Following the end of the hour-long gunfight that took place in Glenville on July 23, 1968, 3 white policemen, 3 black nationalists, and 1 black civilian lay dead in the streets of east Cleveland. Why did it happen and who was to blame?
On the evening of July 23, 1968, shots rang out in Cleveland’s predominantly black east side neighborhood of Glenville. Though it is unknown who fired the first shot, it is known that the Cleveland Police Department and the Black Nationalists of New Libya, a militant black nationalist group led by Fred (Ahmed) Evans, played a part in the fierce, hour-long gun battle now commonly referred to as the 'Glenville shootout'. Once gunfire died down, 3 white policemen, 3 black nationalists, and 1 black civilian lay dead in the streets of Glenville. After, rioting ensued for 3 straight days and resulted in the damaging or destruction of 62 buildings. Both during and after the riots, black Glenville residents were brutalized by white policemen fueled by racism and resentment from the deaths of fellow officers. Glenville would never be the same again.
Many black Clevelanders during the early-to-mid 1960s viewed white city authorities (as well as members of the Cleveland police department) as antagonistic white supremacists who did nothing to stop the urban decay, racism, discrimination, and violence that plagued their communities. Civil rights and black nationalist groups in Cleveland aimed to improve social and economic conditions for black Clevelanders but were often met with violent opposition from white residents, policemen, and city authorities. Racial tensions often culminated in episodes of intense racial violence, as was seen in neighboring communities, like Hough, throughout the 1960s. In 1967, the election of Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major city, helped calm racial tensions in Cleveland - but only temporarily.
Fred (Ahmed) Evans, leader of a militant black nationalist group known as the Black Nationalists of New Libya, faced constant conflict with white authorities and police throughout his life. To authorities, Evans’ black nationalist ideology and militant tendencies represented a threat to the perpetuation of white supremacy which their authority relied upon. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Evans became increasingly concerned about what he saw as a white police state and began amassing a cache of weapons for the purpose of defending himself and his community. Tensions between Evans and the Cleveland Police Department reached a peak in the summer of 1968 when police surveillance was ordered on Evans’ 12312 Auburndale Avenue apartment following reports to city hall that Evans was planning to stage an attack against the police department. Though this report was unverified, police patrol cars (manned by white policemen) were stationed outside Evans’ apartment for several days prior to the shootout - despite black officials’ warnings to do precisely the opposite.
Neither the Cleveland police department nor members of New Libya agree to this day on exactly how or why the ensuing confrontation ended in violence. According to police, Evans orchestrated the shootout and was thus the one to blame; according to Evans and other black nationalists, police aggression and violence had instigated the shootout. Ultimately, the version of events told by city hall and the police department swayed the white public and media; blame for the bloodshed and destruction was placed solely on Evans while police racism, aggression, and violence went ignored. Evans’ trial jury was composed of 7 white Clevelanders who were all, throughout the course of the trial, exposed to various forms of media, despite rules forbidding it. White members of the prosecution used racial slurs against Evans’ black defense team but were never disciplined. While it was proven that Evans had hidden in an attic during the gunfight and had never personally fired a single shot, this did not matter to the white judge and jury - Evans was charged with and convicted of first-degree murder. Evans originally received the death penalty, but was later re-sentenced to life in prison where he died of cancer in 1978.
Though it remains unknown exactly who initiated the shootout, it is known that the Cleveland police department had a history of largely antagonistic relations with Evans and black residents of Glenville which ultimately culminated in the events of July 23, 1968. Stokes’ decision to temporarily enact black community policing as a means of preventing additional deaths after rioting began lost him favor with many white Clevelanders, the police department, and city hall. Stokes was succeeded by Ralph Perk, a white ‘law-and-order’ mayor who stamped out any chance that black nationalist groups in Cleveland had of improving their social and economic situations. Glenville has still not fully recovered from the events of that night; the continued existence of vacant lots, burned-out buildings, and violent interactions with white police in the following years served to remind its residents that the conditions which had ultimately led to the shootout and riots had continued to endure. It has been suggested by both sides that the Glenville shootout was a conspiracy on some level - but whether the events that took place that July night were a conspiracy by the Black Nationalists of New Libya to ambush the police force or a conspiracy by the Cleveland police department to disrupt and destroy black nationalism in Cleveland is matter that also remains contested to this day.