ROLDO RIGHTS AN UNPLANNED, UNEXPECTED LIFE…

April 6th, 2015

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You don’t know where life will take you. Some people plan their lives, have goals and expectations. I have to admit that I’ve never been a planner. Life has taken me where it has accidentally—randomly rather than by expectation or desire.

I’ll never regret flying by the seat of my pants.

Exactly 50 years ago this month I walked up a busy Euclid Avenue to E. 18th Street and north to Superior Ave. to the offices of the then powerful Cleveland Plain Dealer. A newcomer to Cleveland—first time.

I had come in from New York City by train. I was here for a job interview. It brought me eventually and permanently to this city. It was April 1965.

The hiring could have been among the worst personnel decisions ever made by Plain Dealer editors. Indeed, they made that mistake twice because they invited me back—after I had left. I had taken a job with the Summit County anti-poverty program in 1966. They had brought a critic into their midst.

I never did keep a job very long that depended upon someone else’s decisions.

At 32 years old, I wanted to be in a big city. Cleveland was one of my choices. I had been working for a Sunday newspaper—the Herald—in Bridgeport, Conn. I had started at the larger daily Bridgeport Telegram as a sports reporter in 1959, after graduating from Northeastern University in Boston. I had worked weekend nights at the Boston Globe taking sports scores from high schools.

I later moved to Haverhill, Mass. to work for a daily. It was a short tenure. A call got me back to the daily Bridgeport paper as an assistant to the Sunday editor. That didn’t work well after a couple of years when the newspaper decided my exposes of bad housing had caused problems. I was ordered to stop. I knew the city’s mayor was upset. He had gone to visit my father, a butcher, to complain about me. So it was natural to assume he had visited my editors too. I balked and refused to write any more stories of any kind.

In Bridgeport in 1961, I had taken the 1960 Census, found the three worst tracts for poor housing and low incomes. Then I set out to see what was there. What I saw produced the reporter I was to become. Partial for the underdog.

In 1961 by actually walking the streets and tenement stairs of the neighborhoods identified by census statistics as impoverished areas and by talking to the occupants I personally observed and was moved by the horrible conditions. Especially obvious was damage being done to children. I could see children suffering from horrible conditions—from lack of proper nourishment to apartments heated by improperly vented space heaters that “ate” the oxygen in the room.

Poverty and despair were concentrated. I remember that rents were always high. The State of Connecticut was generally generous in rent welfare allotments. Yet rents in these slum-owned places matched almost to the penny the amount allotted in state checks for housing. You might say that the state set the rent for slumlords who took their pound of flesh.

I discovered these sad truths about my own town.

I wrote about my encounters with the down-and-out people and my anger rose.

In one case, the children slept in an attic room with the space heater three feet from their beds. I knew they were being deprived of oxygen. Doped hour after hour by the noxious fumes. Those vapors invaded their little brains taking from them any chance—if they had any anyway—of mental development. You could see that in their dull-eyed look and the listlessness not expected of the young.

My story was accompanied by a stark photograph. The space heater, poorly balanced on wood, stood feet from the bed. A little girl stood nearby.

“The room,” I wrote, “is an ideal example of what a child’s bedroom should not be like. It might be considered a classical example of a fire hazard.”

Those words turned out to be prophetic at a similar site I visited. The headline of my story told it all: “Public Apathy Made 5 Fire Victims ‘Expendables.’”

In the apartment heated by the space heater, a fire took the lives of five children, ages seven, six, four, three and two.

What really triggered the newspaper’s gag were two fires at slum spots I had visited. In all, the lives of seven children were taken by fires. The cause: unsafe space heaters, one target of my reporting.

In the report of a young child standing next to an open space heater in the attic apartment the housing had no plaster on the outer roof. It was essentially open to the elements. Cardboard and newspapers were plastered in a futile attempt to keep out the cold. The city health inspector had claimed I purposely tore some of the cardboard to make the housing look worse than it was. That’s how desperate bad city government gets to protect itself.

The deaths were predictable. The circumstances guaranteed it.

The head of a social welfare group I quoted labeled these children “expendable.” The public long ago, he said, determined they “did not have the right to safe living quarters.” He was correct.

This was the time when Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” awakened the nation to the plight of the impoverished. Dwight MacDonald promoted Harrington’s book with a long essay in the January 19, 1963 issue of The New Yorker. It was reprinted and sold by the thousands as a 10 cent pamphlet. Some believe that President John F. Kennedy’s reading of MacDonald’s piece prompted his War on Poverty.

So it became my crusade. I went after slumlords and the city administration. The Mayor, Sam Tedesco, I was told, called me “the needle.” He apparently tried to stop me by having a talk with my father. I’m not sure if there was any intimidation meant by his visit. More likely it was friendly “advice” from an Italian mayor to an Italian butcher. Stop the kid. Intimidation enough I’m sure the mayor thought. My father never even told me of the visit. The message went undelivered. So Mayor Tedesco’s ploy didn’t work. I found out years later about the visit from my father’s brother who also worked in the Sanitary Meat Market on Madison Avenue in the north end of Bridgeport.

