Bruce Klunder is not likely to appear with the likes of Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in black history lessons or on the pages of grade-school social studies textbooks. Nor is his a household name when it comes to the Civil Rights Movement.
In fact, while Klunder gave his life in the struggle for blacks to receive a quality education, there has never been a book written about him. Until now.
Klunder was a 27-year-old white pastor who fought to integrate Cleveland schools in the 1960s. He was crushed by a bulldozer on April 7, 1964 while trying to stop construction of a segregated school in a black neighborhood.
Julian Madison, associate professor of history, has chronicled Klunder’s untimely death in his new book “A Death and Life Matter: Bruce Klunder and the Fight to Integrate Cleveland’s Schools, 1930-1964.”
Klunder is one of 40 civil rights leaders included in a Montgomery, Ala. memorial established by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but today his story is not widely known outside of Cleveland and his hometown of Baker City, Ore.
Madison, who specializes in black history and spent 10 years researching and writing the book, says he hopes that telling the largely forgotten story will inspire young African Americans to pursue their education.
“I find it very irritating – infuriating even – when I see so many black kids who do not value education, especially black males,” Madison says. “People like Klunder. . . fought to give them this opportunity to learn, but they don’t know the history and they don’t understand how difficult it was.”
Klunder’s death came after years of increasing racial tension in Cleveland over education. By the 1950s, Cleveland’s black population had grown while the white population declined, resulting in crowded schools in the city’s black neighborhoods and schools with empty classrooms in white neighborhoods, according to Madison.
Instead of integrating the schools to balance the enrollments, the school board’s solution was to educate black students in half-day shifts, while students in the white schools attended class full time, Madison explains.
Responding to pressure from black parents and activists, the school board eventually agreed to bus some black children to the emptier white schools. But to appease white parents, they were taught in separate classrooms and could not play on the playground or eat in the cafeteria, says Madison.
“They had to eat in their classrooms and take their garbage back with them to their own schools. They couldn’t use the garbage cans in these schools,” he says.
By 1963, the school board finally agreed to integrate the classrooms, but it never happened. Instead, a plan was announced to build three new elementary schools in the black community, Madison says.
“The schools themselves, for the most part, were not located in very good places,” says Madison, who notes that one was planned near a three-lane highway and another in a tight location where the only space for a playground was the roof — three stories up.
Klunder died while protesting construction of one of those schools, the Stephen E. Howe Elementary School.
In an act of civil disobedience, Klunder lay down behind a bulldozer while three other protestors positioned themselves in front. The driver, not seeing Klunder, backed up and ran him over while trying to avoid the protesters ahead of him. Klunder died instantly, leaving behind a wife and two children. The death was ruled an accident.
Madison, who grew up in Cleveland and whose activist parents had befriended Klunder, attended Klunder’s funeral as a 12-year-old.
Madison recalls that the arrangements were handled by a black funeral home and there was no hearse because people insisted on carrying the casket. During the four-mile procession from the funeral home to the church through the city’s mostly black Glenville area, people came out of their homes and crowded the streets to pay their respects.
“Some joined the march with the casket; others just watched,” he says. Malcolm X and civil rights’ leader James Farmer spoke at the service. “It was standing room only.”
Madison says the substandard education that black children received in the 1950s and ’60s continues to cause damage today, and points to it as one reason for the achievement gap that persists between African American and white students.
“You have generations of blacks who in essence were told that it’s not important to get an education,” Madison says. “Somehow psychologically that message has been passed on to future generations.”