleveland’s African Americans out of factory work, the route many whites and immigrants were taking to the new middle class across the Midwest.
As the other ethnic groups spread from their original neighborhoods to new parts of the city, Cleveland’s blacks stayed put. By the 1920s, 90 percent of local African Americans lived in a single patch of the East Side, bounded by Euclid Avenue on the north, East 105th Street on the east, and Woodland Avenue to the south. This was living “down the way.” And these demarcations would largely pen in black Cleveland for the rest of the century.
This isolation was, in Kusmer’s analysis, partly due to a tension hardening between black Clevelanders and European arrivals. “It seems likely that these [European] ethnic communities were composed of individuals highly prone to what social scientists have called ‘status anxieties,’” he wrote. “Having raised themselves above poverty, acquired a small home … and attained a modest level of income, they were fearful of association with any group bearing the stigma of low status. They naturally resisted the encroachment of a racial group that American society had designated as inferior. In so doing, they unthinkingly helped create a black ghetto.”
Yet Cleveland’s black neighborhoods continued to bulge to capacity as more black southerners fled Jim Crow during the Great Migration. Between 1910 and 1920, Cleveland’s black population jumped 308 percent; by 1930, the population would again double, to seventy-two thousand. Confined to a small space, Cleveland’s blacks were subject to the classic slate of American slum troubles: high rent, terrible living conditions, flaring racial tensions, and police harassment. “The majority live in drab, middle or low class houses, none too well kept up,” one contemporary wrote in 1930. “While the poor live in dilapidated, rack-rented shacks, sometimes a whole family in one or two rooms, as a rule paying higher rents than white tenants for the same space.” Another black newspaperman at the time noted, “There has been a growing tendency upon the part of the police, both public and private, to kill members of the race sought for committing crimes and misdemeanors.”
Meanwhile, Cleveland’s own place in the national economy was on a rocket trajectory. By the end of the Second World War, the region’s choice rail and port position made the city an industrial powerhouse. In 1945, Cleveland ranked fifth in the country in industrial-output dollars, and in 1949 Cleveland was one of the largest cities in the nation, with a population of 914,800. Still, the city center was leaking population—and tax base—to the new suburbs cupping Cleveland on all sides like a human palm. Of the 170,000 jobs created in the region after the war, 100,000 were outside Cleveland in the greater county.11
Black demographics also grew. Between 1940 and 1960, Cleveland’s black share of the population jumped to 251,000—more than 30 percent. However, in 1960 blacks were only 10 percent of the workforce, and in the same year reviewers found that 28.2 percent of black-occupied housing was dilapidated.
City hall was not providing any solutions. At the time, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had earmarked significant funds for Cleveland to redevelop the blasted areas. Cleveland in turn offered six thousand acres for new housing, a whole one-eighth of the city and twice as much as any other municipality in the country. When the bulldozers went into action, the federal projects uprooted many residents in the older Central Avenue ghetto. But Cleveland then failed to move ahead with planned construction, forcing the residents to cram into Hough and Glenville. Between 1957 and 1962, the city destroyed 460 residences along Woodland and East Fifty-fifth, home to nine hundred families—yet no new housing was ever constructed for the displaced. Ninety percent of these demolished homes were in good condition. In 1966, Cleveland’s head of urban renewal admitted before a congressional committee that the department’s policy was to allow property marked for urban renewal—property inhabited by black families—to deteriorate as much as possible so the city could pick it up on the cheap. HUD eventually cut all funding to the city. One federal official at the time referred to Cleveland as “this office’s Vietnam.”12
The city’s thin infrastructure couldn’t field the demands of the growing population. The issues flared first with schooling. The school board didn’t have enough elementary schools to handle the East Side. Teachers were placing children in libraries and storerooms to accommodate the numbers. Throughout the 1950s, thousands of East Side children couldn’t enter kindergarten for lack of space. On the whitewashed West Side, schools were half-empty.
By the early 1960s, local black activists had begun tuning into the social frequencies beaming out of the southern civil rights protests. Recognizing the education situation in Cleveland as wink-wink segregation, and that the school board’s unwillingness to bus black students west was tied to fears of outraging working-class whites, black activists launched a campaign of protests and sit-ins in 1963. They organized under the banner of the United Freedom Movement (UFM), and the early action seemed to get results—the board agreed to bus. But reports came back to parents that the transplanted East Siders were locked down in all-black classrooms. The UFM decided to take the fight directly to the white neighborhoods digging in against integration.
