Framed photographs with dignitaries—from Carl B. Stokes to George H. W. Bush— awards and plaques received from civic achievements and a signed letter from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, all canvas the walls inside a church office in Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood.
Reverend E.T. Caviness, of the Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church on East 105th Street is more than just a local preacher to his parishioners. At 89 years old, he leads an impressive life—one marked by a lifetime of civil and political achievements.
Almost 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Caviness reflects on the loss that the nation still mourns and how the country and Cleveland is shaped by his unforgettable legacy and civic footprint. His journey from his hometown of Texas to Cleveland was prompted by a pastor vacancy at Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church.
"When I first came here, they told me Cleveland was a vibrant center, 600 miles within New York or 300 miles of Chicago, so it was an exciting time to expand my ministry," said. Rev. Caviness.
Before coming to Cleveland, Rev. Caviness spent 13 years in East St. Louis, Illinois trying to integrate African Americans into an all-white city council and local government.
“In 1955, we asked Dr. King to come but he was unable to make it so, his wife Coretta King came and did a concert and helped aid us in this fight,” he said.
“Ultimately, we were able to get an African American on the city council," Caviness said.
Dr. Martin Luther King speaks in Rockefeller Park, East Blvd and Superior Ave on July, 28, 1967 (Cleveland Memory Project)
“Some of the challenges that were there, were here [in Cleveland]. I was talking to someone the other day, saying in many cases things were horrendous in the south — segregation and discrimination. And this [Cleveland] was in a sense up south, because you had the same things here but not so sullen, but they were here. "
King was no stranger to Cleveland. He visited the city as the leader of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. While his visits attracted a large group of supporters, they also didn’t shy away protestors. A week after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, King returned to Cleveland on October 23, 1964, for a “march to the ballot box”, urging Clevelanders to vote in the upcoming election.
Rev. Caviness describes the moment King walked the streets of Cleveland like it was yesterday. Church leaders and civic leaders organized a Nobel Peace Prize dinner for King at the Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel.
“On March 23, 1965, King left the march and came to Cleveland to be fed by all of us who were trying to help him at the time. He walked down E. 105th Street with about 6,000 people trailing behind him. His feet were sore, his legs were swollen because he walked seven miles into that march and came up here."
That same night, King was scheduled to speak down the street from Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church at Cory United Methodist Church. He asked Rev. Caviness if he could open up his church doors because of the influx of people who couldn't fit inside the church.
"Within fifteen minutes, 1,100 people were here and Martin spoke that night about encouraging residents to get out and vote," recalls Rev. Caviness.
Rev. Caviness, along with the help of local leaders and community members, raised money for King's cause.
"We gave him a pile of money. It must've been $5,000 to $6,000 at the time. He had never gotten that kind of money before so he was very grateful," he said while showing the letter he received from King thanking him for his donation.
Back at his hotel room, King talked to Caviness for over an hour telling him how grateful he was for the support in Cleveland. It would be the last conversation he had with King.
Asking King why he liked Cleveland so much, he responded: "Because
there are so many ex-Alabamians here in Cleveland," Rev Caviness recalled with a laugh.
Comparing the political climate and the dialogue happening in Washington, Rev. Caviness said he sees similarities with the way leaders are using words to divide the country, rather than uniting them through words.
"It's ironic because in 1965 here Martin was talking about voting and here we are again having to fight that same battle and do the whole voting thing all over again. With the kind of leaders that we have in Washington D.C. now, almost replicating the divisiveness that you had back then," he said.
On April 4, 1968, King was fatally shot while standing outside his second-story room at the Lorraine Motel—a day that flashes back with a flood of emotions and memories for Caviness.
"I was devastated, just devastated," said Rev. Caviness. "When I heard the news he died, I was in my sanctuary. Because he was a man who loved everybody. All of his activities were about love and embracing people. He knew violence begets violence. You can only win by helping people. If there is any hell in them, then you don't hate the hell out of them, you love the hell out of them."