Martin Luther King Jr.'s Impact on the Cuyahoga River


Today our nation remembers, commemorates, and celebrates the birth of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and we're reminded of King's impact on something he may not be widely recognized for: the rebirth of the Cuyahoga River.

Rewind to the 60's when the civil rights movement was struggling to gain ground on a variety of social justice fronts. King was the highly visible spokesperson for nonviolent activism and civil disobedience that protested racial discrimination in federal and state law. One of our favorite phrases is 'All Politics is Local" and while King focused on national efforts, he also focused on voter registration drives in states and cities.


It was that motion that brought King to Cleveland several times to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, raise awareness of poverty and discrimination, and register voters in support of then Ohio House of Representative Carl B. Stokes' campaign for Cleveland Mayor. Five months after seeing Stokes elected (winning by fewer than 2,000 votes) as the first black mayor of a major American city, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 outside of a Memphis, TN hotel room.

In the wake of King's assassination, black leaders like Stokes focused attention on their communities and cities. It's no surprise to anyone that Cleveland's river in 1968 was in bad shape (as were many Great Lakes tributaries), serving as an open, state regulated pipeline for industrial pollution. The air wasn't much better as smoggy emissions from manufacturing plants shrouded Cleveland's skyline.

Stokes understood that, while a swath of Cleveland's citizens were experiencing racial discrimination, ALL of its citizens were being affected by polluted air and water and his sense of a healthy environment serving as a wider social justice front planted seeds for the budding environmental movement. Months after his election, Stokes' director of public works, Ben Stefanski, persuaded Stokes to start a massive effort to clean-up the Cuyahoga River. Cleveland voters were asked to approve (that is, tax themselves) $100 million in bonds to improve existing facilities and build 25 miles of trunk-line sewers plus a modern sewage treatment plant. In an era when the U.S Federal Government was annually spending $185 million on pollution mitigation efforts for the entire country, Cleveland voters stepped up and approved the proposed bond by a 2-1 margin.

...we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
— Martin Luther King Jr. ("I have a Dream" speech)

Less than one year later the infamous '69 Cuyahoga River fire happened, that, along with the Santa Barbara oil spill, gave rise to an environmental movement that swept the country. We enjoy the fruits of that movement today and as more people bond with their natural resources as they use them, they also become ambassadors and engaged stewards of those same resources, willing to fight assaults on their continued health. So when you consider the global impact of the environmental movement, think back to Martin Luther King Jr. As he reminded us in his "I Have a Dream" speech, "...we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream." Amen!!!

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David Stradling on Mayor Carl Stokes' PR Efforts on Behalf of the Cuyahoga River

Stories on Martin Luther King Jr.'s Visits to Cleveland