HCC legacy can guide us
In February 1972, community activist Doris Allen called a community meeting after a fight at our newly integrating high school injured several students, including her son. At the meeting, Superintendent David Moberly asked the community for help. “Schools can’t fight racism alone,” he said. By naming the problem as racism and calling for a community remedy, Moberly prompted a dozen Catholic and Jewish activists to join with Heights High principal James O’Toole to organize. Their solution was to create the Heights Community Congress (HCC).
HCC was incorporated on Jan. 1, 1973. After 50 years of groundbreaking activism, it closed its doors on March 1, leaving behind a substantial legacy.
The response to the fight at Heights High put the school district on a path that focuses on educational equity and racial equality, and it put the community in the middle of advancing fair housing and racial respect.
The new organization was a coalition of neighborhood groups, civic and religious organizations, city government and the school district. Its purpose was to mobilize the whole community to fight racism, advance equity and inclusion, and protect racial integration. HCC took aim at racism and kicked it hard. Refusing to be silent, it documented discrimination in lending practices and used that evidence to change federal laws.
HCC formed a housing service to promote homeownership to anyone interested in living in Cleveland Heights. When realtors continued to undermine integration with racial steering, it confronted the real estate industry and tested the limits of fair-housing law, winning a landmark civil rights case.
It organized residents in every neighborhood and fostered street clubs—the bread and butter of community engagement, problem solving and relationship building. HCC also organized a variety of working groups, including a commission on aging and a landlord-tenant task force, and pushed hard for city policies to protect the housing stock. The organization’s annual house and garden tour raised money for the organization and improved the community’s reputation.
HCC urged all of us to examine our inherited attitudes and behavior related to race and relationships. In doing so, it helped create a standard for civic engagement that, along with our enduring racial diversity, is a strength of our community and part of our identity. HCC provided a foundation upon which we can continue to find new ways to attack all the ways race is baked into the institutions and opportunity structures that define life chances.
Racialization, as we know, is stubborn and has a way of showing up in new forms. It is still alive and is now having an unsettling resurgence in state and national politics. The fight against racial disparities is also having a resurgence with Black Lives Matter and concern among some corporate, religious and independent organizations about the contributions they need to make toward diversity, equity and inclusion.
Cleveland Heights has a unique place in our nation as a rare example of a sustainable integrated community. I am grateful to the HCC and our community elders. Because of them, we did not resegregate within five years of racial change—the predicted outcome in 1970. As we face the 21st-century challenges of inequality in an aging first-ring suburb, in a state where political leaders are retreating from any form of commitment to the well-being of others and are gaining political advantage by promoting hate, we have to find the new form of the HCC.
We may not be able to uproot all aspects of racism for this generation, but we can reject them. We can speak up, organize, use the law, build individual awareness, mobilize and keep our community strong.
Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights, and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. A community booster, she is the author of a book about local activism, Resisting Segregation.