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Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River Fire — 50 Years Later

By Laife Janovyak

50 years ago, the Cuyahoga River suffered its final industrial river fire, and the nation read about it in Time Magazine. Out of this depiction, a deeply negative regional identity was born, one that stubbornly clings to Cleveland regardless of its historical half-truthfulness. Despite the reality that the same thing happens on industrial rivers elsewhere then and now, and that the blaze was nowhere near the first or even the largest fire to burn on the Cuyahoga, Cleveland became known as “the mistake on the lake.” Ask just about anyone who grew up in America what they know about Cleveland and sooner or later they will repeat the tired phrase. Ask them for details and very few will have an answer beyond “the fire.” The vivid image of water lit on fire understandably stuck in everybody’s imagination and came to be synonymous with the city. So total is this association that half a century later it’s not uncommon for Clevelanders themselves to anchor their own identity to that fire.

A more thoughtful examination reveals a much brighter legacy flowing from the episode, one of hope for a sustainable future and agile leadership. But a more honest examination is also more difficult to confront because it requires recognition of the fact that racism is central to this story and how it has been told. The real story of the final Cuyahoga River fire offers a glimpse of some entrenched structural racism and, importantly, it shows the way that nimble leadership can channel such obstacles into lasting change.

The real legacy of “the fire” is the Stokes’ leadership when responding to it. The brothers from Cleveland each had long and distinguished careers. Their work includes important civil rights, voting rights, and broad social justice gains. Each of the brothers served their community in various roles over many years. This examination will focus only on a small fraction of their groundbreaking careers. The fire burned during Carl Stokes’ first term serving as mayor of Cleveland and Louis Stokes’ first term representing Ohio’s 21st Congressional District. Their coordinated response offers an ideal model of effective problem solving. Together, they skillfully applied a kind of cultural Kungfu to the biased system effectively folding that system’s own power back upon itself.

The history of Cleveland’s first Black mayor, Carl Stokes, is a also success story about healing environmental disaster. “With the indispensable assistance of his brother, Congressman Louis Stokes, the Environmental Protection Agency was established and the Clean Water Act signed into law by President Richard Nixon,” says Dr. Michael Wm. Doyle, Assoc. Prof. of History at Ball State University. Half a century later, these policies are still among the most meaningful environmental protections the United States as ever put in place, a legacy to study and carry into the next phase of environmental history.

Un-Whitewashing the History

If a white man had been mayor of Cleveland in 1969, America might never have learned about the city’s badly polluted river. But in 1967, in his second bid for city leadership, Carl Stokes had been elected. As the first Black mayor of a major American city, the curious national press followed him closely. Consequently, in 1969, some news outlets chose to highlight the unseemly bit of industrial city management. This unflattering treatment by the press reveals an aspect of the racism that’s part of the structure of the American news industry. By the late sixties, fires on the Cuyahoga had happened enough times to be unremarkable locally and the final fire was so small that the image TIME chose to publish with the piece actually came from a fire that had burned over a decade earlier, not the 1969 blaze. To call attention to an event that had been passed over by the national press a dozen times before raises the question of why they chose to cover this fire. The answer boils down to: racism. Under a more conventional (white) mayor, an industrial river fire was not news; under a Black mayor, it was. Stokes chose to use that bias to elevate his message in order to solve problems for Cleveland.

The fire burned on June 22, 1969. It lasted about 30 minutes and did relatively little damage. As Prof. Doyle noted, the next day, Mayor Stokes held a “walking” press conference at the bank of the river with the reporters and photographers in town, so effectively turning that racial bias into a tool of communication. Prof. Doyle adds, “Mayor Stokes showed true leadership by confronting the root causes of the 1969 fire instead of shifting the blame to his predecessors or ignoring the latest eco-crisis in the expectation that the public’s attention would wane as it had with a dozen earlier riverine combustions.”

