CLEVELAND, OH – Armond Budish didn’t show up to receive the humanitarian award from Rev. E. Theophilis Caviness’ local Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) chapter that it cost him $5000 in campaign donations to buy. Caviness’ “award for cash” civil rights honor to Budish was seen as a political move and wrong by Euclid NAACP chapter President Cassandra McDonald so she wrote him a polite letter with a request that he reconsider.
Caviness wrote back a two-page indignant response. The first page identified his own biography and inserted his sole connection to Rev. King. He met the younger pastor in East Saint Louis, Illinois before this writer’s uncle, the late Beatrice Wilson, interviewed him in 1961 for the job he now holds as pastor of Greater Abysinnia Baptist Church.
The second page was a “word for word” list of accomplishments lifted from Budish’s campaign website and cynically inserted in his response as the “homework” he’d done to support his reason for the award.
Caviness then took issue with being called out by McDonald. He shared that he had served as the Cleveland NAACP chapter’s vice president and promised to complain to the NAACP national organization’s headquarters about her letter.
It wasn’t the first time the younger civil rights leader had been threatened with a complaint for being more hard core about civil rights by an older civil rights leader. Ever since she sought to open the Euclid NAACP chapter she’s been attacked for daring to challenge the Cleveland NAACP chapter’s existence as the only one in Cuyahoga County. Unlike every other county in the nation where the chapters in larger cities, suburbs and on college campuses operate separate from each other; Cleveland’s NAACP chapter “bosses” think they should operate the only NAACP.
Caviness called himself instructing McDonald on how Rev. King negotiated without realizing it was exactly what she had done. She alerted him to a problem. She offered a reconciliation in the form of a reconsideration. When Caviness rejected her reconsideration request McDonald and activists representing 16 other organizations staged a protest at the church to publicly express their displeasure with Budish’s paid humanitarian award from the Cleveland chapter of the organization Rev. King once led.
Budish is the county executive whose administration has come under a federal corruption investigation and whose appointees over the county’s jails have managed them to the point they’re now seen as deadly. Former Cleveland NAACP chapter President Michael Nelson, now a municipal court judge, last year refused to send defendants he sentenced to the facility.
McDonald and other other activists at the public information sharing session on a sidewalk in front of Greater Abysinnia made note of how children in county custody are dying under Budish; and how his administration is engaging in neighborhood busting foreclosure practices for back taxes owed to third party tax lien buyers. The practices have stripped thousands of homeowners, predominantly black, of their homes. McDonald and other civil rights activists didn’t think the word “humanitarian” was appropriately associated with Jewish county politician Caviness had backed, twice.
Caviness led a group of fur-hatted black male preachers in 2014 to oppose former State Senator Shirley Smith’s campaign to replace disgraced ex-county executive Ed Fitzgerald with Budish. It wasn’t the first time the so-called “civil rights” leader led black clergy and the civil rights organizations he controlled to support white over better-qualified black candidates like Smith.
For the last nearly 20 years Caviness led the SCLC and simultaneously served on the Cleveland NAACP chapter’s board. He served as the NAACP’s vice president while his associate pastor, Hilton Smith, led that organization as president and he controlled the SCLC. Both civil rights organizations were heavily-under Caviness’ influence. He used them for his political advantage to get “jobs, contracts and board appointments” from the politicians he endorsed for family, friends and congregation members.
It was the “black plan” he got a chance to begin promoting hard core back in 1977 when he beat Rev. John T. Weeden to takeover the Baptist Ministerial Alliance. Caviness wanted to give white politicians access to black churches and voters in exchange for deals he and other clergy negotiated that they thought “the black community” wanted.
Weeden and the city’s longer-established black clergy saw the Caviness “inferiority” deals as begging and weakening the black vote. Black people wouldn’t know who to support when they competed against black candidates; and those lessons had been learned from the mistakes made during the 1973 mayor’s race that pitted Arnold Pinkney and Rev. Alfred Waller against each other to replace Carl Stokes. In that campaign Caviness supported Pinkney because he claimed members of the clergy didn’t belong in politics. At the time he was serving a 5-year term on the zoning board he’d been politically-appointed to chair by Stokes in 1970.
The next year in 1974 Caviness lobbied members of Cleveland city council to let him replace Sidney Frost who’d quit to accept a job with the newly-created Ohio Lottery Commission. Politics was okay for preachers as long as it was Caviness.
Caviness got the appointment to complete Frost’s two year term and then ran for the job in 1975 and won against Andrew Munford. Munford described Caviness as not having time for the ward. Caviness served a single elected term between 1978 and 1979 after his 1974 appointment and lost to Andrew Wright.
Caviness’ years on council resulted in his being identified among 9 members of council who a Plain Dealer reporter hounded over allegations they were getting $100 each to sign a carnival operator’s permits. Mayor Dennis Kucinich back then assigned 26 Cleveland cops to investigate George Forbes, who’d become council president in 1974, along with 9 others including Caviness.
Caviness’ name was dropped from the investigation in 1977 and he emerged in 1978 as a potential Forbes challenger after the Plain Dealer’s “Ken Johnson-like” hit pieces were thought to have demoralized him to the point of resigning. Basil Russo was openly campaigning to replace Forbes as council president and he wasn’t a Kucinich team player. Caviness was seen as more controllable so once he got five councilmen to back him Kucinich threw councilmen he controlled behind him. Their plans blew up when Judge Edward McGettrick dismissed the charges against Forbes and the others and he returned to lead council.
