Dealer's Choice

George Forbes has held Cleveland's race card for almost 30 years. He makes no apologies for when he plays it. Or when he doesn't

Monty Roberts Canton Civic Center, 1101 Market Avenue North in Canton The three-hour demonstration is at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 21. Tickets are $25; call 330-489-3090
It had the makings of a public relations disaster, and Wal-Mart executives back in quaint Bentonville, Arkansas, knew it.

In early June of last year, a white supervisor at the company's Cleveland Heights store accused 23 black employees of stealing money. For hours, the workers were locked inside the store while managers rifled through their personal belongings in search of the missing cash. The employees were told to empty their pockets, lower their pants, and lift up their blouses far enough "so they could see the bottom of my breasts," as one distraught worker recalled.

No stolen money was found, and fear soon spread through Wal-Mart's headquarters that the accused employees might contact the NAACP or hire a lawyer. The discount store giant was no stranger to racial discrimination complaints, and the last thing it wanted was protesters besieging the Cleveland Heights store and issuing emotional pleas for justice on the evening news.

As it turned out, the boys from Bentonville were in luck. One of them got Cleveland NAACP President George Forbes on the phone.

"They said, "What can we do for you?'" Forbes recalls. "I said, "You've got to come here. We want you to do business with black people who would never have an opportunity to do business with a company like this.'"

Forbes could have easily unleashed his thunder, vilifying Wal-Mart in headlines from here to Arkansas. As NAACP president, he had the power to launch protests and boycotts. As a lawyer, he could have championed the aggrieved employees in court.

But instead Forbes and Wal-Mart struck a deal. He limited his tirade in the press to precisely one day, right after the employees filed a lawsuit against the company in late June. Then he worked quietly behind the scenes to make the world's largest retailer pay for his silence.

It wasn't until this spring that the words Wal-Mart and Cleveland NAACP would appear together again in the same news story -- when 10 executives arrived at the Cleveland Play House to make peace with the black community.

Although the team dispatched by Wal-Mart included a few blacks, they couldn't dissipate the awkwardness in the room. The unfortunate set of circumstances that brought the crowd together was referred to innocuously as either "the incident" or "the situation." The idea was to assure the black community that Wal-Mart isn't racist and that it can be trusted to help them make money.

The man responsible for this strange one-day union of corporate America and black ambition arrived late and sat at a table near the hallway. When he felt it was time to begin, Forbes, a large, aloof Southerner with an emotion-lined face, took to the podium looking comfortable, in front of an audience that was not.

Forbes told the crowd that what had transpired at the Cleveland Heights store nine months earlier "caused quite a fervor in the town." But, Forbes said, "We sat down and worked out an agenda that would be agreeable to the people involved." In essence, he had turned what could have been a racially divisive face-off into an opportunity for the black community. The story, he concluded, had a happy ending.

"Rather than kicking Wal-Mart in the ass and calling them all kinds of bigots and that kind of stuff, we worked to resolve the situation with them," Forbes said in an interview.

When Forbes turned the floor over to the executives, they tried to coax the audience into reciting the Wal-Mart cheer. The Arkansas suits smiled and yelled out the letters "W-A-L-M-A-R-T," all the while clapping like cheerleaders. The audience politely stood, as asked, but did not join in.

While the tone of the event was reconciliatory, the reality fell far short. Even as Wal-Mart executives were in town trying to spread goodwill in the black community, the company was fighting the lawsuit which the employees had filed nine months earlier in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.

Some in the black community, including the employees, felt the celebratory tone of Forbes's event was premature. "They are entertaining people who discriminated against black folks," fumed Rufus Sims, a lawyer representing 17 of the employees. "It should be, until we settle this thing, "No justice. No peace . . .' [The NAACP] should be putting pressure on Wal-Mart to resolve this and then have their tea party. Then it wouldn't be as offensive to the people who themselves were treated in such an offensive, deliberate, discriminatory, racist manner."

Depending on your perspective, the event was either a smashing success or an inexcusable sellout for the local NAACP chapter. It was certainly unprecedented, bold, and controversial.

It was classic George Forbes.

For the better part of three decades, the former City Council president and civil rights activist has been suspended between two worlds -- the grassroots black community and the white establishment -- trying to build a bridge without falling into the abyss. His efforts have made him a legendary flashpoint of criticism and praise. No one else in the city so easily enrages and baffles.

Supremely confident. Unabashedly accusatory. Occasionally belligerent. Sixty-nine-year-old Forbes -- once the most powerful man in the city -- has not faded into the background, like many of his counterparts from the civil rights era. He's still the man behind the scenes, the one power brokers consult to keep the race card out of the deck.

Although he no longer holds public office, Forbes still has a constituency -- an NAACP chapter that claims to be 7,000 strong -- and a black community that appreciates his strength and moxie, at a time when most black politicians show neither. Despite his wealth, his age, and his contradictions, Forbes is more untouchable than ever, and most unwilling to relinquish his place on Cleveland's political landscape.

