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When Martin Luther King Jr. Brought His Fight to Cleveland

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd in Cleveland in the summer of 1967. [Northeast Ohio Broadcast Archive at John Carroll University]
Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd in Cleveland.

In the spring of 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. stepped away from the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery and arrived, according to newspaper reports, with blistered feet in Cleveland.

At the Sheraton Hotel, King told his audience to write Washington in support of the newly introduced Voting Rights Act. He raised at least $20,000 for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference that night, according to the Call and Post newspaper. That money from the North helped fund the movement in the South.

“And that’s when we really started to come to work on this movement as a national movement, not as a local in the South movement,” recalled Charles E. Bibb, who attended an event with King.

King visited the area several times throughout the 1960s. But it was in 1967 that King made Cleveland a focal point for his campaign against poverty and discrimination.

Charles E. Bibb holds up a photo of himself with Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

A Civil Rights Fight in the North

In speeches, rallies and press conferences, King urged voter registration and demanded better treatment for the city’s black residents.

“We’re concerned about the problem of police brutality and the oppressive methods of policemen,” King said at a news conference in June 1967. “And we have seen situations that give us the impression that certain segments of the police force are almost seeking to invite a riot in the Cleveland community.”

The Hough riots had broken out the year before. State Rep. Carl Stokes had a real chance of becoming the nation’s first elected big city black mayor that year. A group of the city’s black pastors, unhappy with Mayor Ralph Locher, invited King here.

But Stokes, according to his autobiography, Promises of Power, asked King not to stay in Cleveland. Stokes wrote he feared the reaction against King might cost him white votes and his mayoral bid.

“If you come in here with these marches and what not, you can just see what the reaction will be,” Stokes wrote that he told King. “You saw it in Cicero and other northern towns. We have got to win a political victory here. This is our chance to take over a power that is just unprecedented among black people.”

Stokes called that conversation one of the toughest decisions he had to make.

“Mayor Stokes was bent on having the folk in Cleveland to understand that this was an indigenous movement, not one that was aided and assisted by someone coming from out of town,” said Rev. E. Theophilus Caviness, the longtime pastor of Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church.

By Stokes’ account, King replied that he understood the concerns, but would work in Cleveland nonetheless.

Martin Luther King Jr. asks questions of a tenant at a hearing on housing conditions in Hough in 1967. [Northeast Ohio Broadcast Archive at John Carroll University]

Jobs, Housing and Voting

That year, King returned frequently to a Cleveland that was deeply segregated. 

“You had urban renewal, which was pushing people out of the Central area into Hough, and causing people to double and triple up, and causing problems,” said Roldo Bartimole, a journalist who covered King for the Plain Dealer.

Bartimole followed King as he spoke at east side schools and a women’s job corps center.

It was at Glenville High School that Sherida Freeman, then a senior, met the civil rights leader. Freeman, who had family in the South, said she and her parents paid close attention to the civil rights movement.

“I knew that I went to a school that was all black, and I knew there were people who went to a school that was all white,” she said.

According to Bartimole’s report from that day, King told students not to let anyone make them feel that they were nobodies, and that “black is beautiful.”

“He spoke on being the best that you could be,” Freeman said. “I can remember him saying if your jobs was to sweep floors, be the best floor sweeper in the building, just do it well. And that’s something I carry with me for the rest of my life.”

King set out to organize tenants into unions to negotiate with landlords. In the Hough neighborhood in June 1967, he held a hearing on housing conditions.

One woman at the hearing, identified as Mattie Calloway by the Call and Post, told King that her child had gone to the hospital with lead poisoning from paint in her home.

“So I called the landlord and the landlord wouldn’t come out and paint it,” she said. “I had to buy the paint to paint the place so the baby could come home.”

In a project called Operation Breadbasket, King and local pastors pushed a dairy company and a grocery chain to hire more black workers.

“We hope that these businesses will cooperate and comply with the requests that we will be making,” King told reporters at a church in June 1967. “But at times, some can be rather recalcitrant. And if that is the case, then we will have to call on the whole community to withdraw economic support.”

Martin Luther King Jr. talks with a woman in Cleveland on Nov. 6, 1967, the day before the mayoral election. To the right is Rev. Ralph Abernathy. [Norbert J. Yassanye / The Plain Dealer]

Carl Stokes’ Campaign for Mayor

Throughout the summer of ’67, as Stokes campaigned, King and several other groups urged voter registration. King held rallies in parks and parking lots across the east side of Cleveland.

Charles E. Bibb remembered collecting names while speakers addressed crowds from the backs of flatbed trucks. Later, a carpool would drive people down to the board of elections to register.

“In our neighborhood, African-American neighborhood, they were getting people who had just given up to come back out,” Bibb said.

The day before the general election, King traveled the east side urging voters to get to the polls. On the November night Stokes was elected mayor, King was in Cleveland to watch history take place.  

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