On January 26, 1964, the UFM marched in Collinwood, an East Side neighborhood filled with working-class Italians. White hecklers showed up. Slurs—“dirty niggers!”—were reportedly tossed at picketers. Four days later, the group planned a similar demonstration in Murray Hill. A tight web of streets crawling up a hill on the city’s eastern line, the neighborhood—known as Little Italy—was the heartbeat of white Cleveland, not to mention the local Mafia. As such, it was a no-go zone for blacks. But on a Thursday morning, UFM marchers showed—to find fourteen hundred whites standing outside Memorial Elementary School. They were clutching clubs, baseball bats, guns. A brutal riot ensued. Bullets hit the cars of fleeing blacks. The Cleveland police just watched. A black reporter on the scene begged an officer to do something. “You went in there and started something,” the cop replied. “You incited a riot.” No one was arrested. Cleveland’s mayor, Ralph Locher, refused the UFM’s request to step into the situation.
The school desegregation crisis continued to careen on a violent course. In April, as the UFM demonstrated outside the construction site of a new East Side elementary school, a twenty-seven-year-old white minister and activist named Bruce Klunder was accidentally killed by a bulldozer. That night, angry young blacks took to the street, wearing their arms out throwing rocks at police and smashing up stores.
Whether the words were rolling through the looters’ heads or not, Cleveland’s larger black community was suddenly weighing the real-world value of what Malcolm X had said at a Cleveland rally only days earlier, words that would pin themselves to the next decade of conflict: the ballot or the bullet.
For the next year, racial skirmishes broke out regularly in the city, mostly along Superior Avenue, the northern border between black and white enclaves. Black youths assaulted a white man and his son. A white man shot a ten-year-old black boy. White motorists had their cars pelted with rocks. From porches, white adults lobbed words like “savages” and other slurs at black children heading to school. Black and white gangs routinely battled in local parks. “If you are going to beat up those niggers,” a police officer is reported to have told white teens, “take them down to the park where we can’t see it.”13
The city’s blood pressure climbed. On July 18, 1966, in Hough—sagging, overcrowded houses; boarded storefronts; food stores that jacked up their prices on days when the welfare checks came in—a white bar owner hung a sign on his door at Seventy-ninth and Hough: NO WATER FOR NIGGERS. The angry crowd that circled the bar only grew as the white owner and his son paraded before the door with guns. They grew louder and angrier when the police arrived to disperse them. By dusk, glass showered the pavement from shop windows and streetlamps, and fires ate through abandoned houses. The National Guard and Cleveland police stormed the area. Crowds fled on foot in packs. Cops busted into houses, dragging out everyone they found inside—teenagers and old folks included—and holding them overnight. More than 275 people were arrested. Police opened fire on one black couple as they were driving on their street; the sixteen-year-old young woman lost an eye.
Six nights later, Cleveland’s first major race riot was over—four dead, 240 fires, and two million dollars in damage. A grand jury, headed by prominent local businessmen and newspaper publishers, was tasked with sniffing out the origins of the violence. The group claimed a small number of communist agitators had incited the black community to revolt. The report—a tone-deaf Eisenhower-era antique piece in the post-Selma world—so angered the black community that they held their own hearings on the riots; the event became a public grievance forum for a part of Cleveland that felt it had been ignored and abused for far too long.
“You don’t need anything to incite people when they know they’re being mistreated,” one witness told the packed audience. “I have seen police brutality,” another reported. “This was outrageous.”
“A spark was all you need and then you had your riot,” a third witness told the committee.14 “A spark plus a spark plus a spark, what you get? You have a war.”
Any mother would squeeze her children close while gunfire screamed outside her home. But Bessie Bridgeman was a step ahead. While Glenville became a combat zone in July 1968, she put Ronnie and his sister in the bathtub, placing a few inches of porcelain between the children and the bullets winging around outside.15
Her own people were originally from South Carolina. Although the family didn’t regularly share the details, the legend was that Bessie’s grandfather had been a sharecropper who fled north to escape a murder charge. When he and his wife, who everyone called Smoke, settled in Cleveland, they opened up a laundry. It was still in business as Bessie grew up, Smoke doing the linens in the way her own mother had learned on the plantation down south.
