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As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month, let’s also recognize the history that Dr. King has with our very own city.
King first visited Cleveland in 1956 on the heels of the Montgomery Bus boycott. This marked the first mass-scale protest on behalf of Civil Rights in the U.S. after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. During this first visit, he was delivering an update on the bus boycott during the annual convention of the National Negro Funeral Directors Association.
Soon, Cleveland became a regular stop for King as he traveled the country inspiring the masses; working toward voter registration and accessibility; promoting racial equality; and educating people on systemic racism.
Throughout his visits in the '60s, King would speak with Cleveland crowds at Antioch Baptist Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cory Methodist Church and Olivet Institutional Baptist Church. King also attended community meetings and spoke with local leaders in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. And he even attended a performance at the Karamu House in 1963.
His visits drew a lot of support and criticism. Cleveland Mayor Ralph Locher declared King an “extremist.” In 1963, while in Cleveland to speak at two events, his car was mobbed by a crowd of 10,000-14,000 people, which resulted in King scheduling additional appearances to reach his supporters.
King often visited Cleveland during the mayoral campaign of Carl B. Stokes, who became the first Black person elected mayor of a major U.S. city. He continued working on initiatives related to voter registration, organizing tenant unions and improving relations with police during his trips to Cleveland. One of his last public appearances in Cleveland, which was held at the Human Rights Institute, was a debate about civil disobedience.
King was tragically assassinated six days before a scheduled return trip to Cleveland in 1968. But his legacy lives on.
Cleveland is a part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s story, which is one of the reasons why we celebrate, remember and honor his commitment to service and leadership.