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Issue Date: December 2011


Life According to the Rev. E. Theophilus Caviness

For 50 years, he has been the pastor of the historic Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, turning heads, eschewing convention and living an impressive life of civic, political and ministerial heft. As he readies to be enshrined at the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in Atlanta next month, we sat down with the Rev. Emmitt Theophilus Caviness to talk history, segregation, aging and what his five decades of work mean to the Glenville neighborhood where the street outside his church now bears his name.
Interview by Ronald E. Kisner

I can remember it as if it were just yesterday. There was a caricature of an iron bar on the outside wall of the city hall in Marshall, Texas, where I was born. On one side of the bar, the word "blacks" was inscribed. The other side read "whites." This separation indelibly impacted my mind. I recall thinking of how desperately I wanted to do something in life to destroy that bar of separation.

I really became committed to the ministry at 17 years of age. I made sure I got as much training and education as possible. I knew I had an inner calling, an irresistible force, a persistence to use every fiber of my being to help someone. My father, who made $55 a month as a church custodian, emptied his pockets so that I could enroll in Bishop College.

When I arrived in Glenville in 1961 with my wife and son, there was a pride throughout the community. Cleveland was highly populated with about 900,000 residents. I was coming to a large church with a prolific membership in a community surrounded by thriving businesses and organizations.

No one admired, appreciated or loved the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. more than I did. We were born in the same year. I came out of the same iron-fisted segregation that Martin did. I praised him but knew he couldn't do it all by himself.

When he came to Cleveland, so many people shied away from him. But he emulated what I had in my heart. I was part of an effort that raised more money for him in Cleveland, at the time, than in any other city. Because of Martin, I developed a fierce determination to share in his work. I keep on my desk a framed, autographed copy of Martin's Nobel Peace Prize program. He thanked me for all we had done for him in Cleveland. I took over the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference chapter to keep his dream alive.

Electing Carl B. Stokes for mayor was a huge success. The climate was so dangerous. A group of ministers had gone to City Hall to be heard and were put in jail. At a ministerial conference at Emmanuel Baptist Church on East 79th Street, I made the motion for ministers to back Stokes for mayor. Electing him the first African-American mayor of a major American city signaled to the rest of the world what was possible.

My idea then, and now, is that if you're going to save people, you must save them as a soul.

At the funeral of Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Lou Stokes exclaimed to President Obama sitting in the audience, "I never thought I'd live to see a black president — never in my wildest dreams. Thank you, Mr. President." I shared that sentiment.

Age has a way of creeping up on you — taking over. I tell my congregation I'm 59, not to try to deceive anyone. Age is always just a number. What really matters is what you do while you're here.

When I first learned that Gov. Kasich had not placed one minority in his cabinet, I approached labor leaders to help pay for buses that took a grass-roots team of folks to demonstrate in Columbus. It was the first time in a long time that labor and the civil rights movement merged.

Gov. Kasich never called after our protest.

If anything, I'm a republicrat. There is a streak of independence you must have. Anytime you've seen me in the political arena, I've been called upon to be there. My commitment is to God and people and doing what's right.

Money cannot be the object of your life. If you worship the dollar instead of God, you're on the wrong track.

Freedom is free, but you have to pay for its delivery.

Come back in 50 years, and I'll tell you what my 50th anniversary meant. I must say that the street sign in my name [Tacoma Avenue], an effort started by Marcia McCoy, spoke volumes of the vision my late wife and I had to work for the kingdom of God and to uplift mankind. I wanted to use my anniversary gifts to aid my scholarship fund that helps educate young people. I am far more comfortable giving than receiving.

Every day you write your own eulogy, your own story. Every minute of my life, I am trying to do something to help people. I want to be right with the Lord. My legacy will not be told in money or accolades but measured by real substance, altruism, self-sacrifice.

Let the work I've done speak for me.


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