Bessie graduated from John Marshall High School on the East Side. Her children would never know for sure, but it seemed like she had even taken some college classes. It was clear she was a thinker; when a problem got before her, she’d burn down the candle, as they liked to say, working out a solution. She was also a killer on the chessboard. And she was always trying to pad the schooling her children were receiving. Classrooms might teach education, Bessie felt, but they didn’t teach knowledge. So she would press her kids with big words—anti-establishment, materialism—and address them in the stiff elocution of an English gentry grande dame—excuse me, sir. Pardon me. Ronnie would sometimes put a hand under his pillow to find a letter his mother had written to him. It was Bessie’s way of encouraging her youngest to read.
They all had nicknames. The oldest was Hawiatha, born in 1950. Everyone called him Kitch. Beatrice came eighteen months later; she went by Bebe, but by the time Ronnie came around he couldn’t pronounce his Bs, instead mangling the name into Gege. It stuck. Wiley, arriving in 1954, was called Buddy. And Ronnie, three years later, because he was so small, was Bitzie, as in itsy-bitsy. Bessie had her own names for the kids as well. Her own thoughtfulness showed up in Wiley, so she dubbed him the Professor. She called Ronnie Skipper, which seemed to match his easygoing attitude. Ronnie, by some random calculus of the little boy’s mind, always called his mother Dot.
As warm and close as the Bridgeman kids were with their mother, their father was a different story. Hawiatha Bridgeman Sr. was a towering slab of a man, a doorway-filling six-foot-six with a voice as deep and rolling as a plucked upright bass, just like Melvin Franklin from the Temptations. A few syllables alone were enough to freeze his kids still as statuary.
But you wouldn’t catch that voice in the house now, and that was the family’s trouble. Back in 1961, Hawiatha Sr. had been in a car accident he didn’t walk away from. A neck injury left him paralyzed. By ’68 he was living in a treatment facility two hours outside Cleveland. That left all the parenting and bill paying on Bessie. She juggled shifts at the phone company with time at the family laundry, all the while raising four children on her own. The pressure wore her own health down. Not that she showed it. After long days pulling two jobs to keep her family fed, Bessie was still home every night to put her youngest children to bed, her sweet voice lullabying “Silent Night” as Ronnie, her little Skipper, closed his eyelids.
And now, like every other parent across Cleveland as the night of July 23 ended, the gunshots gone but the fires still going, Bessie Bridgeman had to tuck her kids in bed wondering what was coming with the next morning.
You could have hung a sign on the door: NO WHITES ALLOWED.
Cleveland’s city hall is an imposing copper-topped four stories of marble and stone squatting near the edge of Lake Erie. As a rain-splattered dawn broke on Wednesday after the first night of gunfire and sirens in Glenville, an unlikely meeting was underway inside. Cleveland’s seat of power had likely hosted many sit-downs where the only faces at the table were white. Not this time. More than one hundred black leaders packed a chamber, from young Black Power militants to pulpit-pounding heavies from the largest churches in town. They were all waiting to hear what Mayor Carl Stokes wanted to do next.
Dizzy from no sleep and the conflicting scraps of information coming from seven miles away, the mayor appeared ill. For the country’s first black big-city mayor, his worst fears were coming true. Carl Stokes likely didn’t pass a day behind the big desk at City Hall without thinking of the Hough riot—how to patch the damage, how to avoid it again, how to use it right. Hough was the wedge that put him into office. But on July 24, 1968, Stokes was staring down the kind of five-alarm crisis no American politician—white or black—had dealt with before.
Among the black Americans who crashed through racial barriers in the 1950s and 1960s, Stokes was unique. Not a legal wizard uprooting Jim Crow from the courtroom or a preacher spinning eloquent calls to action, he was a pure politician, his instincts precisely machine tooled to the needs and fears of voting blocs well beyond his base.
