When Voting Fails

Cleveland police and African Americans. Hough Riots, July 1966.

On July 23-24, 1968, African American radicals engaged in a wild shootout with police in the Glenville section of Cleveland. When it was over, six people were dead and the raw racial tension that had simmered below the surface in the city since the Hough Riots two years earlier again flashed into the open.

In Ballots and Bullets: Black Power Politics and Urban Guerilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland, James Robenalt presents the story of a now-forgotten incident that illustrates the intensity of racial conflict and systemic violence in the northern cities of the United States during the 1960s.

At some point in the days of my youth, I was reading an issue of Mad magazine that I found in someone’s basement. It was years old, and it contained a bit of doggerel in which the phrase “Harlem, Hough, and Watts” was employed as an eponym for civil unrest. Although I was only about 12 (it must have been about 1980), I’d actually heard of the rioting in Harlem and Los Angeles in the years preceding my birth.

But I’d never heard of Hough. I asked my dad, and he hadn’t either. In retrospect this is surprising. In the 1960s my parents lived in Grinnell, Iowa and spent a good deal of time in Chicago, both reasonably proximate to Cleveland. But it also made a certain kind of sense.

In the second half of the 20th Century, Cleveland was descending into postindustrial anonymity. The hard-nosed city on the lake was known for its savage winters and the fact that on several occasions the Cuyahoga River, heavily polluted with industrial waste, had caught fire. By the mid-1980s, if violence in Cleveland was remembered at all outside of northeast Ohio, it was the story of the notorious Irish gangster Danny Green getting blown to smithereens by the Italian mob in a dentist office parking lot in 1977. As far as most of America was concerned, Cleveland was dirty, cold, and dangerous.

It had not always been so. Cleveland had spent much of the 19th and 20th centuries as an industrial powerhouse. The Civil War had sparked the city’s development into a node of steel production. Cleveland grew to be the fifth largest city in the country, the base of operations for the Rockefeller family with impressive public facilities and museums. But by the mid-1960s the end of the postwar economic boom was working the same corrosive effects as in other major industrial centres. Cleveland fought a lonely battle against decline on the shores of Lake Erie.

In the mid-1960s, Cleveland was at the centre of the nexus of struggles for racial and economic justice in the cities of the northern tier of the United States. Earlier in the century, large numbers of African Americans had migrated from the south to northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, fleeing the Jim Crow system and looking for jobs in the steel, auto, and related industries. Although they were able to make some inroads into industrial employment, they were also shunted into confined, poorer urban spaces and systematically denied access to the circuits of white capital. By the time the postwar boom started to peter out in the 1960s, the African American communities of the northern cities were trapped in self-reproducing cycles of poverty and marginalisation.

As the steel and auto industries declined, Cleveland lost population, both to the suburbs and to the west and southwest of the United States. The African American community, once confined to the redlined ghettos of East Cleveland, spread out into Euclid, Glenville, and Collingwood, as the white population moved up into the heights further south and east. The process was marked by increasing tension and, eventually, explosive violence.

Robinalt details a number of crucial moments in national level conflicts about race, poverty, and militancy that played out in Cleveland. Among the most important was Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, first delivered at Cory Methodist Church in East Cleveland on 3 April 1964. As the title suggests, the central point of the talk was the question of whether African Americans would be able to find justice by participation in the white-dominated political system or whether they should undertake armed militancy. At the time, this was a very real issue.

Already there were instances of African American military veterans arming themselves for defence against racist violence, most spectacularly in the case of the former North Carolina NAACP leader Robert F. Williams. Williams had been forced to flee to Cuba, but for others in African American communities around the country, the omnipresent threat of racist violence made the taking up of arms a viable alternative.

The story of how the narrative played out in Cleveland is at the centre of Robenalt’s book. In the summer of 1966, the tensions boiled over at a white-owned bar in the Hough neighbourhood, and the frontier the frontier of racial demographic transformations on the city’s east side. For the better part of a week, the residents of Hough faced off against 2,100 policemen and 1,500 National Guardsmen. Four people were shot dead by police, and more that 270 arrested. The police justified their aggressive response by claiming, without a shred of evidence, that they had been subjected to sniper fire by black radicals. It was a claim that would, in the months that follow, give rise to a self-fulfilling narrative of black militancy.

Robinalt’s book is an important addition to the history of Cleveland in this period. Few outside of the city now remember the intense police repression focused on African American activists such as Fred “Ahmed” Evans as they tried to create institutions for building community and black cultural consciousness. Evans, a veteran of the Korean War, opened a series of stores in the eastern neighbourhoods selling astrology supplies but also functioning as community and teaching centres. All were subjected to violent interference by the police or shut down by the fire marshal on very marginal grounds.

At the same time, less militant segments of the African American community were organising the challenge against the white power structure by electoral means. Carl Stokes, a lawyer and the first African American member of the Ohio state legislature, launched a primary challenge to the Democratic mayor, the bumbling racist Ralph Locher, in 1965.

Martin Luther King Jr. visited the city on numerous occasions, although his presence was not entirely welcome to the city’s moderate black activists. This was in the later era of King’s career after his explicit connection between the fight for social justice and the fight against the (still quite popular) war in Vietnam made him increasingly unpopular.

Where Robenalt’s book succeeds is in his parsing the complex relationship between the militants, fighting the day to day struggle against violent police harassment, and those more moderate figures like Stokes who sought to effect change by working through the established structures of the Democratic Party.

To win the mayorship (as he did in 1967) and to govern effectively, Stokes knew that he had both to court support in more progressive segments of the white community and keep the black radicals onside. As Robenalt notes, one unfortunate outgrowth of this was that money was provided through Stokes’s Cleveland Now! organization to members of black radical groups without appropriate supervision. These latter groups (or one amalgam comprising members of several different sets), suffering increasing pressure from the law enforcement, responded in the way that many Americans of whatever background would do under such circumstances: they bought guns.

The story of the shootout itself, related in extensive detail by Robenalt in the book’s final third, is one of armed black radicals feeling increasingly threatened and a white police force that absolutely bungled its way into a firefight in the streets. Knowing that something was brewing at a known black radical house, the police chose to undertake one of the most hamfisted surveillance operations in the history of law enforcement. The result was the ramping up of the situation from high but ultimately manageable levels of tension to one in which three policemen and three militants were killed and the inner eastern neighbourhoods of the city once again teetered on the brink of chaos.

There is much that is useful in Robenalt’s clear and concisely expressed narrative. Still, although he does make clear the racist pressure exerted on the African American community by the white authorities, Robenalt does not provide a great deal of explanation as to why it was that black communities were in the situation that they were.

One might argue in Robenalt’s defence that he was simply trying to be direct in his tracing of the origins of a moment of explosive violence. Still, the systemic and structural origins of the conflict remain obscure in the book, and readers would do well to consult Mehrsa Baradaran’s excellent recent book, The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap, to see the broader context of economic marginalisation that formed the background to these struggles.

Robenalt’s book is nonetheless very important. Cleveland is still struggling to overcome the decay, of which the Glenville shootout was one symptom.

The city began to turn around after defaulting on loans in 1978. Medical technology has begun to fill the economic gap left by the disintegration of the city’s heavy industrial base. Yet poverty and decay still haunt the eastern sections of the city.

The Glenville shootout should serve as a stark reminder that hopelessness, unorganised, can have devastating consequences.

Screenshot courtesy of Cleveland State University. All rights reserved.