You would have thought I’d be fired. I wasn’t. However, my problem was solved when the publisher of the Sunday-only Bridgeport Herald called and asked if I’d like to write for him. He had heard they had a “gag” on me. We talked and I bolted.

I didn’t realize it but I must have been a stubborn guy. It’s part of my genes, I guess. Once when in Italy I mentioned to an Italian tour guide that all my grandparents all came from La Marche area of Italy. It is north and near the Adriatic Sea. She didn’t say a thing. But without hesitation, the guide brought a clenched fist to her forehead and banged it briskly several times. She was indicating hard-headed, stubborn people. So it’s in my DNA.

The Herald was a good experience. I work with a lot of old pros. But soon it was time to move again. I wanted the experience of a large urban city.

“I was amused at your remark that so far none of your bosses have urged you to stay on when you announced you were leaving for greener pastures. I would guess this is in the nature of things since when a good guy is on his way up; one doesn’t leap into his line of fire. And anyhow, all we could offer you was money and I decided to give myself a $25 raise instead. Someday I’ll have to remember to tell LD (publisher Leigh Dannenberg) about it,” my editor wrote me.

He must have done wonders for my confidence, ending, “So go get ‘em baby. They ain’t laid a glove on you yet.” And a postscript that I also cherish: ‘If you ever need a recommendation, or anything but a co-signer, do not hesitate to call on me. I write the best lies of anybody.” That was Lem McCullum.

Dannenberg wrote me similarly. “I did not try to dissuade you from moving to Cleveland because looking at it dispassionately it seemed to me that the experience there would aid your growth and development as a reporter. You have the brains and perspective and curiosity and ambition and these, it seemed to me, would be sharpened in a highly competitive, big city environment such as Cleveland.”

To my great chagrin now, I didn’t much maintain contact with my Bridgeport colleagues. Only now do I feel the loss. Isn’t that the way of life?

Still at the time I wanted a larger urban setting to test myself and my reporting. Cleveland was in the national news at that time with obviously similar social problems as Bridgeport. People I respected in Bridgeport told me that Cleveland was a great progressive city. And so was the PD. Unfortunately, they apparently were still thinking of Tom Johnson’s Cleveland at the start of the 20th Century. It had changed. Drastically.

So I sent off a package of my work. I was asked to apply for a job. I came here for an interview and with some glowing recommendations that ran the gamut of testimonials from a news editor to a social service leader to two city bankers – the “best” he’d ever seen, said mild-mannered and grandfatherly Plain Dealer hiring executive Russell Reeves. The PD didn’t apparently check with former employers. They would have discovered the unhappy Sunday editor I defied by refusing to do stories after being told to lay off housing issues. Lucky for me.

As I’ve written before, I walked up Euclid Avenue. Cleveland certainly looked like a big city to me, someone who had walked New York City streets often. It was some 750,000 (1970) population compared to Bridgeport some 156,000 (1970). I was excited but also fearful of the future. After being hired, I came here alone. I took a room in a rooming house about where the CSU soccer field now sits. It was so depressing that despite paying for a week, I left a day later to house myself in what was then the Amsterdam Hotel at E. 22nd & Euclid where now sits CSU’s Viking Hall. I remained there until my family moved here. We ended up renting in a duplex house on Rexwood Road and Cedar in Cleveland Heights. I remained in Cleveland Heights until 2014 when Ann, my wife, and I moved to a condo in Cleveland near Shaker Square.

Cleveland in 1965 was still a bustling city. However, it was worse than Bridgeport, a smaller city, in some respects. Cleveland became rife with racial and other conflicts. It was a big city but with the same small-minded thinking.

When I came to the Plain Dealer I was assigned as a general assignment reporter, covering random events each day, mostly not that interesting to me. I had to cover the deaths of two boys, buried under a construction dirt pile while at play. I didn’t get their photos the first time. I was sent back. I covered the drowning of a man who backed off the parking platform into the Cuyahoga River in the Flats. Not exactly the kind of action I was seeking.

However, the Plain Dealer editors were aware that something was happening racially that required attention. So in between my general duties I was assigned to do special full-page articles that appeared prominently on the last page of the Metro section. The Plain Dealer devoted a full-page to a problem or issue dealing with race and poverty. (At the time there were no black staff reporters. Bob McGruder was a black reporter but was in Armed Services). The paper was awakening to the city around it. With photos the page was labeled “The Changing City.” The tag gave recognition that there were problems and that things were changing. Editors were dealing with subjects and people they had ignored and didn’t understand. It was all new and uncomfortable for them, revealing decades of neglect. Maybe more like than 100 years of disregard.

I remember going out on one assigned story in the Hough area. In doing the piece I ran into an unusual situation. Two young white people had moved into a building in the middle of an all-black Hough to help people there. I came back to the paper and, as was the case, reported to the city editor who sat at that time at a front desk in the busy city room. I thought my discovery would make a worthwhile future Changing City piece. I told city editor Ted Princiotto about what I encountered.