The ground game of Cleveland politics was fiercely sectarian. Yes, the city was Democrat and pro-labor, but under those umbrellas were neighborhoods still clinging to their European ethnicity with white knuckles; these constituencies regularly elected city leaders from their pack, creating steady political energy behind certain candidates. The political pull of these ethnic politicians—known in Cleveland as “the cosmos”—forced the mostly white Republican business elite to cede control of the city to second- and third-generation Slavs, Czechs, and Hungarians early in the century. Not that the power shift completely sidelined the WASP pashas of the economic upper rungs. Instead, it created a two-part governance structure: let the ethnics control city hall; by establishing a series of foundations (including the first-ever city foundation), the economic elite retained influence through charitable giving. The two sides found areas of overlap. “The ethnics’ rise to power ushered in a period of governance that catered to the immigrants’ mistrust of politics: limited government, low taxes, and few services,” historian Leonard N. Moore wrote.16 “The industrials allowed working-class immigrants to run local government so long as they kept taxes low to attract investment, maintained services for businesses, and deferred to the wisdom of the business elite in reaching economic decisions.” This tag team of interests steered city hall and dominated the thirty-three-person city council for the two decades following the Second World War. And although blacks elected a number of representatives to the city’s legislative body during that stretch, the power structure largely ignored Cleveland’s African Americans while pursuing a small-government, low-taxes mantra.
Stokes’s particular genius was to read his position in this fractured scheme. The son of Georgia migrants who came north for work, Stokes grew up poor on the East Side, selling scrap metal and running errands for working girls to help pay family bills. A stint in the army and time as a state liquor inspector were followed by law school and a job working as a county prosecutor. He was touched by hot ambition early on, that desire twinned with the bravado to push open doors he wasn’t supposed to walk through. Stokes eyed public office—first a state senate seat, then Cleveland’s city hall.
His insight was to look at Cleveland’s African Americans not as an ignored minority, but as an untapped voting bloc. The city’s black population wasn’t sizable enough to float him to higher office alone, but Stokes realized he could piece together enough ballots from different areas to carry a Democratic primary in a one-party town. Any success there, however, hinged on convincing white and ethnic voters to see Stokes as a viable candidate. He would show up uninvited to Democratic Party ward meetings in ethnic districts, neighborhoods unfriendly to the black cause. Stokes would walk in and ask to address the crowd. It was almost a taunt—if you’re a racist, show me. “Those people disliked Negros,” he wrote in his autobiography in a chapter tellingly titled, “How to Get Elected by White People.”17 “But they didn’t dislike Carl Stokes—didn’t, that is, after he had talked long enough to show them he was a real human being.”
Stokes’s road show was part of a strategy. The candidate spent his off-hours poring over old voting records at the county board of elections, studying how black candidates fared in specific districts, how newspaper, labor, or party endorsements tweaked the numbers in certain parts of the city. Some white voters would never check a box by his name, Stokes figured. “So even if you lose votes because you’re black, you can still dip into the band of liberal whites if you can convince them you are progressive, socially committed, intelligent, and, well, one extraordinary black man,” Stokes wrote later. “I had everything to gain and nothing to lose by running visible in white suburbia.”
The calculus worked. Stokes served in the state assembly from 1962 to 1967. Bolstered by what he saw in the voting patterns, he ran for Cleveland mayor in 1965. In a contentious, three-candidate showdown, Stokes lost by less than 1 percent of the vote. Two years later, when it was time for the city to elect a mayor again, Stokes was confident about his chances.
The game changer proved to be Hough. Following the 1966 riots, local business leaders who had long ago ditched politics for the sotto voce influence of foundation giving were mortified. Riot damage was lost dollars. A black mayor, many in this clique believed, could be a safeguard against more racial strife. “Curiously enough, that made me the most desirable candidate,” Stokes wrote later. On November 7, 1967, a major American city elected its first black mayor, with 129,396 votes to his opponent’s 127,717. Overnight Stokes entered the front ranks of national African American figures. Within the week he was on the cover of Time magazine. Yet it’s telling how far Stokes—and his establishment backers—went to frame the election not as a civil rights victory but a political score. When the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Cleveland on Election Night, Stokes asked him not to speak at the public festivities.
The new mayor walked into city hall with a liberal agenda that included public housing and equal opportunity employment. But police reform topped the list. In his days as a lawyer and a prosecutor in the 1950s, Stokes witnessed how the courts operated. “Few judges worked past noon, and many headed for the racetrack at midafternoon,” Stokes wrote.18 “Homicide detectives were usually willing to lower a charge from first-degree murder to second degree, or even manslaughter, if two conditions were met. The first was that the man charged with the crime had to come up with some money, at times as little as a hundred dollars. The second, but most important, was that he had to be a Negro accused of killing another Negro.”
