Sunday, July 24, 2016
The body of Rev. Bruce Klunder lies where it was crushed to death by a bulldozer during a civil rights protest in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 7, 1964.
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Klunder was born in Greeley, Colorado, in July 1937. His family moved to Oregon when he was a toddler, and he was raised there -- graduating from Oregon State University in 1958. While in college, he met Joanne Lehman and married her in December 1956. The couiple had two children, Janice and Douglas.
Klunder graduated from Yale Divinity School in June 1961. The following September, he moved to Cleveland, where he was named executive director of the Student Christian Union at Western Reserve University. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister in January 1962, and took a position at Church of the Covenant in March.
He had a passionate interest in civil rights. In April 1962, Klunder co-founded the Cleveland chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE).
Although a decade had passed since Brown v. Board of Education, Cleveland's public schools remained racially segregated. The city was run by the mayor, city council, business elites, the leaders of a few privileged ethnic minorities (Germans, Slavs, and Poles, primarily), and the editors of the city's three top newspapers (The Plain Dealer, the Press, and the Call & Post). Together, they promoted a business-friendly, low-tax, small-government city and generally ignored Cleveland's social ills. Disagreements were generally resolved with back-room political deals and patronage.
Racial unrest was unheard of in Cleveland, and the few protest marches or rallies which had occurred in the first half of the 20th century were small and quickly died out.
But in September 1963, massive and long-lasting protests by African Americans against the segregated school system began in Cleveland. The Cleveland public school system initially promised to begin busing to end racial segregation in public schools in September 1963. But while children were bused, they did not attend classes with white children. Rather, they were segregated into separate classrooms, spending just 40 minutes a day alongside white classmate. The CPSD then told white parents that integration was "only temporary", and that the school system would soon begin construction on a host of new schools in black neighborhoods to end the busing and keep black children out of white schools. Outraged black parents picketed white schools, and white hecklers threatened them with attack-dogs. When black parents attempted to picket Memorial Elementary School in Little Italy, city officials -- terrified of a white riot -- persuaded them not to. Whites rioted anyway, assaulting hundreds of African American adults and children. The Cleveland Police declined to intervene. When black parents engaged in a sit-in at the Board of Education, the Cleveland Police beat them and tossed them down staircases.
Construction crews began site preparation for the new schools in mid-March. On April 3, CORE held a massive rally at which parents demanded an immediate halt to construction. The CPSD refused, calling the African Americans "dictators".
On April 6, 1964, black parents began picketing the site of the new Stephen E. Howell Elementary School in Lakeview. While some picketed, others tried to form a human chain to stop construction. 30-year-old Booker T. Eddy actually lay down in front of a dump-truck, which barely stopped in time. Another group lay down in a ditch. Construction workers, screaming racial epithets at them, used a back-hoe to dump soil on top of them. Before they could be buried alive, the police stepped in and arrested the protesters. By late afternoon, 20 people had been arrested. The police had beaten 50 more.
On April 7, 1,000 African American parents again protested at Howell Elementary. Riot police and mounted cops met them, keeping them away from the construction site.
Suddenly, Klunder and three black parents (two women and a man) rushed past the police line and onto the construction site. The three black parents lay down in front of a bulldozer, while Klunder lay down behind it. The machine's operator stopped, so as not to run over the three people in front of him. He then began backing up....
Klunder was crushed to death beneath the machine.
The operator, 33-year-old John White, did not see Klunder under the body emerged from beneath his vehicle.
That night, riots broke out in the poverty-stricken Glenville and Hough neighborhoods of Cleveland. Riot police quickly subdued the rioters.
The protests against segregated Cleveland schools failed. All the new segregated schools were built. The CPSD did not desegregate until 1978, when a federal court ordered the school system to begin a comprehensive busing plan. Klunder's death, however, unified the black community in Cleveland in ways few thought possible. It also radicalized blacks in Cleveland, who now felt that the legal and political system was closed to them. Bruce Klunder's death is often said to be the foundation on which the Hough Riots of 1966 and the Glenville Shootout and Riots of 1968 occurred.
Bruce Klunder was cremated, and his ashes interred at the Church of the Covenant. His wife remarried, and now lives in Maine.
Klunder is one of the 41 individuals listed as civil rights martyrs at the national Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
In 2013, Stephen E. Howell Elementary School was torn down.