I got myself spanked. “That’s not what you were sent out there to do,” was the sharp rebuke. I tried to explain that I completed my assigned task but simply found something more that might make a future article. I still got guff from Princiotto. It disturbed me.

“You wouldn’t know a story if it hit you in the head,” I responded. Uncharacteristically blunt of me. I’m personally mild-mannered. Those who have read me over the years probably find that hard to believe. At speaking engagements often people would remark that I seem so mild compared to my writing. They apparently expect me to breathe fire.

That day I turned and walked to my desk.

By the time I sat down, Princiotto was standing over me. He reminded me in no uncertain terms that I was an employee still on probation (six months) and could be fired without cause. My Guild card was meaningless at that point. Having two children and another on the way his warning shocked me a bit. It gives you something to think about surely. But my instincts about the story proved correct.

We eventually did do the story about the building, the Clevelander. It got the full-page “Changing City” treatment. One of the new white residents in the building was a dedicated do-gooder, Ralph Delaney. Years later, Delaney was robbed and murdered at a public housing project where he was still doing good as he saw it.

Princiotto wasn’t a bad man by any means. He was as hard a worker as you’d find among the editors. He didn’t get his rightful payoff when time came to name a new managing editor. Part of it was his Italian ethnicity, I believe. He didn’t have the WASP grace the publisher (Thomas Vail) desired. When he didn’t get the job he left and went to Washington to do PR. A loss for the Plain Dealer. Especially so since the guy publisher Vail chose, Tom Guthrie, with a Scottish or English accent, proved inadequate at best. Some said he was racist.

I didn’t view Cleveland and its residents, particularly the poor who often were the subjects of my reporting, in the conventional manner.

One time when doing stories of welfare mothers, I did a piece announcing welfare mothers were selling their blood for money ($5 at that time) to buy their children Christmas toys. Who could believe that in America? It was during a period when Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes, a popular Republican at the PD, was keeping Aid to Dependent Children subsidies abysmally low. So a story of moms selling blood had some sympathy written all over it. That’s how I played it.

However, the demonstration drew, as I remember, fewer than 10 mothers. I played the story, not as a failure of so few showing up, but highlighted the fact that only two or three were even able to give blood because of their poor health. Most were anemic and their blood was rejected.

I took the story a step further by calling the County Welfare director and asking if it would be true that the $5 would have to be reported as income, thus deducted from the monthly welfare stipend. It was definitely a trick question. He went for it. I was told, yes, it would be income and thus had to be reported. That would mean the $5 would have to be deducted from their next welfare check since it was income. So I had another story that in my view revealed the ridiculousness of the state’s welfare system. It exposed the state’s mingy attitude toward poor people. Some things never change.

This embarrassed the welfare director, Eugene Burns, because he announced quickly that he had “checked with Columbus” and there would be no deductions. Another story. The headline of the story was “Moms Get Break on ‘Blood Money.” Hard to believe I kept the story going for days.

Princiotto told me later that I had been “taken” on those “blood stories.” It wasn’t said as a rebuke. I said nothing. But, of course, my thought was, “No, I just didn’t follow the conventional news tradition of neutrality and false objectivity.” It was an example where a reporter strikes back at the idiocy of newspaper bureaucracy that doesn’t allow truth to seep onto its news pages. It happens sometimes. As it did with a photo of a bunch of auto dealers with every name in a photo cutline misspelled. The PD reporter who wrote the cutlines didn’t appreciate a “must” promo from the business side of the newspaper. So he misspelled every name.

There were some very good reporters at the Plain Dealer at the time—Jim Naughton, later a New York Times White House reporter, Gene Maeroff, who also went to the Times, Don Bartlett, a later two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, the irascible Terry Sheridan, who also left in disgust, McGruder, Jim Cox, Don Robertson and Mike Roberts among others. It was hard, despite the talent, to tell the real truth at the PD. The sharp people were somewhat limited by the conventional program of “objective” approach. This limits the vision of alternative approaches to what is happening. Some things never change. This was particularly true of how a community operated with its hierarchy of legal and corporate leaders. They command what really happens and the newspaper cooperates almost fully in important matters. How power works, who works it and for whom it works were lessons I learned.

Reporters are not expected to view the world ideologically. Indeed, in many subtle ways they are taught to maintain a false neutrality. This makes for distortion. Reporters are guided in their writing just as you once saw horses with leather blinders at eye level that allows them to avoid views to the left or right. How you look at what you are covering as a reporter limits or enables you to see things differently. For some reason I began to view what I saw radically different from conventional journalism.

I was not happy with the paper for some of the same reasons I remain a critic of newspapers in general and the Plain Dealer in particular. They have a very hard time telling truth to power—skittish about giving the truth to readers.