The black community’s relationship with the city’s police department was at an all-time low by his inauguration. Most black men and women in the city knew that if a police officer saw a suspect running from a crime scene, he would not hesitate to unload his service weapon at the fleeing target. “And all the police knew that few policemen faced charges or an appearance before the grand jury for shooting a black man while on duty,” Stokes would later say. Cleveland’s police chief, Richard R. Wagner, was also no friend to the black community. Before a panel of state legislators, the department’s top man had testified that the death penalty was a useful deterrent for racial disharmony. “We need capital punishment in order to keep the Negro in line,” he said.19 During the Hough riots, Wagner roamed the churning streets armed with a deer rifle.
In reality, it didn’t matter who sat at the top of the division. A clique of senior officers reigned. In 1966, Cleveland ordered an outside review of all city departments. The hard look concluded that the real machinery driving the police department was invisible. “Perhaps the division can best be described as a loose federation,” the report concluded, built around “small empires.” “It is further confused by informal arrangements, power centers, and unusual lines of communication which make the apparent structure of organization virtually meaningless.” But the status quo was fortified enough to scare off any potential change in the police structure. When the city’s departmental review was released to the public, the chapter on the police division was not included.20
The new mayor had the opportunity to make good on the symbolic promise of his election four months into his term. On April 4, 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on a hotel balcony in Memphis. Reaction to King’s murder exploded across the country: 110 cities saw rioting; thirty-nine people would eventually be killed. But in Cleveland, Stokes gambled. He ordered Cleveland police officers out of the East Side. Instead, he deputized black leaders and citizens—a peace patrol—to walk the broiling neighborhoods, urging the folks to “keep it cool.” The plan worked. Unlike nearly every other American city, Cleveland saw no violence in the aftermath of King’s murder.
And now, three months later, in July 1968, Cleveland was waiting to hear how Carl Stokes would calm the rage set loose by the events in Glenville. Inside his all-black city hall meeting, the assembled leaders were split on whether Stokes should again pull the police from the neighborhood. Trusted members of the department were warning the mayor to keep police out. With three of their own dead on the streets, the Cleveland police were amped up—dangerous, even. A small-scale race war was chewing through the city. The racial mood was bitter. Stokes was still confident “black people were not going to kill black people.” So he issued the order: all cops out; the National Guard would man the perimeter; only black police and community leaders wearing red armbands—known as the Mayor’s Committee—were allowed in.
On Wednesday night, thunderstorms knocked in early, clearing the streets. By nightfall, a thick heat stuck to the city. More than five hundred members of Stokes’s peace patrol scuffled along the sidewalks and alleys of the East Side, unwinding the tension they found among groups of young blacks. No violence was reported. But the patrols were helpless to stop looters picking their way through the abandoned businesses along Superior Avenue.
At the Fifth District headquarters on the East Side, officers stewed. The city’s finest had been attacked and bested—embarrassed, even—by a group of wild-eyed militants. The orders from city hall to stay away from the conflict fueled emotions. When the mayor’s office swatted down a request from officers to carry high-powered rifles on patrol for protection, anger spiked. All night, patrol car radios smoked with heated words. “Tell Stokes to go piss on it,” officers repeated to one another, comments reported a year later in a report by federal officials. “Fuck that nigger mayor.”21
Thursday morning broke peacefully. The mayor’s plan had prevented more violence. But the overnight damage and looting continued, angering the white business community. Under pressure, Stokes rescinded his order barring white police from the area—a retreat that effectively sank the career of the most famous black politician in America.
Glenville was in ruins. Days after the violence died off, the area was still locked down under curfew and patrolled by armed National Guardsmen. Firefighters continued to aim lazy ropes of water at smoking buildings. The black businesses along Superior Avenue—once busy mom-and-pop shops—were now skeletal wastes. And there picking through the wrecked guts of the neighborhood were two unchaperoned boys, Wiley and Ronnie.
The Bridgeman boys played rough and tumble. No sitting inside sucking thumbs. With three years on his younger brother, Wiley was the leader, brainstorming the games. They’d string thick ropes over tree branches, then swing around like Zorro swashbuckling on TV. They did so many swan dives off garages onto beat mattresses that when they actually got near water, the Bridgemans had the high jump already down. Hard play, that’s how they were wired. So while the rest of the city stayed home scared, Wiley was leading his little brother out on an adventure to the heart of the calamity.
