Before black youth clashed with National Guard troops on Wooster Avenue in Akron, President Lyndon B. Johnson assembled a bipartisan commission to look into the deteriorating state of race relations in America, and why so many black communities were erupting into civil disobedience.

“Our nation is moving toward two societies,” the report stated. “One black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Black residents who lived through the week of riots describe an Akron where discrimination and segregation were the norm. The rioting, they say, was an awakening, a plea for someone to pay attention, a call for change.

In the decade that followed, federal programs boosted the quality of life for black America by attacking inner city poverty. It was part of Johnson’s mission to create the Great Society.

But by 1974 efforts like the Model Cities Program, which brought more than $3 million a year to Akron for everything from job training to day care, were ended.

Locally, though, progress on racial equality in Akron gave way to urban renewal programs that started in the 1960s and wiped out entire communities of color. New lines of federal funding for housing concentrated the poor as banks continued discriminatory lending practices.

Whites went to the suburbs as blacks moved into their old neighborhoods. And the rubber industry that fueled unprecedented growth began to collapse, taking with it the jobs, wages and taxes that allow a city to provide a level playing field for all residents.

No local blame

Blacks who lived through all this don’t blame local politicians for the stalled progress.

“If the city continues to welcome input and leadership from the black community, as it does under [Mayor] Dan Horrigan, it will heal,” said John Roberts, who led a group of Wooster Avenue area residents that negotiated with city leaders for a peaceful end to the riots.

“It’s hard to judge [city leaders] because I know they want what I want,” said the Rev. Benjamin Drone of Faith Temple Church of the Living God.

In the same breath, Drone laments divisions that have resurfaced along racial lines in America. “It seems like the line is being drawn again,” he said, using the assault on affirmative action as an example of moving back toward the wrong side of history. “It feels like the strides that were made [since the riots] are in reverse.”

Drone and others in Akron’s black communities want to see more black workers rebuilding the city’s roads, bridges, schools and sewers, more apprenticeship programs, better educational options, loans for small-business owners and other opportunities that came without question in the past, for some.

For the next generation of black leaders, the grievances that led to the Akron riots of July 1968 track the most pressing problems today. Communities of color in Akron are still struggling for access to decent jobs, safe housing and equal educational experiences.

“We’ve been fighting for these things since 1968,” said Ray Greene Jr., a minister and civil rights advocate with the Akron Organizing Collaborative, which is working on the same education, health, criminal justice and housing campaigns that drove civil rights leaders 50 years ago.

Reasons for riots

Only hours after the rioting began in the early morning hours of July 18, 1968, the leaders of Akron’s black churches, businesses and communities started pressing Mayor John Ballard to launch a full investigation that would identify the reasons for the unrest.

The Akron Civil Commission on Disorders formed three days after the riots ended July 23 and by April had issued 47 pages of conclusions and recommendations, called the Lively report after Edwin Lively, a sociologist at the University of Akron who chaired the mayor-appointed commission.

The commission relied on hundreds of hours of testimony from residents, both black and white, before summarizing the injustices and inequities leading an entire community to lash out:

• Trash collectors made once-a-year trips to inadequately lit and rarely cleaned streets in some communities of color.

• The city’s per capita spending on parks and recreation, made through a board that lacked black voices, was 12 percent the nationally recommended level.

• Though black communities showed support for law enforcement levies, the city’s police force was 97 percent white and rife with allegations of discrimination.

• Small businesses lacked, or ignored, fair employment practices. City contracts didn’t require nondiscrimination pledges.

• About two-thirds of black residents lived in a quarter of the city, mostly in “ghettoes.”

• Banks considered communities of color too risky for home and business loans. Though Akron appointed a Housing Commission shortly after the riots, lax enforcement of housing codes perpetuated subpar living standards in low-income neighborhoods.

• And education was described as more of a privilege than a right. “Segregation does exist in the City of Akron and de facto segregation exists in the schools,” the report said.

Racial mixing

At the time of the riots, Akron’s neighborhoods were starting to mix racially.

West Akron, West Hill, even Edgewood Homes were all or mostly white. As black families moved up West Hill, which they called Sugar Hill, then across Rhodes Avenue and Diagonal Road, then down Copley Road and north of Delia Avenue, white families receded to the suburbs.

“They just didn’t want to live next to black people. It’s that simple,” said Drone, who taught most of his career at Buchtel High School.

Drone grew up in the projects, in what he and others remember as matchbox houses because of the thin cardboard walls. But despite the subpar living conditions, “everyone knew one another,” said Drone.

And because of the plentiful jobs, the “projects were only temporary back then.”

Urban renewal

In the years following the riots, massive infrastructure projects conceptualized in the 1960s reshaped traffic patterns in Akron, making it easier for suburban commuters to get to and from good-paying jobs downtown.

But the public works destroyed a sense of community as entire neighborhoods of blacks were displaced. They were cut off from the city’s economic engine as commerce and retail gradually shifted with whites to suburban malls and shopping centers.

“We wiped out those African-American neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal,” said Dave Lieberth, who later served as chief of staff to Mayor Don Plusquellic. “Probably a dozen black neighborhoods that were intact were practically destroyed.”

The biggest culprit, at least locally, was the Akron Innerbelt, which sliced through rows of businesses and homes along Wooster Avenue where the heaviest rioting transpired.

“I believe that was a result of the riots,” said Ronald Smith, a longtime resident of the Lane-Wooster neighborhood who moved as the city began planning and buying up private property for the new highway.

No one has ever said the highway — or the interstate that isolated Summit Lake to the south — was developed to punish a black neighborhood, but that’s the impression of many who lived there.

“They’ll never tell the truth,” Smith said.

The highway is now being demolished to reconnect the near west side to downtown.

Policing diversity

What made the riots worse, and what the Lively report cited as an area to improve, was the abundance of white police officers who clashed with black youth.

The Akron Police Department made great strides to recruit and hire blacks in the 25 years after the riots. But that effort appears to have slipped in the past 25 years as contemporary civil rights leaders threaten lawsuits to remind the city of its commitment to diversity.

With only 12 black officers in 1968, African-American representation on the city’s police force jumped from 3 percent in 1968 to 25 percent in 1993 before falling to 19 percent today.

The progress wasn’t always voluntary. Four years after the riots, white police officers shot and killed two unarmed blacks, including Saul E. Link, a 15-year-old struck in the back while running away. The killings infuriated the black community as youth looted and burned again, this time for a night.

Attorney Ed Parms sued Akron that year, in 1972, for the lack of racial diversity in the police force. The NAACP sued the fire department for the same reason, winning a judgment that would require one black firefighter to be hired for every two whites.

With the ranks of minorities slipping again, Akron attorney Ed Gilbert has sent the city a letter reminding leaders of the court order demand for racial diversity. “We received absolutely no response,” said Gilbert, who asked to meet with the city and is mounting legal action. “We’re back to square one. So we’ll have to roll up our sleeves and get with it again.”

Gilbert said his next step is to pull together the statistics and file a civil lawsuit akin to the one that exacted change nearly 50 years ago.

Horrigan’s staff said the mayor is taking diversity in hiring seriously.

“He [Horrigan] knows well the challenges and importance of creating a police department with personnel that reflects the community we serve,” city spokeswoman Ellen Lander Nischt said, adding that the mayor’s office has been in contact with Gilbert “about the issues he raises in his letter.”

Nischt said city administrators have been working to develop new hiring and recruiting strategies.

“It’s a historic challenge but one that requires and deserves fresh approaches and continued dedication,” she said.

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.