Just before I left Bridgeport, I had the opportunity to interview Robert Penn Warren. He wrote the classic political story of the 1920 Louisiana Gov. Huey Long in “All the King’s Men.” It became a popular movie still seen today. I mentioned to him that I was headed to Cleveland. He had just written the book, “Who Speaks for the Negro?” It had taken him around the nation to talk to young black activists. He advised me when I got to Cleveland to look up Ruth Turner, a recent graduate of Oberlin College. She impressed him and became one of the subjects in his book.

I was fearful that when I came to a big city I’d have trouble competing with reporters with better backgrounds and talent that I had. Too sharp for me, I thought. Maybe not, I found.

I think almost immediately I ran into two questions that foretold a lot about the town. As a newcomer one of the first things I was asked by other reporters was where I was going to live, east or west. Not knowing the Cleveland I had no idea. There was a tussle between those who lived west or east of the Cuyahoga River. Each wanted newcomers on their side of the dividing Cuyahoga. An unhealthy division permeated the town. The second question was what my nationality was. Again, the question revealed a lot about the town and particularly its divisions. I ended up renting east in Cleveland Heights.

Having been informed by Penn Warren about Ruth Turner, a teacher of German, I mentioned this to reporters and wanted to know about meeting her. She sounded like a good story subject and an important figure to know. As a young woman, she headed a young civil rights organization the Congress of Racial Equality.

He quotes Turner saying, “… that the situation in Cleveland is just as precarious as the South, but Cleveland looks better on the surface.” The interview reveals a very reasonable person.

I was shocked at the reaction I got from some of my new colleagues. Unlike Penn Warren, they didn’t find Ruth Turner someone of interest or value. Indeed, they described her more as a trouble-maker than someone of worth. Stay away, was the message I got. I did finally get to meet and talk to her. However, she would not speak for record to a Plain Dealer reporter. Such was the reputation of the paper at this time and about this crucial issue of race relations. She soon left town.

I also found that Students for a Democratic Society had chosen two cities for initial organizing projects—Newark and Cleveland. They were considered two cities most in need of radical change. So here again I thought these are people I want to know and interview. The newspaper audience should know of their views. A contingent was living on Jay Avenue and organizing among poor people both on the west and east sides of Cleveland.

Again, I found dissatisfaction among reporters to have contact with people with more radical ideas about what was going on in our cities. I found this strange for news people.

I did meet with the SDS students. They even had me to dinner at their west side Jay Ave. apartment. Cleveland was a hotbed for activists but mostly ignored by the local and national media. The peace movement was active with Dr. Benjamin Spock here and I later wrote a page-one profile of him in the Wall Street Journal where I had a short tenure. Neither Turner nor the SDS group wanted anything to do with having a story about them and their activities in the Plain Dealer. They didn’t trust the Plain Dealer. It was a sad assessment for a newspaper.

I wish that I had had more experience with radicalism. My family was not political, other than being faithful Democrats of the Roosevelt era and its Depression years. I was now being exposed to more radical elements of the anti-war movement through the young SDS people. Members printed early issues of Point of Viǝw, the newsletter I started in 1968 after leaving the Journal. The murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., prompted change again. Twenty-one year old Terry Robbins, an SDSer, also became my printer later in 1968. The newsletter was printed in the basement of a church. Terry became upset with me, warning that what I was writing was “turning off liberals.” Terry soon went far beyond such criticism. It has always been a reminder to me of how young people—as we see now with ISIS—can be unduly influenced by extreme voices and visible injustices. They react to injustice as they see it. We, unfortunately, too often ignore it or cause it as we did in Iraq. To some degree I blame my inability to see this clearly for the events that followed, though I doubt anything I could have said would have changed those events. However, I know I did nothing.

Terry, who had been concerned I was being too forceful in 1968, became one of the Weathermen. While making explosives in a New York townhouse in 1970, Terry Robbins, 22, blew up himself and two others. He apparently crossed the wrong wires while making a bomb.

Back to my time as a “straight” reporter. Unsatisfied, I left the PD in 1967 for a job in the poverty program in Akron. I felt the need for a more active role with issues I found troubling. I remained for less than a year, dealing with housing problems. Organizational troubles arose within the poverty program in Summit County that shortened my tenure there. A change in leadership. I was finding the job situation precarious.

In the meantime, Princiotto, who once had threatened to fire me, oddly was sending me notes to lure me back to the Plain Dealer. His offer of the welfare beat came just at the right time.

I accepted Princiotto’s offer. The welfare beat meant I could report about the urban issues I had found challenging in Bridgeport and hoped to attack in Cleveland. It was made for me at that time, I felt.

The second opportunity at the PD taught me more about how Power operates than I could have imagined. It opened my eyes to a different level of our social order. I had learned a lot about Cleveland’s inner city poverty previously. Now I saw first-hand how power worked in a city and for whom. I could see newspaper executives shared the same mind-set and world view as people of power. I saw the clout of foundations, social agencies and the powerlessness of ordinary people.

I started reporting about the social ills of a large metropolitan city.