But as the two kids jumped around the wreckage, they caught the attention of a group of passing National Guardsmen. “Get the fuck away from up here,” one of the glowering young men in fatigues shouted. They were kids themselves, really, with faces that didn’t seem like they could hold a beard, and skinny arms and legs sticking out from their fatigues like tentpoles. Ten-year-old Ronnie wasn’t impressed. “Man, fuck you,” he belted.
The guardsman who spoke walked over to the little boy, sticking the end of his bayonet right into Ronnie’s breastbone. He felt the metal bite through his shirt to his skin. “You know I have the right to send you to hell right now?” the soldier growled.
Ronnie, Wiley, the guardsman, and his fellow platoon members all froze, locked into an inevitably bad situation. Another voice suddenly broke the spell. “What did you just say to that kid?” An older National Guardsman, an officer, bolted over, knocking the rifle from Ronnie’s chest. “Get out of here,” he told Ronnie and Wiley.
The little boys hoofed it home. But that sting on Ronnie’s chest—the first hard touch of authority—he wouldn’t forget.
Glenville did more than mow down Carl Stokes’s political prospects. It also raised a curtain on a new phase in the civil rights movement.
The move to pull police out of the conflict area exposed a rift between the department and Stokes that had been percolating ever since the reformer took office. The mayor openly criticized the actions of police during the Glenville riots, later writing that their attitude had been “self-protective, corrupt and destructive.”
Stokes also felt the pushback to his leadership was not about his effectiveness but the obvious—“a black mayor had pulled out the white police,” he wrote in a scalding section of his book. “This had clearly been a fear all along, that a black mayor would interfere with the police function of protecting the white community against the black peril.” Stokes’s own position, however, was undercut when it was unearthed that Fred Ahmed Evans had actually received funding from a community program sponsored by the administration—money that may have paid for the guns and ammunition that murdered those three police officers.
The bad blood between the two sides ended any chance to reform the department. A systemic reorganization of the ranks was fought. The mayor’s effort to recruit more black police candidates sparked a testing scandal involving stolen answers and resulting in the indictment of two members of the Civil Service Commission. Stokes became convinced the police had bugged the phones in his office. When the mayor ran for reelection in 1969, several hundred armed off-duty police officers sat at East Side polling sites, harassing voters about pulling the lever for Stokes—banana republic scare tactics in an American mayoral election.
With Stokes’s face-off with police so public, the mayor’s political enemies used it to their advantage. Soon, many local politicians eyeing city hall fell in behind the department, lashing out at Stokes as lax on crime and pro–black militant. Ralph Perk, a West Side pol who talked up his credentials as an “average neighbor and average citizen,” mounted those anxieties in his own play for city hall in ’69. “Here in the city of Cleveland our streets are so unsafe that residents on the East Side, the South Side, and the West Side are afraid to come out at night,” Perk said on the stump. “When I am elected we will get rid of all these unofficial armies that now are parading the city.”
Crime had become political, and any criticism of the department—accurate or not—was swallowed up by the larger campaign dynamics. You were either anticop or anticrime. Stokes himself understood the untenable position he’d landed in. Although he beat Perk by almost four thousand votes to earn a second term, America’s first black mayor was paralyzed after 1968. Stokes opted not to run for reelection in 1971. He would later say police reform in Cleveland had been “my greatest frustration, my greatest failure.”22
Glenville’s fallout spread well beyond the Cuyahoga River. For those viewing the march toward racial equality as a nefarious siege on the status quo, the Cleveland incident was proof that the peaceful sit-ins and demonstrations of the early 1960s were now curdling into an open race war. This was Malcolm X’s bullet. As a federal report published by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence a year after the shooting noted, up until Glenville, the spasms of racial violence in the U.S. had mostly been directed at the destruction of property. “The Glenville incident was different,” the report read. “It began as person-oriented violence, blacks and whites shooting at each other, snipers against cops. And apparently alone among major outbreaks of racial violence in American history, it ended in more white casualties than black.”23
In Cleveland, if the Hough riots had pulled to the surface the anger and distrust between the black community and the white establishment, Glenville filed the edges of those feelings down to razor blades. Jacked up by the rhetorical punches megaphoning out of politicians, the average Cleveland police officer felt besieged, targeted, hated. As one anonymous Cleveland beat cop told the Plain Dealer only a few months after Glenville, “We’re like a British outpost in Africa.”24
Copyright © 2019 by Kyle Swenson