By Regennia N. Williams, PhD
Since the 1960s, the Rev. Dr. Emmitt Theophilus (E.T.) Caviness, pastor of Cleveland’s Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, has been a leader in the struggle to secure and protect the civil and political rights of American citizens. His influence extends beyond the sanctuary of his church in the Glenville community, and the stories about his work are recounted in numerous publications, including the many books and news articles related to the legacy of Mayor Carl B. Stokes.
Stokes was elected in 1967, the year after the Hough Riots. From the outset of his tenure as the mayor of Cleveland, he sought to establish close ties between his office and leaders in various faith communities. Rev. Caviness worked with Mayor Stokes to make that happen. In a March 30, 1968, Call & Post newspaper article announcing the appointment of the Rev. William Arthur LeMon as Stokes’ administrative assistant, the mayor stated, “If there is any one segment of leadership in the community that I owe to being where I am it is, perhaps, the clergy.”
Within a week of making this statement, Mayor Stokes called on local pastors and others to help keep the peace following the April 4, 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In describing that moment in Cleveland’s history, Stokes wrote in Promises of Power: A Political Biography:
In the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968, almost every large city in the country with a sizeable black community had violence and looting of some sort. We were able to keep that from happening in Cleveland. In a way it was unfortunate that we succeeded as well as we did, because it only confirmed the establishments wager that in backing me they were buying insurance. Not that I didn’t make a good deal of it myself at the time, taking reporters along with me as I walked the streets, calming people, talking them into cooler emotions. I tried, though, to get across the point that the community had calmed itself. It wasn’t just me out there; we had clergymen, athletes, street clubs, militants out patrolling, working to keep the lid on. Obviously, they were out there because I got them together to do it, but they were the ones who really handled it.
A cover story in the Sunday, April 7, 1969 Plain Dealer echoed the mayor’s sentiments: “Last night the mayor resumed his vigil in Hough, Glenville, and Central areas [. . .] In a predawn meeting yesterday, he urged some 75 Black nationalists to help in quieting fears in the Negro neighborhood. He met with a group of clergymen and new executives later in the day, asking for continued close cooperation.
Fifty-two years later, in April 2020, Rev. Caviness recalled that he monitored activities from his office at Greater Abyssinia while Mayor Stokes (who had “protection”) monitored the situation in the streets of Glenville. Their team succeeded in keeping an uneasy peace that spring, but their efforts did not prevent the Glenville rioting in the summer of 1968.
Pastor Caviness’s leadership duties, however, continued beyond the 1960s. He served as the administrative assistant to Mayor George Voinovich, as a member of the Cleveland City Council, on a number of local boards, and, for more than 30 years, on the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization that Dr. King established in 1957.
He currently chairs the board of the Cleveland Clergy Coalition and is convinced that the struggle for voting rights must be continual. As the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th amendment and the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment–which sought to enfranchise African American men and all women, respectively, Rev. Caviness says, “Everyone has to have that right. We’ve got to remain vigilant, on our guard, and stay alert to what is transpiring in our country.”