The UNITED FREEDOM MOVEMENT (UFM), established 3 June 1963 in Cleveland, was a coalition of more than 50 civic, fraternal, social, and civil-rights organizations inspired by the southern civil-rights movement. The local chapter of the NATIONAL ASSN. FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE (NAACP) issued invitations to the founding meeting. Some charged that this represented an attempt by moderates to gain control of Cleveland’s civil-rights movement, in effect an appropriation of militants’ plan to form a coalition for direct-action protest. Nevertheless, skeptical militant leaders joined the UFM in hopes of influencing its direction. Harold B. Williams, executive secretary of the local NAACP, was the coordinator of the UFM; its four co-chairs included Carriebell J. Cook (Office of Job Retraining and Manpower), Rev. Isaiah Pogue, Jr. (St. Mark's Presbyterian Church), Rev. Paul Younger (Fidelity Baptist Church), and Clarence Holmes (NAACP). Commissions were established to examine the areas of EDUCATION, housing, employment, health and welfare, and voting and political participation, as they related to AFRICAN AMERICANS in Cleveland. Using negotiations first and then direct-action protests, if necessary, the UFM planned to pressure local leaders in business, industry, and politics for improvements.
The group’s first significant campaign took place in 1963 and challenged discriminatory hiring practices at the downtown construction site for the Cleveland Convention Center (located beneath the MALL and adjacent to PUBLIC AUDITORIUM). The UFM accused four local labor unions of excluding African American members and threatened a picketing campaign at the work site if an agreement to hire black workers was not reached. The challenge by civil rights leaders jeopardized local bond efforts and federal aid earmarked for a variety of large construction projects in the city. In response, federal government officials, representatives of the black community and local labor groups forged a non-discrimination agreement in July of 1963 that was seen as a national model.
That same month, on July 14, the UFM also sponsored a Freedom March. An estimated 15,000 civil rights supporters marched through city streets and more than 25,000 attended a rally at CLEVELAND MUNICIPAL STADIUM, where local and national speakers, including Roy Wilkins, the Executive Secretary of the NAACP, and James Farmer, the national Director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), spoke about the myriad ways racial discrimination plagued northern cities like Cleveland.
The UFM then turned its attention to the CLEVELAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS, as part of a broader national wave of civil rights activism across the urban North in the mid-1960s targeting racial inequality and discrimination in public education. In August of 1963, UFM leaders charged Cleveland schools with system-wide discrimination, and unequal allocation of resources and segregation within individual schools. In order to alleviate overcrowding in several predominately African American schools, the board agreed to bus black students to white schools, though they maintained racial segregation at the receiving schools and barred African American students from participating in extra-curricular and after-school activities. This prompted a wave of protest from UFM members and their allies, including white liberals and clergy. At the end of January1964, a planned march on Murray Hill School, located in LITTLE ITALY, was thwarted when hundreds of white residents organized to block the demonstrations. Even though UFM leaders cancelled their demonstration, white mobs still attacked several African Americans bystanders in the vicinity that day. Despite the violence, UFM picketed other predominately white schools where black students were bussed and led a series of sit-ins at the Cleveland Board of Education offices from January 31 through February 3, resulting in the Board agreeing to integrate classes at the sites where black students were bussed.
Next, UFM attempted to halt the construction of new public schools that the group claimed would perpetuate existing segregation patterns. When the school board refused to delay work on the new projects, protests evolved from picketing, to more disruptive efforts to block the entrances to construction sites and obstruct trucks and bulldozers. On April 7, in a tragic episode that drew national attention, a young white Presbyterian minister and leader of the local CORE chapter, Rev. BRUCE KLUNDER, was accidentally killed at the Stephen E. Howe Elementary School construction site in GLENVILLE when a bulldozer he had lain behind rolled over him. Klunder’s death elicited several hours of angry reaction from more than 3,500 civil rights activists and local residents who threw rocks and smashed car windows, prompting police to use teargas in an effort to disperse crowds and re-establish order. In the end, eight police officers and five civilians were injured and twenty-six arrested.
Later that month, on April 20, the UFM sponsored a school boycott, which was supported by an estimated 60,000 African American students, a majority of whom attended alternative “freedom schools” set up throughout the community. Similar school boycotts took place in other northern cities between 1963 and 1965, including in Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, Boston and elsewhere. The day of the Cleveland boycott, UFM leader Harold Williams told The Plain Dealer, “A loud voice representing hundreds of thousands of Cleveland citizens today shouted, ‘Segregated schools in Cleveland must go.’” Despite the protests, school board president, Ralph McAllister, and Cleveland mayor, Ralph Locher (see MAYORAL ADMINISTRATION OF RALPH LOCHER), refused to meet with UFM leaders through the summer of 1965, a move that was widely viewed as an insult to the black community. Ultimately, legal action during the mid-1970s resulted in federal oversight of the Cleveland Public Schools and the implementation of a controversial desegregation plan.
By the fall of 1965, with the Black Power era on the rise, tensions increased between moderates and militants within the UFM. The group was particularly divided over whether it should endorse candidates seeking political office, especially African American Democrat, CARL STOKES, for mayor. After the UFM steering committee voted to allow political endorsements, three leaders resigned. The UFM never did endorse candidates, but the controversy split the organization and fueled its dissolution in 1966.