During the heyday of the civil rights movement, the Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church served as the headquarters of the United Freedom Movement, which was an organization comprised of Black and White civic organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, Congress of Racial Equality, and various other groups.
The group was instrumental in challenging segregation and overcrowding in the Cleveland public school system. After the Hough Uprising, Pastor Theophilus Caviness requested Dr. Martin Luther King to visit in an effort to prevent further violence.
REV. EMMETT T. CAVINESS
There comes a moment when a Black minister must decide whether to cross lines from religious leader and community activist to the political arena in the pursuit of Civil Rights and social justice. There was such a time for the pastor to the Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, Rev. Dr. Emmett Theophilus Caviness, and he made the leap.
Installed in November 1961 as the pastor of Greater Abyssinia, Rev. Dr. Caviness was a supporter and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but he did not expand his pastoral duties to include elective or appointive office until Carl Stokes, an African American attorney and state lawmaker, campaigned for and won the Cleveland mayorship in November 1967. Pastor Caviness was a close ally to Stokes and by 1974, when he was 46 years old, he accepted an appointment as Ward 25 Councilman for the City of Cleveland. It was the first of many political appointments that would allow him unique access to power.
His steady leadership in both the civic and political life of Cleveland and his exceptionally long tenure distinguish him and the church he leads in the Civil Rights movement in Cleveland.
The Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, next door neighbor to Cory United Methodist Church on East 105th Street in Cleveland, has a deep history in supporting Civil Rights. Rev. Dr. Caviness kept the church’s focus on missionary work and pastoring to those in need. He oversaw the completion of a $3 million senior citizens complex near the church, and a $1.3 million building program. Caviness personally invested $500,000 of his savings in 1995 towards to establish an endowment fund for the church. “The church is central in the future of our urban cities and indeed the nation,” he said in a March 1995 interview with Jet Magazine.
Early Church Leadership
The church formed on December 16, 1945, at the Phillis Wheatley Association and had just 250 members. Under Dr. Jon Rollins Plummer’s leadership, the church’s first pastor, the congregation raised $47,000 to purchase a Jewish Synagogue from the Beth Hamedrosh Hagodel Beth Israel Congregation where the church currently sits. In 1946, the congregation also purchased a parsonage, land for parking, and created a Federal Credit Union. Unfortunately, Dr. Plummer’s tenure ended after a fatal car accident on October 22, 1951.
The church’s second pastor, Henry J. Payden, oversaw the remodeling of the lower auditorium of the church and dedicated it to Dr. Plummer. Caviness, the third and current pastor, surpassed the tenure of the previous two leaders and became a Civil Rights icon and active member in local and state politics.
Hailing from Marshall, Texas, a small town near the Louisiana border, once the Capitol of the Confederacy West of the Mississippi River, Rev. Dr. Caviness arrived at Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church in 1961. It was in Marshall where a young Caviness vowed to work towards unity after viewing a graphic bar on the wall of the courthouse separating Blacks and Whites. He began preaching as a seventeen-year-old under the direction of Rev. J.J. Bradford at Galilee Baptist Church in Marshall. In later years, he earned a bachelors from the School of Theology at Bishop College, as well as a bachelors from Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Grove, Missouri. He moved to Cleveland and resided in the Glenville area after having pastored for churches in Pickton, Texas, and Madison and East St. Louis, Illinois.
Rev. Dr. Caviness was surprised by the population density in Glenville when he moved there in 1961. As someone who had grown up in a small, rural town, it was a revelation that so many folks could live in such close proximity.
