Why understanding the history of race in Ohio matters to lawyers

June 21, 2018​

By James Robenalt​

The Supreme Court of Ohio Commission on Professionalism adopted guidelines in 2002 that included the "responsibility of the lawyer to recognize, understand and respect racial, culture, and gender differences."[1]

But what does this mean? The directive to "recognize, understand and respect" differences actually requires something special when it comes to race—as lawyers and citizens we need to set aside what experts today label as "unconscious or implicit bias" and expand our understanding of differences by changing our perspectives.

It is easier said than done, as any trainer in implicit bias will tell you. We are fighting 400 years of history.

So when I was confronted with finding out more about a legal battle in our justice system fifty years ago in Cleveland that involved not just race, but race violence, I had a lot of perspective changing to do.

In 2016, one of the assistants to my firm's managing partner, a secretary I had known for years, told me about how her father had raised her and her two sisters because he had been shot in the line of duty as a Cleveland policeman. His was so badly wounded that he lost most of one of his legs to amputation. I had heard her say her father had been disabled as a policeman before, but this time I asked some questions. The next day, she brought in a small book written by a Case Western Reserve University professor in 1969 entitled Report to the National Commission on the Cause and Prevention of Violence: Shoot-Out in Cleveland.

I started reading the 126-page paperback and then news flashed that a black Army veteran in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter event had deliberately ambushed white police officers, killing five of them and wounding many others before he was blown up by a robotic bomb disposal vehicle.

Why, I asked myself, were we still in the same place fifty years after the shootout in Cleveland with African Americans targeting police over publicized acts of police brutality? What happened all those many years ago in Cleveland that led to the deadly night in the Glenville neighborhood that left three policemen dead and fifteen badly wounded, to say nothing of the three black nationalists known dead and several civilians who were killed and wounded in the crossfire?

I was on a journey that resulted in my upcoming book, Ballots and Bullets, Black Power Politics and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland. Having grown up white in Lima, Ohio, I knew nothing about the Glenville battle, though I remembered hearing of the Hough rebellion, an event that took place in 1966, two years before the shootout. Fortunately for me as a lawyer and writer, some people from that time were still alive (police and nationalists) whom I could interview and, more importantly, there was an astonishing treasure of untapped real and documentary evidence from which to draw.

Back in 1968, two of the nationalists' gunmen survived the shootout and were tried separately in month-long trials in 1969; transcripts were available. The Case Western professor's interviews, many conducted within weeks of the event, were collected in the Carl Stokes' Papers at the Western Reserve Historical Society.

One of the Cleveland detectives who investigated the incident, Lou Garcia, made it his life mission to never forget the sacrifice of the police. He obtained an order of the Court to allow him to take possession of all of the evidence from the trials when it was about to be discarded, including the rifles used that night. Garcia deeded the materials to the Cleveland Police Museum a few years ago and I was provided unlimited access.

But the most important resource turned out to be the FBI files from the Cleveland Field Office, which I found had only recently been declassified in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. J. Edgar Hoover had established a program called COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program) that targeted black nationalists as a "hate group." As one of the FBI memos from February 1968 explained the COINTELPRO mission: "Goals of this program are to prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups, prevent the rise of a leader who might unify and electrify those violence-prone elements, prevent these militants from gaining respectability and prevent the growth of these groups among America's youth."

Two months after this memo, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. This death started the chain of events in Cleveland that would result in violence later that summer. Because the FBI had informants in Cleveland, the special agent's files provide an almost daily, sometimes hourly, account of the lead-up to the violence.

To understand the roots of the race violence, one needs to widen the window and look back at happenings in Cleveland starting in the spring of 1963. At a church in the Glenville neighborhood, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came from Birmingham, Alabama, to raise bail money for protestors, including children, who had been jailed by Eugene "Bull" Connor. Dr. King had in his briefcase the scraps of paper that included what would become known as his "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

One year later, Malcolm X came to Cleveland to speak from the same pulpit at the same church. Malcolm had just broken with the Nation of Islam, so his talk (about the school integration crisis in Cleveland) was his chance to explain his evolving worldview and his reasons for leaving the Nation. Malcolm X delivered what historians consider one of the top-ten most influential speeches of the 20th Century in American history, known by the name "the Ballot or the Bullet." Malcolm repeated the speech a week later in Detroit, but its first expression was in Cleveland.

