Glenville High School
The CRS African American Civil Rights Trail Committee chose Glenville High School as one of the trail sites because of its location and the uniqueness of the speech given to high school students by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1967.
Dr. Martin Luther King targeted his message at young people and their ability to participate in non-violent, social change. There is great relevance in the speech, delivered on the verge of the city electing its first Black mayor, Carl Stokes. Further, the committee realized a strong correlation between the message of Dr. King and the Black Lives Matter movement of today, and its young leaders.
King's "rise up!" speech
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Rise Up!” speech at Glenville High School, on April 26, 1967, signaled the beginning of his drive to promote the election of African Americans to prominent positions in government in Northern cities so that they might start to address longstanding issues of systemic racism, poverty, and police brutality.
He encouraged students at local high schools in Cleveland to help register their parents for the upcoming mayoral election in which state representative and lawyer Carl Stokes was running to become the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city.
The speech came at a time of immense transition for Dr. King. In the final year of his life, Dr. King’s vision shifted from acquiring and securing voting rights, as he had done in the South, to acting on those rights to elect Black leaders. His soaring rhetoric combined with straight talk to the students about the perils of urban violence makes this one of the most beautiful and powerful speeches of his illustrious career.
King heads north
That year, 1966, marked the opening salvo by Dr. King to bring his nonviolence/direct action campaigns to the North. Dr. King and his family moved into a Chicago tenement at the beginning of that year to see firsthand the complications and grim conditions that Blacks encountered as they migrated to Northern cities during the Great Migration.
In the first decade of his activism (1956-1966), Dr. King had directed successful campaigns in southern cities, such as Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, leading to major federal legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Now, he saw the struggles of African Americans in burgeoning ghettos in cities like Chicago as his next great challenge. But his marches for open housing in all-white neighborhoods of Chicago provoked a vicious racist counterreaction and violence marred the demonstrations. Eager to limit the turmoil, Dr. King brokered a deal on open housing measures with Mayor Richard Daley in late August 1966 that was largely seen as toothless. He left Chicago discouraged and reduced in his stature as the preeminent Civil Rights leader in the nation.
Chicago and other crises took a toll. Dr. King decided to withdraw from the daily grind of speaking and meetings and to concentrate on writing his next book. To do this, he rented a home without a phone in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, in mid-January 1967. While there, King meditated and prayed and began to reformulate his plans. With African American populations rising in Northern cities, he began to see the possibility of electing Black officials in urban centers. The best chance for such change was in Cleveland, where a state representative and lawyer, Carl Stokes, had almost won against the incumbent mayor in 1965. King made Cleveland a focal point for voter registration drives.
King heads to Cleveland
Cleveland, meanwhile, was a “racial powder keg,” according to a March 1967 front-page article in the Wall Street Journal (WJS). The year before, the city’s Hough neighborhood had exploded in rioting, burning, and looting in an uprising that took four African American lives with scores wounded by police gunfire. The WSJ article profiled Fred “Ahmed” Evans as a leading Black militant and detailed the failings of Mayor Ralph Locher’s administration in addressing issues related to housing, sanitation, schooling, and health and recreation facilities in the eastside neighborhoods of Hough and adjacent Glenville. Ahmed warned that “blood must flow.”
Dr. King arrived in Cleveland in the context of a foreboding fear that the city might go up in flames again in the summer of 1967. But King came to promote Carl Stokes in his expected run for mayor (at the time, Cleveland was the 8th largest city in the nation). King agreed with Stokes that he would not march for open housing in all-White neighborhoods like Parma but wanted to be on the scene if Stokes won. So, King organized boycotts and mock grand juries to indict absentee slum landlords. He met repeatedly with Ahmed Evans and other militants to convince them to support the ballot over the bullet.
When Dr. King touched down in Cleveland in late April, he clearly explained his goals to the press. “We feel that over the last few years through our nonviolent struggle we have achieved the moral power and we have literally subpoenaed large segments of the nation to appear before the judgment seat of morality on the question of civil rights,” he said. “Now it is necessary to transform this moral power into political power so that we can bring about the necessary political reforms that will solve the problems that we faced.”
King at Glenville High school
Invited by the United Pastors’ Association in Cleveland to speak at three East Side high schools on Wednesday, April 26, King’s talk at Glenville High School was the only one recorded (it was discovered in 2011 in the school library and is now available widely online). King started with his regular theme of encouraging young Blacks to think of themselves as “somebody.” He said, “Don’t let anybody make you feel you are nobody. Because the minute one feels that way, he is incapable of rising to his full maturity as a person.” He told the students it was necessary to “desegregate their minds.” The title of the speech comes from the line in the speech that says “every black person in this country must rise up and say I’m somebody.”
But Dr. King also warned the young students. He knew he spoke to a crowd that was immersed in the Hough uprising the summer before, and indeed some may have taken part in it. Dr. King told the students that achieving freedom was hard and that “freedom was never voluntarily given to the oppressed by the oppressor,” but violence was never the answer. “[W]e must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship,” he said, “but we must never use second-class methods to gain it. We’ve got to get smart. We’ve got to organize. We’ve got to organize so effectively and so well and engage in such powerful, creative protest that there will not be a power in the world that can stop us and that can afford to ignore us.”