Possibly my most revealing piece (I’ve written about before) was about a young boy I called Eddie Brown. A great photo went with the story entitled, “This is Eddie Brown…Looking Out at Life.” The photo was taken by Mike Evans, a young Canadian who ironically later became President Ronald Reagan’s White House photographer. The photo was shot over Eddie Brown’s shoulder, silhouetting him looking out his slum apartment window into his backyard. The muddy yard looked like a dump strewn with garbage. His parents were both unemployed. They dramatically symbolized the urban poor family. Eddie Brown represented a life with little hope in the future.

I remember writing the story very carefully. I felt deeply about it. I feared that a copy editor would take pencil to it and change its tone. Ruin it. I thought I had hit the exact character I wanted to tell a story of poverty. The next morning when I read my story I saw that it had remained untouched. It covered a full back page. When I entered the city room a “copy boy,” ran behind me as I walked to my desk. He was animated. He told me people were calling in strongly objecting to the story. He was to become famous. Dennis Kucinich, later the city’s mayor and a U. S. Congressman. The reaction told me that many in the public didn’t like poverty shoved in their faces. Too bad.

I also received newspaper copies of the page mailed to me and marred with racist slurs writ large over the article. One I saved had written in red ink above the headline: “Give them a bar of soap, get out and clean it up.” What I believe angered people was what I said about Eddie Brown. That he was getting the perfectly correct picture of his life looking out at his grimy and garbage-strewn backyard. That’s all he could expect out of life, I wrote. The bleak view out the window reflected what life would be for this young black boy. And so many others.

Next I interviewed the owner of Eddie Brown’s building. The story was played on the front page. He told me that all his tenants loved him. Somehow I didn’t believe it.

Here’s how the story began: “The manager of Eddie Brown’s tenement leans back. His jacket opens, exposing a pearl-handled revolver in a holster strapped to his chest… (He) slips his hand into his coat pocket and fingers his revolver.” This, I thought, likely doesn’t endear him to his tenants.

He said his tenants “liked him” because he does “little things for them.” When he collects rents, however, he’s accompanied by someone who “walks shotgun” by him. Poverty isn’t pretty. Neither are the people who profit from it.

I got the opportunity to cover the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who came to Cleveland ostensibly to help elect Carl Stokes the first big city Negro mayor. Some, however, believed Dr. King came to ride the notoriety of Stokes’s popularity and possible victory in the mayor’s race. King’s Chicago efforts were not going well. I got the opportunity to cover the radical organizer Saul Alinsky. Though invited by clergy here, Alinsky choose not to come to Cleveland. “Cleveland has the reputation of having a beaten Negro population,” he said in a speech here. He left quickly.

Powerful white businessmen didn’t want such a “rabble rouser” here. In a Plain Dealer article I quoted two “civic leaders” about Alinsky’s possible visit here. Ralph Besse, chairman of the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., said, “We don’t need him in Cleveland,” citing his reputation as an agitator. Jack Reavis, managing partner of Cleveland’s top law firm, Jones, Day Reavis & Pogue, said, “I think it (bringing Alinsky here) would be a tragedy.” It told me how the power people of Cleveland didn’t want someone here who took them on. It also signaled a mindset of Cleveland leaders toward any civic activism on the part of people. It said that it should be up to corporate interests to set the tone.

Both leaders headed organizations that the newspapers catered to with positive coverage. Besse headed something called the Cleveland Inner-City Action Committee and Reavis headed the Businessmen’s Interracial Committee on Community Affairs. They both played roles in determining who became mayor.

What we might do is ask, “Who Ruined Cleveland?” I have to go back to the 1960s. I didn’t come to Cleveland until 1965. The process of ruining Cleveland had already been in progress for some time. My assessment, of course, has to be based on my personal observations of those times with some knowledge of recent prior years.

It also represents my observations now as I look back. It takes perspective of some years to see events more clearly. Ideology, it becomes clear, is the basis of community decision-making, dominated by corporate leaders and their allies. We don’t like to think about ideology as the basis of what happens in a community. We’re a people’s democracy, right? Not so when it comes to who gets and who pays. But one can’t avoid the fact that decisions determine exactly that. It’s why the foundation of much of my work rests upon the issues of who benefits and who pays.

From the beginning, ideology certainly played a role in civic affairs. In 1916, a conversation between a writer and a large industrial customer of the city’s electric system went this way:

“Mr. Brown, I understand that your company has been using electric power from the Municipal Plant for a year or so, and I would like to find out how you are satisfied with the service.”

The official called for his accountant who presently laid a report before him. He studied the report for minute or so and said, “We are well satisfied in our connection with the city plant.”

The writer then said, “You are then in favor of the Municipal Light Plant, Mr. Brown?”

The official’s reply was, “No.’ Strange.

When asked the reason for what appeared to be an inconsistency, he replied with considerable feeling. “Rank Socialism,” he charged, according to a book written in 1935 by Edward J. Kenealy.

He added, “I don’t give a damn if it is socialism; we are saving a thousand dollars a month on our power costs.” Hospital and Obamacare provide a much larger, but equally odd relationship. Profits or socialism? Profits, of course come first.

