HUDSON – The concept of race wasn't established sociologically until the 18th century — but it has become a way to judge, condemn and dismiss people based on the color of their skin, rather than the content of their character.
“Race is a myth,” New York Times bestsellling author James Robenalt told a packed house at the Hudson Library and Historical Society Aug. 27. “There is no science for it. The label is used to define and separate people.”
Robenalt’s new novel, “Ballots and Bullets: Black Power Politics and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland,” looks at just this topic during civil rights uprisings in Cleveland in the 1960s, a uniquely important city to the civil rights movement, Robenalt says.
In “Ballots and Bullets,” Robenalt examines the roots of a single seminal event, a July 23, 1968, shoot-out between black nationalists and Cleveland police that left six dead and 15 wounded, as well as the trials and political aftershocks.
“Understanding what happened and its implications is not only an important story for Cleveland but for the nation,” Robenalt said.
Robenalt said he saw similarities between the 1968 shoot-out and the 2016 sniper shooting of five Dallas police officers.
“Why are we still here 50 years later?” Robenalt asked.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Christian who preached peaceful integration, was counterbalanced by Malcolm X, a Muslim who practiced armed self-defense.
The Birmingham Church bombing in 1963, which killed four young girls, made many in the civil rights movement question the likelihood of meaningful change through non-violence.
In Africa and Asia, countries which had been British and Dutch colonies, people were claiming their independence through nationalism. Malcolm X, assassinated Feb. 21, 1965, argued that blacks in the U.S. suffered a similar colonization — and for that reason needed to take a more aggressive tack.
“Even though the Voting Rights of [August] 1965 had been passed, whites didn't understand the overcrowding in ghettos and the abuse by police that caused the urban riots,” Robenalt said.
The Kerner Commission Report in February 1968 found that the ghettos were created through racism, which also happens to be the primary cause of riots, Robenalt said.
“The concept was so incendiary, President Lyndon B. Johnson wouldn't touch it,” he said.
In Cleveland, blacks could only move into black neighborhoods — so instead of integrating schools, neighborhoods needed to be integrated as well, Robenalt said. Hough and Glenville were two of the overcrowded black neighborhoods in East Cleveland in the 1960s, with 70,000 people crowded into tenements, compared to about 17,000 in each community today.
“There were riots everywhere,” he said.
Cleveland was also important for its restraint in the face of tragedy in the civil rights era.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was killed April 4, 1968, many major cities saw rioting, looting and fires — except Cleveland, because of a black mayor, Carl Stokes, who walked the streets to calm people, Robenalt said.
With the passing of King came passage of the Civil Rights Act April 11, 1968.
“We need to change our perception [of race] and put money behind the problem [of poverty],” he said.
Robenalt argues that a lack of commitment to fight the war on poverty and the need to change everyone's perspective about race are two reasons for strife between black communities and police today.
“Genetics has shown all humans are closely related,” Robenalt said. “All people today are Africans.”
Robenalt is also the bestselling author of “January 1973: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month that Changed America Forever,” “The Harding Affair” and “Linking Rings.”
Robenalt is a partner in the firm, Thompson Hine LLP. He is a member of the Advisory Board for the U.S. District Court, the Northern District of Ohio and an instructor at the National Institute of Trial Advocacy.
Information on more author and other programs can be found online at hudsonlibrary.org
Reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at 330-541-9434 or firstname.lastname@example.org.