And then Dr. King turned to the reason for his visit. “Cleveland, Ohio,” he shouted, “is a city that can be the first city of major size in the United States to have a black mayor and you should participate in making that a possibility!” He asked the students to “serve as a committee of one” and to help to register their parents to vote in the upcoming elections.
He ended this 20-minute talk with several crescendos about the need to work hard for freedom. Likely knowing the poet Langston Hughes started his career at a high school in Cleveland, Dr. King chose Hughes’ “Mother to Son” poem as his closer to illustrate the need for perseverance. In the poem, the mother tells the son that life for her “ain’t been no crystal stair.” “It’s had tacks in it, boards torn up, and places with no carpet on the floor—bare.” But she encouraged her son, “all that time I’se been a-climbin’ on, and reachin’ landin’s, and turnin’ corners and sometimes goin’ in the dark where there ain’t been no light. So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps cause you finds it kinder hard. For I’se still goin’ boy. I’se still climbin’, and life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”
king and electoral politics
That summer, King worked to register voters. In November, Carl Stokes became the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city. Five months later, however, Dr. King was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, and a renewed cycle of violence rose up in cities across the nation. In Cleveland, the city was calm the night of the assassination thanks to Mayor Stokes walking the streets urging peace, but Black Nationalists led by Fred “Ahmed” Evans wanted retribution for King’s murder and the decades of police abuse in Hough and Glenville. On July 23, 1968, the nationalists and the police engaged in street warfare, with ten people shot and killed at the scene and scores of others injured.
Dr. King predicted that freedom would be hard and come at a price, but the legacy he left at Glenville High School on April 26, 1967, was that African Americans need to keep going, to continue the struggle. As he said after reciting Langston Hughes’s poem: “Life for none of us has been a crystal stair, but we must keep moving. We must keep going. And so, if you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep going.”
the High School Rebellions
Glenville High School remained largely placid during the various student rebellions that rocked Cleveland public schools in the late 1960s, which were influenced by the Black Power movement’s emphasis on Black pride and community control. Although largely forgotten, contemporaries declared the 1968-1969 school year as the greatest crisis in the history of Cleveland’s public schools. These series of events forced school officials to close down buildings, call police and fire officials to campus, demand an assurance for their safety, as well as entangled Mayor Carl Stokes and received condemnation from the Call and Post. Overall, young people spearheaded movements for community control and curriculum reform and were largely reacting to the shortcomings of civil rights activists’ efforts to reform city schools.
In May 1968, a rally of about 2000 students, parents, and teachers of Glenville High voiced their concerns about over enrollment, neighborhood participation in curriculum development and reappraisal, and the announcement of Principal Jack Stafford’s resignation
In October 1968, members of the United Black Student Alliance at East High School filed a list of grievances after the district transferred a biology teacher. Conversing with school officials, the group demanded a student court, explicit permission to wear African styles in school, as well as cited grievances that included poor teaching and negative attitudes among faculty toward Black Nationalism. The students then organized a walkout and the next day, teachers walked out to demand greater need for security inside and outside of school. In the aftermath, Stokes sent 28 policemen to the area to bring calm and school officials held a series of meetings over the weekend with school board members, Black Nationalists leaders, and community members. Students expanded their demands by asking for more classes on Black culture, community participation in setting school policy, and improvements in the quality of education.
Also in October, Black students at the predominately-White John Marshall High School on the west side walked out in protest after White youths physically assaulted two Black teenagers.
John Hay High School experienced the biggest disruption of them all in November 1968. Protesting a new discipline policy that suspended students for 3 to 5 days for tardiness or loitering in the hallways, over 1,000 students walked out of third period and attended an unauthorized assembly. During the previous week, over 30 students were suspended because of the new policy. The students also had complaints about cafeteria food, lavatory maintenance, inadequate science laboratories, the powerlessness of the Student Council, and the presence of security guards, who students accused of being arrogant and “getting fresh” with female students.
Administrators’ unresponsiveness led to a walkout in February, which closed the school for 10 days. On the second day, students organized a sit-in in district headquarters to speak to Superintendent Paul Briggs. They spoke to him for two hours. Briggs claimed the administration would work on 9 out of 11 of the demands, but the pupils and parents committed themselves to not allowing the school to open until all the demands were met, which included the removal of Principal Paul High. In the end, High left the school and a Black principal replaced him. Now the city had 4 Black principals in 6 of the schools where Black students constituted the majority.
In December 1968, about 100 students at East Technical High School calling themselves the United Students for Action held a Black Nationalist flag and refused to reenter school for about an hour. The group distributed flyers that listed 16 grievances, some of which included an open lunch period as well as cited intolerable cafeteria food and conditions, and a lack of freedom to express complaints.