He also noted what he perceived as an adherence to the status quo. As scholar Leonard Nathaniel Moore wrote, Black Clevelanders had long valued negotiating behind the scenes rather than direct action in their struggle for equality. Static race relations in Cleveland, Pastor Caviness observed, tended to support the existing power structure, which, in his perspective, further contributed to a lack of progress. He perceived that the implicit understanding of nonconfrontation between Whites and Blacks served to exacerbate underlying tensions, because wounds were allowed to fester beneath a veneer of tranquility.
civil rights activism
Greater Abyssinia served as the headquarters for the United Freedom Movement (“UFM”), an umbrella organization for the most active Civil Rights groups in Cleveland, like the Congress of Racial Equality (“CORE”), the Freedom Fighters and the Afro-American Cultural Institute. The UFM was on the frontlines of Cleveland’s Civil Rights campaign to fight against segregated schools. The organization was formed in December 1962 as a coalition of various Black and White civil organizations and ministers that challenged the Cleveland’s school board retrograde policies and practices almost a decade after Brown v Board of Education. It notably organized a series of direct-action campaigns to protest the school board’s inaction to alleviate overcrowding in predominately Black schools on the East side. As Lewis Robinson wrote in The Making of a Man: “We chose to meet with Reverend Caviness because we could not get any other local black minister to take the lead in the civil rights movement. He had been active in East St. Louis before coming to Cleveland and now agreed to let us use his church offices as headquarters.”
The campaign achieved some moderate reforms, and served as a catalyst for Black unity, a growing awareness of the power of protest, and a greater emphasis on attaining Black political power.
In 1964, members of the church formed a Civil Rights Committee to aid and assist the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (“NAACP”), the Urban League, CORE, and the UFM. The committee early days saw the tragic death of Civil Rights activist Bruce Klunder. A Yale educated White minister and founding member of CORE, Rev. Klunder was crushed at a school construction site in Glenville when a bulldozer accidentally backed over him during a demonstration against the building of new schools in already segregated neighborhoods. One of the committee’s first projects aimed to register nonvoters and provide transportation to the Board of Elections.
Caviness enters politics
Rev. Dr. Caviness was a crucial player in many pivotal moments of Cleveland’s Civil Rights movement. He organized the clergy to support candidate Carl Stokes through such efforts as get-out-the-vote drives in the fall of 1967. Pastor Caviness grew to admire Stokes and saw in him the promise of power for Blacks to take the leading roles in governing cities where Black majorities were emerging following the two Great Migrations of the 20th Century.
Newly elected Mayor Stokes asked him to become part of the administration and appointed him as the first Black person to chair the Zoning Board. At the time, Caviness admitted he was unfamiliar with zoning or zoning laws, but he educated himself and successfully served for six and a half years.
Rev. Dr. Caviness was a member of, and often chaired, numerous religious and civic organizations, many national in scope. He was the Historian, and on the Board of Directors of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., and served on the Planning Board of the Inter-Church Council. He was Vice President and President of the Ohio Baptist General Convention, Moderator of the Northern Ohio Baptist Association, and for 29 years served as President of the Baptist Minister’s Conference of Cleveland and Vicinity, which he founded.
As noted above, he was elected to the Cleveland City Council in 1974, a role he continued in for the next six years.
Cleveland Mayor George V. Voinovich appointed Caviness as special assistant, and as governor, named him the chair of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. Rev. Dr. Caviness’s relationship with Governor Voinovich proved crucial in saving Central State University, one of Ohio’s most important historically Black land-grant universities in Wilberforce, Ohio.
In recent years, Caviness challenged Governor John Kasich’s lack of minorities in his inaugural cabinet, battled for fair housing, participated in a protest about the killing of Tamir Rice, and demanded the Sherwin-Williams downtown Cleveland headquarter project hire a Black Project Manager along with Black laborers and sub-contractors. His life-long activism and achievements led to his footprints to be enshrined in Xernona Clayton’s International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in Atlanta, Georgia in 2012.
The Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, its leadership, members, and community engagement, are examples of exemplary civic leadership and commitment to racial equality. For these reasons, the Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church has been chosen as a site of significance on Cleveland’s Civil Rights Trail.
At 93 years of age at the time of this interview, Rev. Dr. Emmett Theophilus Caviness discusses his tenure at Greater Abyssinia, the civil rights movement in Cleveland, his interactions with prominent national and local activists, and his upbringing.