Unearthing Our Collections: The Story of Rev. Bruce Klunder | Presbyterian Historical Society

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Unearthing Our Collections: The Story of Rev. Bruce Klunder

August 1, 2023
Photograph of Bruce Klunder, undated, courtesy of Wikipedia. Background image: The Oneonta Star (NY), April 8, 1964 edition, courtesy of Newspapers.com.

Bruce Klunder (July 12, 1937-April 7, 1964) became aware of the civil rights movement when he was 18 years old. At the young age of 26, he lost his life fighting for that same cause.

The Reverend Bruce Klunder died protesting the construction of a segregated school in Cleveland, Ohio, in April of 1964. During the protest, several other activists used their bodies as blockades, throwing themselves on the ground to block a bulldozer’s path. As the driver backed away from them, he drove over Klunder, who had laid down behind the machine. Klunder’s death was ultimately ruled an accident, but it served as a turning point in the fight against Jim Crow segregation, polarizing the Cleveland community and inspiring others to join the discussion.

It was during his college career at Oregon State University—then known as Oregon Agricultural College (OAC)—that Klunder first became aware of the bus boycotts and the inequities of Jim Crow segregation. Klunder began not only engaging in discussions about civil rights issues, but also fundraising in support of the boycotters.

Klunder graduated from OAC with honors before enrolling at Yale Divinity School. After graduating in 1961, he and his wife, Joanne (whom he had wed in December 1956 while attending college), moved to Cleveland. There, he was ordained into the UPCUSA.

Though his friends and family labeled him as a quiet man, he was very passionate. By 1964, he made a name for himself in Cleveland because of his his civil rights activities. Klunder was an active picketer, protestor, and participant in sit-ins. He and Joanne were founding members of the Cleveland chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Klunder frequently gave his voice and his time to demonstrating against housing and hiring inequalities, as well as racially segregated organizations, public buildings, and schools.

After learning that the Cleveland City School District had passed the decision to build new schools—promoting and reinforcing the pre-existing pattern of segregated enrollment trends often referred to as “de facto” segregation—Klunder and many others leapt to action. Around 100 demonstrators arrived at the construction site, using their bodies to block progress. At the end of the day, 21 folks were arrested, 2 were injured, and 1 had died—the Reverend Bruce Klunder. His wife left a widow, his two children fatherless.

The Oneonta Star (NY), April 8, 1964 edition, courtesy of Newspapers.com.

A New York Times article published the following day says that the death of Rev. Klunder was “the first in the current civil rights controversy in Ohio.” The article tells us that the April 8th demonstration “was the second big one here in recent weeks in the school controversy,” and that just the day before, 20 people had been arrested on the same site.

According to the April 8th edition of The Oneonta Star, Klunder’s death “touched off rock-throwing, car-smashing disorders by a crowd which at nightfall numbered about 3,500…At least seven injuries were reported, along with 22 arrests, when darkness came.”

A silent memorial was held the day following Klunder’s death in front of the Board of Education Building in downtown Cleveland. Eugene Carson Blake, the stated clerk of the UPCUSA at the time, delivered the eulogy at the funeral service for Klunder, which 1,500 people attended. Within PHS’s archives lives a copy of Blake’s speech—the discovery of this two-page document is what introduced us to the story of Rev. Bruce Klunder.

Rev. Bruce William Klunder memorial address by Eugene Carson Blake, 1964. islandora:344177

“Although all of Cleveland is, I am sure, united in shock, revulsion, and sympathy at his death,” Blake said at the memorial service that day, “it is not possible to mourn Bruce Klunder as if we were unaware of the issues of the battle in which he laid down his life.” He is, of course, referring to the civil rights movement, the fight for racial justice and equality that characterized the decade.

Blake goes on to offer a heartfelt, sincere, and passionate speech about Klunder’s role in “a national contest still undecided…a civil war, not as it was one hundred years ago between sections of the nation, but neighbor against neighbor.” In this “war,” Klunder was a valiant soldier—one who fought for his community, his fellow humans, with all that he had. One who laid down his life for the future success of the rest of his troop.

Blake praises Klunder, saying that “he was one of those ministers of the church who had joined up, responding to the call of Jesus Christ, refusing to be in the national crisis to stand safe and eloquent behind a pulpit.”

The eulogy ends with a benediction of hopefulness. “Out of this sacrifice there must arise new unity and dedication of the whole community to the new pattern of justice which this day demands,” Blake said. “Once more let death mark a new beginning.”

Klunder’s family—his wife and two children—upheld his legacy as they continued their activism. Joanne and the children participated in civil rights demonstrations, school board picketing, and Vietnam War protests.

The schools that Klunder and his fellow demonstrators were opposing on April 7, 1964, were still—eventually—built. Their construction garnered the exact results Klunder had been wary of: the reinforcing of de facto segregation within the school district. Though their demonstrations might have failed in preventing the schools from existing, the attention drawn to the area’s educational discrepancies led to their establishment being used as evidence in a 1973 lawsuit, Reed v. Rhodes, brought in by the NAACP against the school district. The district was forced to desegregate the schools, institute cross-town busing, and make other improvements.

Today, Klunder’s memory is immortalized alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and 39 other civil rights martyrs on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, that was dedicated in 1989.

Image of Klunder’s name on the Montgomery Civil Rights Memorial, courtesy of Teaching Cleveland.

Further Reading

  • “’Pivot Point’: SPLC Celebrates Life of Minister Killed During Civil Rights Protest,” published April 21, 2023, splcenter.org.
  • “It Happened Here: Bruce Klunder Becomes a Martyr Fighting Segregated Schools,” published February 26, 2023, Teaching Cleveland.