Annette Olgetree became the center of another controversy in April 1969, when about 100 students and sympathizers organized a 10-mile march from John F. Kennedy High School to the school board to protest Ogletree’s pending transfer. The principal ordered the school to close after a scuffle occurred between door guards and outsiders, which led a gun to fall on the ground and discharge. Although the students never came close to downtown, the Superintendent sent staff home early, closed the building, and canceled a meeting.
High school student protests in Cleveland continued into the following school year at places like the long, racially-troubled Collinwood High School, but the rate of social unrest city schools experienced in the previous calendar year was unmatched.
Muhammad Ali Speaks
On May 25, 1971, world-renowned boxer Muhammad Ali made a surprise visit to Glenville High. The school was celebrating the last day of its 3rd annual week-long Eusi Sikukuu (Black Festival). During an afternoon assembly, Principal Leo Clayton informed the students that he had a surprise guest. He then presented Ali. Normally, Ali charged for speaking engagements. But he made this visit free of charge and on his own free will. The crowd jeered and sat through Ali’s 35-minute speech entitled “Self-Respect.” At this moment in his career, Ali was highly admirable for his athleticism and criticized for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam war.
Click this link to listen to Muhammad Ali speak at Glenville High School in 1971: http://flash.ulib.csuohio.edu/cmp/general/ali-glenville.html
Education in Cleveland
Horace Mann, the former Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education stated in 1848, “Education, then, beyond all other divides of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.” Cleveland has improved since 2011, but the current state of affairs are not stellar.
The Cleveland Municipal School District reported in 2020 that the graduation rates for African-American students have improved. It rose from 79.8 percent to 80.9 percent, which is an increase of 23.9 points since 2011. But these improvements hide persistent problems. The Covid-19 pandemic took a toll on students’ gains. Around 54 percent of children were chronically absent during the 2020-2021 school year, which accounts for students who miss 18 days of school or more. According to 2020 Census data, nearly half of children in Cleveland live in poverty. Gains certainly have been made, but as one of the poorest cities in the United States, Cleveland suffers from chronic problems that will take a concerted effort to alleviate.
Linda Sowell is the daughter of former Cleveland councilman Leo Jackson. Born in Georgia, she was raised in Cleveland in the Glenville neighborhood and was one of the students in attendance when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “Rise Up” speech. In this interview, she recalls King’s visit and speech, her family, upbringing in the Glenville neighborhood, her time at Harvard University, and her career since graduating.
James Aloway was born in Alabama and raised in Cleveland, Ohio to working-class Southern migrants. In high school, he was one of the leaders at John Hay High School during a major student protest in November 1968 and February 1969, the latter saw the school shut down for ten days. In this interview, he discusses his upbringing, coming of age in the Glenville neighborhood, John Hay High, the student protests, and his life after graduating from high school.
Branch, Taylor. Canaan’s Edge, America in the King Years 1965-68. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
“Collinwood Blacks, Whites Sit-in for Student Rights,” Call and Post, March 6, 1971.
Franklin, V.P. The Young Crusaders: The Untold Story of the Children and Teenagers who Galvanized the Civil Rights Movement. Boston: Beacon Press, 2021.
Hughes, Langston. “Mother to Son.” accessed on April 5, 2021, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47559/mother-to-son.
King, Martin Luther Jr. “April 26, 1967, Cleveland speech, annotated.” Cleveland.com, January 14, 2012, accessed on April 5, 2021, https://www.cleveland.com/pdextra/2012/01/martin_luther_king_jr_april_26.html.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Speech at Glenville High School Preserved on Little-Known Recording.” Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 14, 2012, updated January 12, 2019.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Speaks in Cleveland in 1967, WEWS Video Vault.” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9eAndOGhu8.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “King Pledges Aid in Solving Cleveland Ghetto Problems.” Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 25, 1967.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Martin Luther King Defines ‘Black Power.’” New York Times, June 11, 1967.
“New Hay Principal Promises ‘Open Door’ Policy to Air Gripes.” Plain Dealer, July 20, 1969.
“Parents Act to End West Side Tensions.” Call and Post, October 26, 1968.
“Police Patrol of 28 Brings Calm to East High School.” Call and Post, October 12, 1968.
“Protesting Pupils Mum on Meeting.” Plain Dealer, October 5, 1968.
“Pupil Unrest Bars Education Board.” Plain Dealer, April 26, 1969.
“Racial Powder Keg.” Wall Street Journal, March 14, 1967.
Robernalt, James D. Ballots and Bullets, Black Power Politics and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2018.
“School Closing Led to Added Demands.” Call and Post, March 8, 1969, 1A
“School Officials Pledge to Face Protest Demands.” Call and Post, May 11, 1968.
“Schools’ Racial Crises Fit U.S. Pattern.” Plain Dealer, June 9, 1969.
“Slant on East High Unrest Given Stokes by Teen-Ager.” Plain Dealer, October 8, 1968.
“Student Grievances Brings Tech Walkout.” Call and Post, December 28, 1968.
“Suspensions Spark Protests at Hay.” Call and Post, November 30, 1968.
“Where are the Parents?” Call and Post, March 8, 1969.