The late 1960s revealed to me just how openly the corporate/legal establishment had to become because of crisis events. Crisis always demands extraordinary reaction. Corporate people usually remain behind the scenes. They hate troubling publicity. Sometimes far behind the scenes. Jack Reavis, managing partner of Jones-Day in the 1960s, became a visible elite in trying to deal with Cleveland’s racial problems. He did so reluctantly. “I’ve always wanted to stay in the background,” he said. Who could blame him? Truth is, however, such figures even when in public view are protected by a reluctant news media. Reluctant to say anything negative, newspapers avoided anything that would cast any disapproval upon the actions or interest of elites. Still do.

Cleveland at this time was still a powerhouse of big corporations. And Reavis’s law firm was a power legal firm of those corporations. Cleveland was still benefiting from the appointment of George Humphrey, president of Hanna Mining, to Secretary of Treasurer by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. Humphrey brought along H. “Chappie” Chapman Rose, a Reavis partner. The Washington connections helped Jones Day become a powerful law firm. And it helped Cleveland, too. Reavis is described by a Jones Day biography as “a brilliant tax lawyer as well as a savvy businessman.” He’s described as having been a board member of 11 Fortune 500 corporations. I noted in 1968 that Reavis was a board member of the following firms: Jones & Laughlin Steel, National City Bank, Anchor Hocking Glass, Gray Drug Stores, Westinghouse Electric, Lehman Bros., Midland-Ross and the Weatherhead Corp. Other partners were on the boards of other major companies including Interlake Steel, Basic Inc., Clevite Corp., Cleveland Trust, Midland-Ross, Medical Mutual, Higbee Co., Warner Swasey, Oho Brass, Richmond Brothers, among others. Many of them are now gone.

I wrote in the first year of Point of Viǝw, under the headline “Many Roads Lead to Jack Reavis,”—“While Seth Taft (a Jones-Day partner) was risking gastric disorders at the recent 98-cent Republican dinners, John W. “Jack” Reavis, his boss and a $1,000 Republican Booster Club member, was enjoying Democratic roast beef with Carl Stokes and admirers. The Stokes dinner was a fund-raiser, too.

“Don’t get the idea that there’s a difference of opinion between the two elitist lawyers, I noted, “It’s merely a reflection of Cleveland’s Establishment law firm playing both sides of the political street. The object is to control one’s turf and the turf of Jones, Day, Cockley and Reavis extends imperially far and wide.”

Reavis was protecting his and the firm’s client’s interests by backing Stokes when he knew that he really wanted his partner, Taft, to be mayor. But times were tough. As Reavis admitted: “It was the violence that really caused us to try to establish lines of communication.” He was talking of meetings with blacks and their leaders. They didn’t know who was who in the black community.

The big law firms packed—and still do—a lot of power in Cleveland. The managing partners of the major firms often take leadership roles in public decision-making.

That’s why I believe a speech given in early 1967—a crucial city election year—helps explain how elites view their role. It reveals, especially after all these years, how a speech meant to seem so helpful really becomes a lesson in realpolitik of Machiavellian quality.

On March 13, 1967, James C. Davis, managing partner of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, delivered a highly-touted speech to the Cleveland Bar Association of which he was vice president and soon to be president. It was meant to be a stark and honest statement.

Yet the clear underlying message was raw political propaganda. Deftly delivered.

This remarkable speech was entitled, “Cleveland’s White Problem—A Challenge to the Bar.”

It started with a simple sentence from the third generation Republican: “I am here because I am disturbed and deeply concerned.”

Davis saw that Cleveland was headed for more serious trouble. Actually, the city was already in desperate condition. There had been mini riots and the Hough riots. And this meant trouble for him and the big Cleveland law firms. It touched business. Negatively. It still reverberates.

His aim, however, was to blame white ethnics for the racial problems Cleveland. It was an adroit move to attack Mayor Ralph Locher’s base support among white ethnic Clevelanders. The Establishment wanted Locher, who they saw as inept, run out of city hall.

He knew the speech would be seen as a courageous to his audience and the press. It was, however, not a noble effort to help the “Negro,” as African-Americans were then called. He wasn’t really trying to help some downtrodden people. It was part of the effort being waged by corporate interests to get rid of the present mayor.

Davis saw what was happening in the city as a threat to big law firms and its corporate clients. He said, “As a lawyer and a conservative, it is in my selfish interest—and I believe in yours—to take such action as in our power to preserve Cleveland as one of the best locations in the nation in which to practice law.” He saw the “favorable climate for the practice of law … seriously threatened.”

Davis told his fellow lawyers, “Last August, when the riots ended, this Association offered to the Mayor, his Law Director and his then Director of Urban Renewal and Housing … to provide the services of lawyers, without charge, to assist the city to meet the delinquencies which the federal government had carefully documented in areas of urban renewal and housing rehabilitation and construction – deficiencies which had been major contributing causes of the riots – and which have now resulted in the cutoff by the Federal Government of the city’s urban renewal funds. This offer was never accepted.” It was a Trojan Horse offer, declined by Locher.

