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Listen to Testimony from the 1966 U.S. Civil Rights Commission Hearing in Cleveland

Carl Stokes smiles with his wife, Shirley, in a black and white photo.
Herman Seid / Cleveland Press Collection
Michael Schwartz Library / Cleveland State University

For six days in April 1966, a panel appointed by U.S. presidents heard from Cleveland mothers, children, activists, attorneys, high school students, laborers, union leaders, landlords, elected officials and police.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission had set out to examine conditions facing black residents in cities across the country. Cleveland was one of many stops. Just months after the hearings here, the city’s Hough neighborhood would experience several days of unrest.

Dr. Linda Rae Murray, a physician now living in Chicago, testified at the hearing when she was a senior at Collinwood high school.

“Do I think they were on the cutting edge of what needed to happen? No,” Murray said in a recent interview. “But they were part of a process of documenting.”

Recordings of the proceedings come from the National Archives. Listen to testimony below from a few of the witnesses.

State Rep. Carl Stokes and Cleveland Mayor Ralph Locher

Stokes and Locher had faced off in the 1965 mayoral election in Cleveland. Stokes would challenge Locher for the Democratic nomination again in 1967. He went on to defeat Republican Seth Taft and became the first black mayor of a major American city. 

Ralph Locher, mayor of Cleveland:

“We have made notable gains in some of our urban renewal programs. In others we have not fared as well as we would like. But we are not discouraged. We are working hard to provide decent housing. We know that there will not be any overnight miracles.”

1966 Civil Rights Commission Hearings: Ralph Locher

Carl Stokes, state representative:

“We in Cleveland have developed the art of accenting the positive to the exclusion of remedying the negatives. How difficult it is, but necessary, to advocate to you as one of our own local remedies the accent of the negative. Because I know not how else to strike at and endeavor to dispel the deep, almost indigenous, false sense of security and accomplishment that pervades this city.” 

1966 Civil Rights Commission Hearings: Carl Stokes

Collinwood High School students

Linda Rae Murray and Howard Birdsong, two seniors at Collinwood high school, testified about the racial conflicts at the school. In March 1965, the Plain Dealer reported at the time, “a Negro couple whose two sons attend Collinwood were beaten by a group of white persons.” 

“I never felt the goal was just purely integration. We were really focused on the difference in resources of the schools,” Murray said in a recent telephone interview. “Things were very much focused on more working-class demands. What kind of jobs did people have, what kind of housing were they able to get?”

Linda Rae Murray, high school senior:

“I think that the attitude of the neighborhood, that this is their school, that Negroes have no right to attend the school, Negroes have no right to attend their Y, Negroes have no right in their area at all, is one of the things that precipitated the amount of organization that went on that week.”

1966 Civil Rights Commission Hearings: Linda Rae Murray and Howard Birdsong

Housing conditions in Cleveland

An activist named Hattie Mae Dugan was the first witness to testify at the civil rights commission hearing. She showed commissioners photographs of her apartment in Hough.

Hattie Mae Dugan, Cleveland resident:

“I was living one apartment, the rats got in the bed with me. And my sister’s still living in the same building, and the rats are jumping up and down, the kids are, they play with rats like a child would play with a dog or something. They chase them around the house and things like this.”

1966 Civil Rights Commission Hearings: Hattie Mae Dugan

James P. Friedman, commissioner of slum clearance and blight control:

“There was a policy set down in the department of urban renewal and housing in the city of Cleveland some years ago that there would not be code enforcement in the phase one or phase in execution of that project.” (Friedman described the University-Euclid urban renewal area, which included parts of Hough.)

1966 Civil Rights Commission Hearings: James P. Friedman


Cleveland police

The commission found police took longer to dispatch cars in response to calls in the Hough area than on the west side. Police Chief Richard Wagner testified that officers would arrest people in order to investigate a case and sometimes hold them as long as three days without charging them.

Margaret Weathers, a resident of Hough, described being stopped for pulling up too close to a traffic light. When she protested her ticket, she said the officer threatened to tow her car, arrest her, and turn her five-year-old daughter over to police. 

Margaret Weathers, Cleveland resident:

“My daughter has been the victim in this. She frequently has bad dreams about the police. She has something like nightmares, where she thinks that the police are going to bother her or her mother.”

1966 Civil Rights Commission Hearings: Margaret Weathers

Richard Wagner, chief of police

William L. Taylor, civil rights commission staff director: “The other thing I would like to clear up was that I understood Chief Wagner to testify that there had not been any disciplinary action taken against an officer for use of unnecessary force during the period under question. Is that correct?”

Richard Wagner, police chief: “As far as I can remember in connection with this type of complaint. I cannot remember of such action. I may be mistaken. We do not separate our herings, you might say, so that our files would reflect that, but I cannot personally remember of having had charges of unnecessary force. I don’t believe I have referred any to the Director and I don’t believe I have heard any.”

(Also on this recording are John McCormick, director of public safety, and Gerald Rademaker, deputy inspector of police.)

1966 Civil Rights Commission Hearings: John McCormick, Richard Wagner and Gerald Rademaker

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.