Contributed by John J. Grabowski, Ph.D., Historian/Senior Vice President for Research and Publications, using resources from WRHS’s African American Archives.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Cleveland on numerous occasions. He first came to the city on August 7, 1956. At that time he was the leader of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and he reported on it before the National Negro Funeral Directors Convention held at the Hollenden House Hotel.
During the 1960s his visits became more frequent. He spoke at a number of churches, including Antioch Baptist, St. Paul’s Episcopal in Cleveland Heights, and Cory Methodist Church. When he appeared at Cory on May 14, 1963, a crowd of 10,000 to 14,000 lined the streets as he arrived. The church could only seat 5,000, so extra appearances were soon set up. While many of these visits focused on Civil Rights actions in the South, by the mid-1960s his appearance in Cleveland focused on issues in the city. In 1964, a week after winning the Nobel Peace Prize he came to Cleveland to lead a “march on the ballot box”. Other visits that year continued a focus on voter registration.
He returned to Cleveland a number of times in 1967 and these visits focused again on local issues relating to Civil Rights, the treatment of the Black community, and again voter registration. He played an important role in getting voters to register during Carl Stokes’ mayoral campaign that year. His last appearance that year in the city took place on December 16 when he participated in a debate with James C. Davis, President of the Cleveland Bar Association on the topic of civil disobedience.
In 1968 he returned to speak to a small group on the east side early in the year. He was scheduled to return to the city on April 10th. That would not occur – he was assassinated on April 4th. Robert F. Kennedy, who was scheduled to speak at the Cleveland City Club the following day did so, with great sadness. His speech was titled “On the Mindless Menace of Violence” and within his prepared remarks he noted “This is a time of shame and sorrow” and also focused on the issues facing poor people in the United States, referring to that situation as “another kind of violence” which resulted in “the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books, and heat in the winter.” In two months Kennedy would also be the victim of an assassin.
The Western Reserve Historical Society is fortunate to have in its collections a number of images of Dr. King during his visits to Cleveland. Many of them were taken by Max Schoenfeld , a labor, peace and Civil Rights activist. He was also a member of the executive board of the United Auto Workers Local 45. His large collection of negatives document not only Dr. King’s visit, but also protests in Cleveland led by the United Freedom Movement. Maintained in the Society’s secure negative vault, they form an extraordinary document of the 1960s a time of change that has yet to see its complete fulfillment.