It was only one of a number of moves by business interests to undercut Locher.

So Locher had good reason to be suspicious of the offers. After all the corporate community pushed the city into the urban renewal mess, a major cause of racial disturbances. Further, Davis’s law firm was intimately involved in insuring the federal urban renewal law was declared constitutional before the U. S. Supreme Court. The program in Cleveland devastated the city’s east side and severely damaged downtown.

Locher knew that the business interests wanted to oust him. Further, he knew that he came close to being dumped two years before.

An observant political watcher would have sniffed out some of Davis’s self-interest. Davis’s firm represented the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. CEI desperately wanted to take over the city’s municipal light system, called Muny Light. As we shall see later, the private utility has done whatever it could—legal or illegal—to destroy the city’s electric system. The fact that the city competed with the private electric company stuck in the craw of the city’s corporate establishment. Later it would be crucial in the city’s historic 1978 default under another business-anathema mayor, Dennis Kucinich.

Davis described himself as “hardheaded.” However, the speech gave no hint of self-examination. He didn’t reflect inward. He only looked out. He found others wanting. He left himself, his law firm and his Class unexamined. Untouched by blame. Very conveniently.

Davis didn’t look at the town’s corporate leadership and its failures. And they were significant. It required correction for there to be any progress. However, Davis gave them a free pass. His failure was not evidenced in the media at that time.

Davis found the city’s ills sprang essentially from the behavior of white ethnic Clevelanders.

“We are in trouble,” Davis said, “for the same reason that almost every northern city and southern city of any consequence is in trouble. We are in deeper trouble than most, not because our basic problem is different, but because we have shown so little capacity or desire to deal with it. The fundamental source of our difficulty is racial conflict – and to be precise – conflict between the aspirations of our white and Negro residents.”

Hard to disagree. But the probing didn’t go deep enough.

Essentially, Davis seemed to be attacking racism. However, he limited blame. He assessed it as the problem of white ethnics. Only. He specifically said the problem referred to one of “Americans of Irish, Italian, Polish, Hungarian or others of the heterogeneous ethnic backgrounds which abound in Cleveland…” He somehow absented WASP—White Anglo Saxon Protestants—in his tough assessment.

Davis was obviously proud of his effort. He had thousands of copies of the speech printed. The pamphlets were widely distributed and read. He could consider it a propaganda success.

It wasn’t seen for what it was—an attempt to undercut Locher, an accidental mayor. Locher as law director had been elevated to mayor after President John Kennedy called Cleveland Mayor Anthony Celebreeze to be his Secretary of Education.

Locher, as many mayors of the times, depended upon the white ethnic vote to keep him in office. Davis obviously knew this very well.

Davis, I believe, had other reasons for speaking out. He had competition with placating black anger and seeking to topple Locher.

Davis also was competing for civic stature with the second major law firm in town and Jack Reavis. Reavis served as managing partner of Jones, Day, Cockley & Reavis at the time. (The firm is known as Jones Day now). He had a head start on Davis. Reavis became “the businessman’s volunteer fireman on racial unrest,” as I described him. Reavis assumed civic leadership as head of the Businessmen’s Interracial Committee. He was even honored by the NAACP in 1968.

Davis had some catching up to do.

Unfortunately, it was his law firm and the Cleveland legal, business and philanthropic community that played a significant role in Cleveland’s downfall, starting in that era.

I believe some could say it was an honest attempt to assess Cleveland’s problems at the time. However, it was totally lacking in self-examination. He didn’t have to look too far to find possibly the major cause of Cleveland’s decline.

Further, Davis made political use of the speech. Threaded through the talk was sharp criticism of the administration of Mayor Locher. It fit what the business community was selling: Let’s get rid of the mayor.

The irony is that Davis’s law firm played a significant role in creating the clash between whites and blacks. How? By being the law firm that defended Cleveland’s disastrous urban renewal program. Urban renewal here caused massive movement of black residents. Conditions for blacks were worsened by the failure to provide replacement housing, a promise simply ignored by civic leaders. It made for mass movement of blacks from the inner near east side. Families had to double and triple up. The result also made for housing deterioration, overcrowding, and the beginning of fast white flight.

Davis said that “This all leads to the conclusion that Cleveland’s Negro Problem will not be solved until its White Problem first be eliminated or at least substantially ameliorated. It seems to me that here lies the challenge to the Bar.”

Yet, Davis clearly failed to be specific in what he wanted his fellow lawyers to do.

“Let us,” he concluded, “as lawyers, stop wasting our time in criticism and flagellation of the crop of office-holders at City Hall. Let is rather give our attention to the political soil from which they grow. Let us direct ourselves to the solution of Cleveland’s White Problem. It will not be easy—it will not be quick—but unless our efforts be unrelenting—unless they be carried forward with the full force of both our hearts and our minds—and unless we succeed—it must necessarily follow that the opportunities for the profitable practice of law in Cleveland will soon be materially foreshortened.

