After a single bullet cut down the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of a Memphis motel on April 4, 1968, long-simmering anger over civil rights ignited across America. Chicago, Baltimore, D.C. and more than 100 other America cities went up like powder kegs, leaving behind dozens of dead, thousands of injured and millions of dollars in damage.
But one American city — primed for violence after years of racial unrest and inequality — avoided upheaval, likely owing in large part to the quick thinking of its mayor, an often-forgotten civil rights figure in his own right.
By 1968, Cleveland was still one of the 10 largest cities in the country, but the once-mighty Great Lakes manufacturing hub had lost blue-collar jobs to the Sun Belt and homeowners to the suburbs. Racist housing policy had exacerbated tensions between white and black neighborhoods, a conflict that exploded in 1966 with riots in the city’s Hough neighborhood. Police brutality during the riots only sharpened the antagonism between the community and law enforcement.
A year later, however, Cleveland made history when voters chose Carl B. Stokes as mayor, making him the first African American elected to run a major American city.
A state representative who had grown up poor in Cleveland public housing, Stokes had already come close to winning the office in the previous election. In 1967, bolstered by the support of the city’s business leaders, he won. It was a major milestone for the civil rights movement. King himself called the election a “punch against backlash and bigotry” and was in Cleveland on the night of Stokes’s victory.
In his 1973 autobiography, Stokes wrote that he understood his support among Cleveland’s corporate elite was not necessarily about his policies or politics; he was the “establishment’s wager” that a black mayor would safeguard against more rioting. “[I]n backing me they were buying insurance,” Stokes wrote.
That was all put on the line after King’s assassination.
According to historian Leonard N. Moore’s book “Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power,” Cleveland’s mayor was on stage at a local college on the evening of April 4 when he was told about the assassination. Stokes rushed from the event, heading straight for a local television station. Going live, he urged the community to keep calm.
“I appeal to all Clevelanders to do honor to the memory of MLK by reacting to this tragic loss in the peaceful manner in which he lived,” Stokes said on camera.
Reports of violence in other cities were already starting to circulate. Stokes made a decisive move. He knew the city’s police — a force Stokes would later blast as “self-protective, corrupt and destructive” — could intensify the anger in the black community, sparking more violence. The mayor ordered all white Cleveland police officers out of Cleveland’s black neighborhoods.
Instead, Stokes assembled a group of black officials and community leaders, a “peace patrol.” Along with the group, the mayor personally walked the black neighborhoods through the long night, “calming people, talking them into cooler emotions,” he later wrote.
“It wasn’t just me out there,” he added. “[W]e 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.”
While rage and pain lit fires and smashed storefronts across the country, Cleveland stayed peaceful.
“The decision by Stokes to withdraw white police from the frustrated black East Side was unprecedented,” the historian Moore writes. “It was also dangerous, but it worked. After King’s assassination, Stokes was quickly emerging as the most popular African American in the country.”
Many in the city — both black and white — credited the mayor for his actions.
“We had our first Town Hall meeting during April, after the loss of Martin, and I remember two little old white ladies running up to me and kissing me and thanking me for saving the city,” Stokes later wrote.
The one group that was not enthusiastic about Stokes’s plan after the King assassination was Cleveland’s police officers, setting up a bitter conflict between the department and city hall. That tension burst open in July 1968, when a group of black militants opened fire on police officers in the city’s Glenville neighborhood. In the gun battle, three officers, three militants and one bystander were killed.
As the violence grew into general rioting, Stokes again pulled white police from the area. This time, Stokes faced political pressure from city leaders as well as the department in the face of an unprecedented event — an armed militant attack on police. The officers were eventually ordered back in.
“[A] black mayor had pulled out the white police,” Stokes wrote. “This had clearly been a fear all along, that a black mayor would interfere with the police function of protecting the white community against the black peril.”
Despite his success with the aftermath of King’s death, Stokes’s support began crumbling after Glenville. “Fear, hatred, all the emotions that had been pushed to the backs of people’s minds for almost a year, were now going to come forth.”
After 1971, Stokes left politics, later pursuing a career in television broadcast and as a municipal court judge in Cleveland. He died in 1996 at 68.
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