Dr. King and Malcolm X represented the two ends of the spectrum of the black freedom struggle. King was Christian, integrationist, and committed to nonviolence. Malcolm X was Muslim, in favor of separation of the races, and a proponent of armed self-defense (later he used the term "by any means necessary"). Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington in the summer of 1963 had been followed by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and many African Americans, especially young men in northern ghettos, began to question the efficacy of nonviolence. These young men in the North were drawn to the message of Malcolm X, believing that the police would not protect them and that they had to right to bear arms under the 2nd Amendme​nt. A rifle club, for example, was formed in Cleveland named after the assassinated NAACP leader Medgar Evers in the weeks following Malcolm's visit.

One of the people in the audience when Malcolm X spoke in Cleveland was Fred Evans. Evans was a black combat veteran from the Korean War. He was taken with the philosophy of black nationalism that Malcolm espoused and developed his own quirky views about astrology, religion and race. He gathered around him young men, some only sixteen. He changed his name to Ahmed Evans.

After Carl Stokes was elected in 1967, blacks in Cleveland had reason to believe that the ballot had prevailed over the bullet. But when Dr. King was assassinated five months later, tensions rose. In Cleveland the Stokes experiment seemed to be working, as he and militants like Ahmed Evans walked the streets of Hough and Glenville to keep the peace. In other major cities, major rioting and looting broke out; in Washington, President Johnson had to call out the Army to restore order.

Mayor Stokes started a small memorial fund to honor Dr. King, which he called "Cleveland: NOW!" in homage to the "Freedom: NOW!" slogan of the civil rights movement. With business backing and major contributions from the federal government the antipoverty program grew into a massive $1.2 billion commitment over 10 years. It was Cleveland's version of the Great Society and LBJ's war on poverty.

Yet simmering hatred of police and the strains caused by Cleveland's overcrowded and festering ghettos soon turned deadly. Ahmed Evans and his group used funds from Cleveland: NOW! to buy rifles and ammunition and planned an assault on police for July 24. Because of the FBI informants, Cleveland police knew what was coming and tried to conduct surveillance that would provide early warning. But the operation was badly bungled and the nationalists feared they were about to be attacked on the night of July 23, 1968. The shootout followed.

The result in Cleveland mimicked the result nationally. Well-intentioned government antipoverty programs vanished precisely because of the political backlash over the violence. The violence resulted from root causes—poverty and racism—that the programs were designed to alleviate. The tragedy is that the programs never got off the ground; the very conditions they were intended to eliminate swallowed the remedy before the cure could take hold.

That is an important explanation for why a black veteran took up arms against police in 2016, much as Ahmed Evans and his group did in 1968. Poverty is still rampant. Police violence against African Americans still stains our land. Housing and education are still huge problems in the black communities of Cleveland. Segregation is more pronounced in many areas. Some of Cleveland's schools have become "ultra-segregated."

The problem we face as a nation—and especially as lawyers working in the criminal and civil justice systems—is that we believe, incorrectly, that the civil rights movement of the 1960s solved our national problems of racial discrimination. My own belief is that in 1968, before the assassinations and retaliatory violence, the nation and Clevelanders were on the right track. The Kerner Commission, which issued its report in February 1968, properly diagnosed racism as a white problem to solve. The war on poverty and Hubert Humphrey's idea of a Marshall Plan for our urban areas (he gave that speech in Cleveland weeks before the shootout, wearing a Cleveland: NOW! button) were all the proper prescriptions for lifting our society out of the vestiges of hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

If we are to follow the Ohio Supreme Court's admonition to recognize and understand racial, cultural and gender differences, the only start is to put our history under a microscope and truthfully face our own damaged past.  Perhaps we can start to think again about a war on poverty and racism.


James D. Robenalt is a partner in Thompson Hine's Cleveland office. He has written on the presidency and lectures nationally with John Dean, Nixon's White House Counsel, on legal ethics. www.watergatecle.com.


[1] http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/Boards/CP/guidelines.pdf.


Join James Robenalt in Cleveland on July 26 for a special Live OSBA CLE event: Ballots and Bullets, Black Power in Politics, and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland, including 2.5 hours of Professional Conduct credit. Each attendee will receive a copy of Jim's latest book, Ballots and Bullets (www.ballotsandbullets.com). Following the seminar, there will be a meet and greet with the author, including a book-signing opportunity. Learn more at ohiobar.org/BallotsCLE.



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