“This is our challenge. I hope and believe we will meet it.”

It was all rhetoric. Davis failed to provide a single action to be taken as a solution even to the problem as he stated it. There wasn’t a hint of a solution to the city’s problems he found so acute in his 14-page, 10-inch by 7-inch pamphlet. (Ironically, he even was wrong about the major law firms losing future business. The Davis firm, now Squires Patton Boggs, moved where the business moved, with 44 offices in 21 countries even to Saudi Arabia. And Jones Day now has 2,400 lawyers all over the world.) Cleveland didn’t die. It moved.

It was part, however, of the devastating role played by the city’s top civic leaders in the crippling of the city. It was only to be followed by more and more meddling by business interests in the operation of government. There always is a hidden agenda pushed by business leaders that seek favors and subsidies from the city under the guise of what’s good for everyone. The facts attest that these activities are always meant to be best for business. In the end they typically benefit a few but damage many. They tend also to give government a bad name.

It worked for him. Davis eventually replaced Reavis as the mouthpiece of Cleveland business elites. Davis in the 1970s became the prime mover for the corporate community. He was—all at the same time—president of Greater Cleveland Forward, a money funnel for “civic” projects; president of the Greater Cleveland Development Foundation, another money-giver to corporate desires; and president of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association, a forerunner of Cleveland Tomorrow and its present incarnation, Greater Cleveland Partnership. He was king of the hill. Cleveland Magazine, indeed, nearly made him a god.

Davis also led the transfer of the Cleveland Transit System into the Regional Transit System with the city getting nothing (No payment) for the system. The legislation calling for a regressive sales tax to fund RTA was written, of course, at Squire-Sanders. At the time I called Davis “an arrogant power-seeker” and noted how he derisively jeered at seniors at a meeting as they demanded cheaper RTA fares. After cheering a speaker at a public meeting, Davis scoffed mockingly, “They don’t even know what they’re cheering about.” His disdain for the ordinary person went unhidden.

Davis was to use his position to benefit by helping Council President George Forbes to have his law firm become the first black firm to work as a bond counsel. He had more than one purpose. The Squire-Sanders firm was instrumental in the attempt to help CEI take the city’s municipal electric power system. No wonder Forbes called Davis, “The Great White Father.”

(This money alliance—Forbes & Davis & many others—marked the beginning of a sellout of black leadership for common blacks that has lasted and is at its apex today. Some success has also produced failures. Forbes in 1978 vigorously supported Davis and his firm’s desire to take Muny Light from the city. These alliances led to the unheard of rise of a black lawyer, Fred Nance, to managing partner of Squires, the position held by Davis, though diminished greatly since those days. Forbes was rewarded with bond business. Forbes law firm also has represented the Fraternal Order of Police and the Cleveland Patrolmen’s Association. Mayor Mike White followed Forbes in giving the business community what wanted—new sport facilities and tax abated everything—with little payoff to black general interests other than a few favored beneficiaries. Nance, Davis’s successor, became White’s personal lawyer and dealmaker. The Black political establishment sadly appears little different than its Establishment white predecessors. Today there is NO force—black or white—working for the common Clevelander. Mayor Frank Jackson is a go-along patsy. This all accounts for the discouraging acquiescence of civil rights protest in Cleveland and attests to Alinsky’s assessment of nearly a half century that Cleveland’s black community was “beaten.”

Although he failed, Davis even tried a coup on another mayor, seeking Gov. James Rhodes’s help in taking over Cleveland during Dennis Kucinich’s troubled reign. And Davis pushed a plan to build a jetport in Lake Erie. He understood, though didn’t mention, that it would take more than $1 billion in bonding at that time with his firm ready to do the lucrative bond counsel business. I often tried to point to his conflict. It finally was answered when Terry Sheridan wrote in Cleveland Magazine that Davis’s response to the charge of conflict of interest was “So what?”

He was just one of Cleveland’s many legal, corporate and charity organizations to manipulate the politics of the city and county for their benefit.

As the years have gone by one can add to the manipulative leaders—the parasites of the city—Art Modell, Dick Jacobs, Al Lerner, Nick Mileti, Joe Cole, Jim & John Carney, younger John Carney, John Ferchill, Ralph Besse, George and Gordon Gund, Dick Pogue, E. Mandell DeWindt, Allen Holmes, Jack Reavis, and now, Jimmy Haslam, Dan Gilbert, Larry Dolan, and a fuller cast too long to list who have exploited Cleveland and its people.

The legalized corruption here is chin high. The political leadership is bought or stupid. The civic leadership quite complicit. The corporate/business leadership greedy as can be.

That’s what 50 years around town has taught me.

My journey has been an unexpected one. I would have never predicted it 50 years ago this month when I joined the Plain Dealer. But I went my own way and I have had the First Amendment freedom. And thankfully have used it.

By Roldo Bartimole…

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