There has been a lot of media coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Hough riots. But not much about causes or the real actors of that period.
Nothing happens in a vacuum.
It didn’t just happen because someone was denied a glass of water.
It was, as usual, part of the community power struggle, always in motion.
It always has to do with Who Rules. And for what purposes. And to whose benefit, of course.
Hough became the option for many Negroes (as they African-American blacks were called then) pushed out of other areas of Cleveland.
Cleveland’s top corporate leadership desired the return of the city to its pre-war or earlier status—a thriving business city. I was able to write that Cleveland once was “The third largest headquarters city; third largest advertising center; sixth largest industrial market with a value added by manufacturing of $7.5 billion, greater than 70 percent of the nations of the world; and sixth largest retail center with $5 billion in sales annually. Not to mention that it ranks eight as a distribution center and ninth in export of manufactured products.”
It wanted to revive the Cleveland that was past.
Urban renewal became a major tool. (At one point activists pursued with what they called “instant urban renewal,” fire bombing.)
Cleveland has always been a strong institutional town. I have written about this aspect of the powerful corporate/foundation influence here in a number of publications, including local and national. Some of the material here comes from those writings.
Sometimes business leaders are more honest in their talk than I expect they intended to be. They, as do politicians, rely on the press to clean it up. Or keep it to themselves. Cafeteria talk. Not for publication.
Back before riots, the business/foundation community created an entity called the Cleveland Development Foundation. Eighty-three Cleveland corporations funded it with $1 million and Hanna Fund of the Cleveland Foundation provided another $5 million. A good sum in those days.
Its purpose was to “eliminate and prevent slums and blight.” How charitable.
I wrote in 1973, “Yet probably no organization did more to spread blight and slum conditions in Cleveland.” Their purpose was more self-serving than charitable. More private interest than community building.
It destroyed communities, as did road building, but failed utterly to provide replacement housing. The lowest income people were left to provide for themselves.
Indeed, Edward Sloan, then chairman both of Ogelbay-Norton (a major ore company no longer here) and CDF, said that CDF’s real task was to ensure more land would be available for business’s use. Sloan said, “It would be a mistake to think that the foundation ever had as its main concern housing… The main thing was to make land available for industrial and commercial use.”
Sold as a solution to Cleveland’s problems, one CDF trustee fretted that the corporates may have oversold their task. He told a Ford Foundation official that CDF was perceived by blacks as an “ambivalent Santa Claus,” and warned that its image was too “oriented toward minority interests,” hurting CDF.
People, mostly poor, mostly black, didn’t really fit in the plan. They were mostly on their own.
This period was also marked by bitter relations between the corporate community and City Hall. Ralph Locher had been elevated to mayor. He replaced Mayor Anthony Celebrezze when President Kennedy appointed him in 1962 as secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.
Locher inherited a cauldron of problems. With few resources to solve them.
Truth was that the corporate community pushed the city into more federal urban renewal than it could possibly handle. Cleveland had 6,060 acres, which some say was the largest acreage under renewal in any city. A federal HUD official in the later 1960s told me that Cleveland was its Vietnam: “We’d like to get out but don’t know how.”
(A point. Some West Side neighborhoods have had revivals. A former downtown city councilman once thought a mayoral possibility, Al Grisanti, stopped urban renewal at the Cuyahoga River. What happened east didn’t happen west. Some people owe Grisanti a great debt.)
Unfortunately, the city didn’t have the capacity nor did the city have the ability to fulfill the need for success. Business, along with a compliant news media (I was there), favored a corporate line, fed by professional public relations firms.
One business leader, I believe, summed up the situation aptly: “For some, the urban renewal program has worked very well indeed. Hospitals and educational institutions have been constructed and enlarged. So have commercial and industrial interests and many service organizations, all with the help of urban renewal dollars.
“With respect to housing, however, the urban renewal program has been a disaster. I wish I could believe that all of this was accidental and brought about by the inefficiency of well-meaning people—but I just can’t. The truth, it seems to me,’ said Tom Westropp, president of Women’s Federal bank and a city planning commission member, “IS THAT IT WAS PLANNED THAT WAY.” (My emphasis).
So the city was setup for disaster.
The business community was solid. One representative said blatantly, “Of course we’re all on the banks. Everyone I’m mentioned is on a bank. I’m on a bank. We all know each other. We have no hesitation to call each other for help.” One put it more succinctly: “You can beat our Browns and our Indians, but it’s tough to beat our Union Club.”
Two other organizations were formed by top corporate leaders at that time. The Businessmen’s Interracial Committee on Community Affairs (to deal with racial issues) was headed by Jack Reavis, the managing partner of the powerful Jones Day law firm. The Inner City Action Committee was headed by Ralph Besse, who had been a Squire-Sanders law partner but became head of the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co.
They both wanted Locher gone.
Besse made the city an offer it couldn’t accept. He offered to help the city with its urban renewal mess with a quid pro quo that Locher fire his renewal director and have him replaced by a retired general who happened to head Besse’s Inner City Action Committee. Besse later said he should have used the work “coordinating” committee rather than “Action.” Besse and CEI also wanted the city’s municipal electric system and worked to undermine it. The real purpose of his organization was to undermine and get rid of the weak Locher administration.
Besse sent a bitter public letter to Locher saying efforts to help the city were rejected and that the causes were “inadequacies of executive personnel and almost complete lack of effective coordination… at city hall. It got good local press play. Locher retorted that Besse wanted a takeover of city government. He added, “I have not seen one real constructive action” taken by Besse’s committee.”
Reavis may have had other motives, including the next mayor. That wasn’t until 1967, however. Reavis said at the time, “I’ve always wanted to stay in the background.” Again, rare honesty was revealed when Reavis when he admitted that “It was the violence that really caused us to establish lines of communications.” Blacks became important because of violence; otherwise ignored.
He was again unusually open when he said in 1964 that he had secured “a pledge from the editors of the newspapers that they would give us no publicity except as we asked for it.” About as clear a message that the press was subservient as one could ask. Reavis was honored by the NAACP in 1968 and said of the blacks on his committee: “The Negroes on this committee have behaved magnificently.” Plantation thinking.
In April 1966 the U.S. Civil Right Commission held hearings here. In a piece in the Nation magazine, I and Murray Gruber, a Case-Western Reserve University faculty member, noted the commission “…ripped away Cleveland’s carefully nurtured facade of civic progress. Hearings gave the ghetto a chance to speak, and even it was shocked by the cumulative findings. However, there was little time to redress social and economic grievances before summer, and in July Hough erupted in five days of rioting that took four lives.”
Meanwhile, the attitudes at Cleveland City Hall were evident. The director of community relations no less told some blacks that “if you see the police using a little force, look up at the stars, look away.”
Councilmen were even blunter. “Shoot ’em dead,” said one. “If the police break skulls what will the reaction be? Let’s find out,” was another answer.
The head of the Cleveland “subversive squad” (yes, Cleveland had a red squad) went before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, and told committee members, “What we need is a law that would let us charge them all (black nationalists) as conspirators… before an overt act is committed. Wouldn’t this be far better than to wait for an overt act?”
Doesn’t this sound better than mere stop and frisk?
Everything is okay now, right? Business interests got a couple of billion dollars for downtown. We finally can get national praise for a smidgen of the city. Meanwhile, there have been 70 shootings and 10 killings so far in July.
Hurray, we’re on our way back.