Dennis Hayes, coordinator of the first Earth Day and CEO of the greenest commercial building in the world, The Bullitt Center, recalls, “Carl became a strong proponent of clean water… and Louis got on the powerful Appropriations Committee at the start of the wave of new environmental laws. He was a strong supporter of keeping environmental projects, including expensive sewage treatment plants, fully funded.”

Environmental historian Adam Rome offers another window into the racism faced by Mayor Stokes in his book, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation. Rome paints a picture of a man experiencing what sounds like the double consciousness shared by all oppressed people. White observers may have been seeing such complexity for the first time. “He [Stokes] knew that pollution was a serious problem. In his first campaign, he had promised to do more than his predecessor to clean up the city’s air and water, and he had. But he was convinced that many inner-city residents had more pressing problems than pollution.” Some have used this bit of the history to question Stokes’ support for environmental issues, but Rome frames it differently quoting Stokes directly, “‘We’re supporting this, but I am fearful that the priorities on air and water pollution may be at the expense of what the priorities of this country ought to be—proper housing, adequate food and clothing.’”

A realistic interpretation of the history must include consideration of the systemic racial bias that was part of Stokes’ daily reality. Seen in that light, Mayor Stokes can be understood as an adept advocate for environmental protection who also insisted on keeping broader social justice and environmental justice issues in mind. Even when unfairly cast to represent the struggles of a polluted industrial American city to a much whiter national audience, he delivered major positive outcomes. He did what was necessary; he marshalled the message, took decisive action, and set in motion our nation’s greatest ever leap forward in environmental protection.

Rome shows that Stokes worried about the persistent, underlying issues facing his city’s residents beyond any novel interest in ecological issues then becoming more widespread among white people. “The ecology issue had more ‘glamour’ than poverty, especially for residents of the suburbs, Stokes argued, but insuring that children were not stunted in their physical and mental development had a greater claim to the city’s discretionary funds.” To the modern reader, this sounds like what it probably was, a minority leader’s deep understanding of the entrenched problems that did then and still today hit communities of color and other marginalized communities “worst and first,” and his desire to go beyond the momentary crisis to solve underlying problems.

And yet most Clevelanders would never know that. Somehow both Carl Stokes and Louis Stokes have been dropped from the mainstream narrative. And when the main characters and their actions are scrubbed from the record, we are left with: the fire, the river that burned, and the mistake on the lake.

The Stokes Brothers’ Use of Image

Images hold special power to move people. The Vietnam War was understood differently than any of the wars before it precisely because images (and footage in many cases) were such compelling narrators of the story. Only a few years after the river fire in Cleveland, photographer Nick Ut's photograph of Kim Phúc running naked from a napalm attack became one of the most powerful images of the Vietnam War. The image was emblematic and it helped Americans see and better understand what their government was doing to people and the natural environment in faraway Vietnam. A similar phenomenon is at play in the more recent video of the sea turtle with a straw lodged in its nostril, an image powerful enough to move individuals, communities, and even corporations to stop using plastic straws. The image and the idea of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire worked in much the same way to animate concern for the environment in groundbreaking new ways. The event is said to have “set the stage” for the modern environmental movement.

The fire coincided with growing national awareness and alarm around industrial pollution of America’s waterways. It was just one more jarring environmental disaster that focused concerns already in the minds of Americans—along with the presence of lead in paint and gasoline, reckless nuclear testing, widespread use of toxic chemicals like DDT (used domestically and abroad in Vietnam) and other issues that were gaining attention. The summer of 1969 was a turning point for the national conversation around environmental protection. “Consciousness of the need to address widespread despoilment of the environment began to swell in response to the calamitous Santa Barbara oil spill in the opening months of that same year,” Prof. Doyle says. “Mayor Stokes capitalized on this sensibility by holding a press conference at the site on June 23rd and then traveling to Washington to testify before Congress demanding action.” He took that awful image of his own city and he channeled it into action. Bearing the burden of becoming the emblem of environmental disaster, he took his case to Washington and advocated before congress.

