The seed for The City Club of Cleveland was planted in June 1912 when Mayo Fesler, secretary of the Municipal Association, and Western Reserve University professor Augustus Hatton invited a group of civic-minded young men to discuss the possibility of a city club in Cleveland. Throughout the Progressive Era, citizens organized city clubs in many major cities—New York, Chicago, Boston, St. Louis and many others who, similar to Cleveland, had a citizenry that cared about improving municipal governance and strengthening the community. Fesler and Hatton believed a city club would help Cleveland citizens find solutions to some of the problems vexing the city. Six weeks later, the committee formed to investigate the idea reported: “A city club will furnish a meeting place for men of all shades of opinion, political beliefs, and social relations,” adding that “accurate information on public questions is a fundamental need in all our cities, and … a free, open discussion of these problems is the most effective way of securing and disseminating such information.”
After a few meetings, those early leaders formally established The City Club of Cleveland on October 27, 1912. Our first forum was held later that year, featuring a dialogue with Cleveland Mayor Newton D. Baker, Cincinnati Mayor Thomas Hunt, and Toledo Mayor Brand Whitlock. Today, we remain one of the oldest continuously operating free speech forums in the United States. The City Club has hosted a vast list of speakers from all walks of life, including Babe Ruth, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Shirley MacLaine, Eliot Ness, Rosa Parks, Robert F. Kennedy, W.E.B. Du Bois, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among thousands of others. Every sitting U.S. President since Ronald Reagan in 1988 has addressed the City Club. On April 5, 1968, the day after the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Senator Robert F. Kennedy put aside his prepared remarks to the City Club and delivered the "On the Mindless Menace of Violence" speech to a crowd of 1,200, breaking with City Club tradition and taking no questions.
At the heart of the City Club’s format lies the question-and-answer period that takes place during the second half of each program. During these sessions of authentic, unscreened, and unscripted questions from the audience, the true nature of the City Club reveals itself. We are the place where speakers and ideas are challenged and tested, where citizen voice is prized, and where our community grows stronger.
In 1916, Ralph Hayes, then the Secretary of the City Club, penned our creed.
I hail and harbor and hear persons of every belief and party; for within my portals prejudice grows less and bias dwindles.
I have a forum – as wholly uncensored as it is rigidly impartial. “Freedom of Speech” is graven above my rostrum; and beside it, “Fairness of Speech.”
I am the product of the people, a cross section of their community—weak as they are weak, and strong in their strength; believing that knowledge of our failings and our powers begets a greater strength.
I have a house of fellowship; under my roof informality reigns and strangers need no introduction.
I welcome to my platform the discussion of any theory or dogma of reform; but I bind my household to the espousal of none of them, for I cherish the freedom of every person’s conviction and each of my kin retains his own responsibility.
I have no axe to grind, no logs to roll. My abode shall be the rendezvous of strong but open-minded men and my watchword shall be “information” not “reformation.”
I am accessible to people of all sides—literally and figuratively—for I am located in the heart of the city—spiritually and geographically.
I am the city’s club—The City Club.
This creed continues to guide us today, as a call to action. We frequently tell visitors that though we are agnostic about the issues we discuss in the forum or the outcomes and policies that result from them, we are fierce advocates of engagement by community members from all sides of every issue of importance.
Working in that way for more than a century, the City Club’s actions have earned it a national reputation as a “citadel of free speech,” and secured it a place in history as an impartial, vital center for community debate.
About the Mural
A social realist painter, Elmer Brown admired the work of Diego Rivera and other Mexican muralists, emulating their robust treatment of the human figure. Several large, muscular men dominate the painting, giving it energy and strength. The mural tells a story through a series of related images. Tablets bearing the Ten Commandments on the upper right seem to “give birth” to the great documents of freedom; the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. A woman holds the scales of Justice, and a speaker stands by a podium expressing his views. “Like the Mexican muralists, Brown often used tightly composed images to include more narrative,” says Berg.
The mural moved several times over the years as The City Club was forced to find new quarters. After the last move in 1981, the mural had to be cut down to accommodate its new space. Sadly, the missing section was lost. The Renovation Committee decided to restore the mural as part of the current renovation, including repainting the missing section. An old photograph of the original mural was used to recreate the missing piece.
A restoration team headed by Gail Berg of Berg and Associates worked for over five months to restore the mural to its current condition. Well-known local artist Gretchen Troibner painted the missing section of the mural, which includes the two men and the lock in the lower left of the painting. Painting conservator Kenneth Be and professional art installer Andy Rock restored and reinforced the fragile masonite panels by attaching wooden planks to the reverse sides. The mural’s panels are installed individually, and can be safely and easily moved in the future if necessary.
About the Artist
Elmer W. Brown (1909 – 1977) came to Cleveland at the age of twenty and studied at the Cleveland School (now the Cleveland Institute of Art). He taught at Karamu House, where he befriended writer Langston Hughes, eventually illustrating some of his books. As an employee of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the early 1940’s, Brown created a series of murals including “Freedom of Speech,” commissioned for The City Club of Cleveland. Elmer Brown was one of the first African American artists to enjoy critical acclaim from all segments of the community and “Freedom of Speech” has been called the single most important work by a Cleveland-trained black artist. Brown spent the last 18 years of his career working for American Greetings Corporation.
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