A 1978 recall targeted Kucinich for retaliation and Caviness was forced to back it for “black solidarity.” His voice, however, wasn’t as loud because his daughter-in-law worked for Kucinich as an aide. This writer was a Call & Post employee at the time and was assigned the task by William O. Walker of laying out the “hit piece” he created to attack Kucinich. The 50,000 circulation tabloid newspaper distributed throughout the city featured a sneering picture of Kucinich’s head over a skull and crossbones.
After losing to Wright, Caviness was given a $20,000 a year job as a liaison to George Voinovich who beat the politically-weakened Kucinich in the 1979 mayoral primary a year after he survived the damaging 1978 recall.
Through the years the civil rights issues McDonald and other younger activsts are now addressing were never addressed by either organization if they conflicted with Caviness’ political agenda. The effect of Voinovich’s years over the Cleveland police department while Caviness worked as his council liaison are only now starting to surface.
Black men are being released from prison after decades for crimes they did not commit after the Cleveland cops Caviness’ boss supervised worked with racist prosecutor John T. Corrigan’s racist lawyers to fabricate evidence against them. Caviness was a Voinovich employee when he allowed chief of police Howard Rudolph to control drug dealers Arthur Fecker and Leonard Brooks while they distributed more than $600,000 worth of crack to poor black CMHA residents near Woodhill Estates to raise money for a drug buy in Florida. All for bragging rights at a police convention.
As Voinovich, an opponent of fair housing, sought to fund the housing court in 1980 that Kucinich envisioned would single-handedly prosecute the housing violations council had criminalized, Caviness couldn’t criticize his boss even while wearing a civil rights leader’s “titles.” It was the same when he followed Voinovich to Columbus and got an appointment to chair Ohio’s Civil Rights Commission.
The type of civil rights policy changes King sought to implement in Cleveland with his trips to the North never materialized here in part because of Caviness’ style and emerging political voice. In East Saint Louis, Caviness was a young pastor trying to make a name for himself with a brand of politics that didn’t fit the consciousness of that city’s black community.
East Saint Louis’ leading black political families, like the Nash’s who’d lived through the 1917 anti-black riots, were operating along the same political dynamics as the “majority rule” Haitians led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. Caviness’ black plan is conceived in racial inferiority and fails to consider that Cleveland’s nearly 400,000 black residents voting in solidarity could elect any candidate they wanted in a county with a 1.1 million population. East Saint Louis’ black population in the 1960’s had exceeded 50 percent and the long-time families realized all of the city’s elected offices were within their reach.
The city’s black residents had been guided in part by information legendary dancer Katherine Dunham would bring back from her frequent trips to Haiti where she also lived. East Saint Louis residents were also influenced heavily by Dr. Leroy Bundy, a dentist who lived between there and Cleveland. Bundy was prosecuted in Cleveland for “allegedly” delivering weapons to black East Saint Louis men to protect themselves during the city’s 1917 anti-black riots. Caviness consciousness of racial inferiority and cutting deals with white politicians didn’t fit in with East Saint Louis’ black politicians. It’s an attitude that has weakened Cleveland’s civil rights movement and black political progress.
The NAACP “brand” Caviness referenced in his letter to McDonald was one his political deal-making has helped destroy. Serious people walked away from the Cleveland NAACP chapter after George Forbes left as president and “the preachers took over” as he called them. The organization’s already-tattered image grew worse as Caviness used it to back his “black plans.” It was the same failed game he’d been pushing since he ousted Rev. John T. Weeden as head of the Baptist Ministers Conference in 1977.
The Cleveland NAACP, like the chapters in Los Angeles, New York, Detroit and other big U.S. cities were used by chapter leaders to accept cash from corporate civil rights offenders who wanted to create the illusion they were okay with black people by paying off their civil rights organizations. It was a tactic that made them irrelevant and distrusted.
As an example, the Cleveland NAACP chapter endorsed Dan Gilbert’s request for $280 million to renovate the Quicken Loans Arena, but exacted no guarantee from Quicken Loans that it would stop redlining black homebuyers seeking homes in predominantly black neighborhoods. The organization accepted a $25,000 check from Gilbert for its Freedom Fund Dinner. The Detroit NAACP chapter was paid $250,000 and like Cleveland got no anti-redlining commitment from Gilbert.
Nationally, the NAACP has never sought to file a class action complaint against any mortgage lender for an obvious racist practice.
McDonald by focusing on civil rights is challenging and looking to break up the selfish dealmaking Caviness’ civil rights tactics has used to enrich himself and others at the expense of “the black community” whose rights he should have been defending.
Two years after Caviness took over the Baptist Ministers Conference Artha Woods, the late Ward 6 councilwoman, complained about the number of politicians stomping through the churches and disrupting services in 1979. She complained to the Call & Post’s W.O. Walker that the practice was disrespectful and diluting the black vote.
Caviness has no justifiable reason to submit a letter of complaint to the national NAACP about McDonald’s decision to join with other civil rights leaders who stood outside his church and questioned his judgement and award to Budish.