Bruce Klunder 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 Rev. Bruce Klunder died protesting the construction of a segregated school in Cleveland, Ohio, in April 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.
Klunder’s story, like those of other Presbyterian leaders who worked for civil rights, is documented at the Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS).
It was during Klunder’s college career at Oregon State University — then known as Oregon Agricultural College (OAC) — that he first became aware of the bus boycotts protesting the inequities of Jim Crow segregation. Klunder began not only engaging in discussions about civil rights, but also fundraising in support of the boycotters.
He graduated from OAC with honors before enrolling at Yale Divinity School. After graduating in 1961, Klunder and his wife Joanne (whom he had wed in December 1956 while attending college), moved to Cleveland, where he was ordained into the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA).
Though his friends and family called him a quiet man, Klunder was very passionate. By 1964, he had made a name for himself in Cleveland because of his civil rights activities. Klunder was an active picketer, protestor and participant in sit-ins, and along with Joanne a founding member of the Cleveland chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Klunder frequently gave his voice and 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 approved the decision to build new schools, thereby promoting and reinforcing the pre-existing pattern of segregated enrollment trends often referred to as “de facto segregation,” Klunder and many others took action. Around 100 demonstrators arrived at the construction site, using their bodies to block progress. At the end of the day 21 were arrested, 2 injured and 1 killed — the Rev. Bruce Klunder. His death left Joanne a widow and their two children fatherless.
A New York Times article published the following day says that Klunder’s death was “the first in the current civil rights controversy in Ohio.” The article also tells us that the 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 8 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. The Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the UPCUSA, delivered the eulogy at Klunder’s funeral service, 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 staff members at the historical society to Klunder’s story.
“Although all of Cleveland is, I am sure, united in shock, revulsion, and sympathy at his death,” Blake said at the memorial service, “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.”
Blake goes on to offer a heartfelt 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 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 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.”
Joanne and the two Klunder children upheld Bruce’s legacy as they continued their activism, participating 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 built. Their construction garnered the exact results Klunder had been wary of: the reinforcing of de facto segregation within the school district. Though the demonstrations might have failed in preventing the schools from existing, their establishment was used as evidence in a 1973 lawsuit, Reed v. Rhodes, brought by the NAACP against the school district. The district was eventually forced to desegregate the schools, institute cross-town busing and make other improvements.
Today, Klunder’s memory is immortalized alongside that of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and 39 other civil rights martyrs on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, which was dedicated in 1989.
- “‘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.
- “Memorial dedicated to martyr Bruce Klunder,” published July 6, 2009, Baker City Herald.
This article first appeared as a Presbyterian Historical Society blog post.