The horrifying image of a river on fire turned out to be key, regardless of the fact that the image was not technically from the fire in question. The idea hit the public at just the right time to spur action. “In 1969 there was a ripeness and a receptivity,” explained Hayes on a recent visit to Cleveland, “coupled with the fact that water isn’t supposed to burn.”

The River Then and Now

            Back when the final fire burned on the Cuyahoga, people said that rather than flowing, the river oozed. It was an oil slick and a garbage dump and it hosted virtually no life. Last summer I kayaked a section of the river and saw fish, insects, and birds galore. I had begun really thinking about the legacy of the final river fire because of another experience I had on the water last summer.

In June of last year, I decided to try standup paddle boarding for the first time. I signed up for a yoga/SUP class with a local group and found myself bobbing around uncertainly in the water of Lake Erie, at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. It was me and a bunch of other local women. The woman leading the adventure taught us how to maneuver on our boards and let us explore the area. We saw birds and boaters and a couple of people fishing from the shore. After a while, our guide had us space our boards and drop anchors. Then, breathing in the pleasant air, we had a yoga session out on the water. It was amazing. My field of vision was filled with images of green shoreline, blue waterline, and open sky.

            During the final moments of that wonderful class, in child’s pose, with my face down at water level, I began to appreciate the history of the lake and the river. Our teacher’s voice floated across the water to me, explaining that 49 years ago almost exactly, this very water was so filthy that not only did it fail to support life, but it caught fire. She explained that it was the work of dedicated environmentalists who put in place clean water standards that allowed the river to rebound. We had them to thank, she taught. She said that it was because of that history that we have the EPA and the Clean Water Act.©2018 Lisa Meranti. Yoga at the mouth of the river on lake Erie.

Such impressive claims about my humble city’s chapter in environmental history piqued my curiosity and made me feel connected to the environment around me in a new way. I didn’t know it at the time, but that teacher, Lisa Meranti, had moved to the Cleveland area from her home state on the east coast some 15 years prior because of the legacy of the Stokes brothers. An environmentalist from the time she learned about climate change in the 5th grade, this passionate outdoor educator wants to live and work in the place where the environmental movement began. And as she teaches meditation, yoga, and all manner of outdoor activities, she also teaches our history to all who will listen, including me. When I got her on the phone for an interview sometime later—where she was representing the Cleveland Metroparks at a national citizen science conference—Meranti explained, “My thing is to stay grounded in the work that we’ve done.”

The Real Legacy

I was born in Cleveland. I too, internalized the idea that my birthplace was some sort of environmental mistake on the shallowest great lake, until I dove deeper into the history last summer. Now I can see that we’ve basically been told the wrong story, and it’s time for a fresh take on the lake.

Firstly, Mayor Carl Stokes and Congressman Louis Stokes are at the center of this history and it’s their legacy that we enjoy today. It’s time to put the Stokes brothers back into the story, lift it up high, and build on what it gives us.

Secondly, effective use of image is critical in our communication attempts. Carl Stokes used the bias against him to amplify his message through savvy use of image that coincided with public awareness. In an age of hashtags and Instagrammable moments, this is something every one of us as well as our leaders can do.

Thirdly, the critical role of money and policy—two sides of arguably the most important coin—were undeniable for making change. When Congressman Stokes got on the Appropriations Committee, he was able to follow the message so effectively carried by his brother with resources to address the crisis. Congress followed not only with monetary resources but also with strong environmental policy. Strong environmental policy works. The Cuyahoga River today is evidence of that.

In short, the real legacy of the Cuyahoga River fire is how the Stokes Brothers responded when it happened on their watch, and if offers a pretty specific model for us to follow. Their legacy can be found in the strongest environmental legislation passed in the United States to this day; it’s the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, the environmental movement itself, and it’s our crooked river flowing, full of life.

If we start telling the story right, we might just unexpectedly make the next green generation.

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