He can hardly conceive of doing so -- who could possibly take his place?

It Was Tough. You Were Black.

Three things are widely known about George Forbes: He has a mean temper; a long-running feud with his former protégé, Mayor Michael White; and a tendency to fight racial battles louder and tougher than anyone. Forbes will tell you he journeyed long and far to arrive at this persona.

Listening to Forbes sort through his memories is like flipping through the passport of a time traveler. His voice carries the past with a bit of a backroom whisper, especially when his eyes narrow into a recalcitrant stare and he insists, with throaty emphasis, "Let me tell you something."

Way back before Forbes was a rich man, a political man, a controversial man, he was a Southern man. Reared in segregated Memphis by a disciplinarian mother and a one-armed father, Forbes was one of nine children born into poverty. He doesn't remember when he started working, just that he was very young, and the work was very hard. Mostly farming, raising cotton and corn. His father worked at a nearby oil company and lost his arm to a machine when Forbes was still a baby.

"Let me tell you something," he says. "It was a life of absolute segregation. The back of the bus. Police chasing you off the corner. We didn't have anyplace to go, so we would stand on the corner where all the stores were until the police came and ran us away . . . It's just the way that it was. It was tough. You were black."

The only way out was leaving Memphis. One by one, Forbes's brothers did -- heading north, to Chicago and Cleveland. He followed. He thought he might want to be a lawyer, but was drafted into the Marine Corps before he could start college.

The service enlightened him in ways he never expected.

"The Marine Corps was the first time in my life that I felt absolutely equal," he says. "Everyone was treated inhumane. Everybody. I will never forget, as long as I live, the time we were doing close-order drill. The drill instructor said "Left!' and one guy turned right. The drill instructor came up and he knocked him down. I'd never seen a white person knocked down before.

"I thought, "My God, this is where I belong!' I'm 21 years of Southern brutality directed against blacks by whites, and they knock him down. I thought, "This is heaven.'"

After the Marines, Forbes was one of the few blacks enrolled at Baldwin-Wallace College. He studied -- of all things -- the Bible. He considered becoming a preacher, but "I couldn't stop cussing, so I became a politician," he jokes.

After stints as a teacher, a post-office worker, a social worker, and a housing inspector, Forbes turned somewhat reluctantly to politics in 1963. He had gone to law school at Cleveland Marshall at night, hoping to further his idealistic pursuits. Forbes didn't know then that, instead of defending blacks in court, he would spend most of his professional life representing them in government.

Prompted by his bar-owner brother, Zeke, and supported by Bill Sweeney, the resigning city councilman in the Glenville ward where Forbes lived, he made his first run for City Council in 1963. At the time, blacks were moving into Glenville, and whites were leaving. Forbes's future constituents were receptive to the eager black political aspirant, who campaigned while pushing one of his two small daughters in a baby stroller.

In his early years on the council, Forbes worked to improve his immediate community. He opposed liquor and gambling permits, and proposed housing legislation. He was mentored by black councilman Charles Carr, one of three people Forbes says most influenced his life. (The others were Council Clerk Mercedes Cotner and James Davis, a former partner with Squire Sanders & Dempsey, one of the city's most prestigious law firms. Both are deceased and, interestingly, white.) But Forbes owes his rise to Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major American city, whom Forbes helped seize office in 1967.

A seminal black leader, Stokes made the black vote a powerful political force in the county. He also helped mold one of its most dynamic leaders in Forbes. "George was a street activist," recalls former U.S. Congressman Louis Stokes, Carl's brother. "I think Carl had more influence on him than anyone else I can think of."

Forbes's evolution began on the periphery of black nationalism. Though very much a family man -- as he is today -- Forbes in 1970 was the "prime minister" of the Stokes organization. He wore an Afro, spouted defiance, and carried a gun, according to a 1975 Cleveland magazine article. His radicalness didn't keep him down. By 1973, he was council president -- the first black man to hold the position.

The Marines may have cracked Forbes's segregation-era perceptions of the white man, but the City Council presidency shattered them beyond recognition. The position came with a red carpet that unrolled into a world Forbes never dreamed someone of his race could enter. The man who once railed against the white business establishment suddenly found himself an audience to them. They came to him for tax abatements and low-interest loans. And they were pleased with what Forbes offered.

Developers got the support they needed to set Cleveland on the track to its much celebrated "renaissance." Forbes pushed along the $200 million BP Building and the Galleria downtown shopping center, as well as the Society Center hotel and office complex, and a number of downtown hotels.

Forbes found working with rich white folks downright tolerable, and an amazing thing happened: Relationships developed between the black street politician and the white business community.

With white friends and a strong black constituency, Forbes had power. Many argue he abused it by berating council members who dared disagree with him and by pushing through legislation without taking a vote. He threw reporters out of public meetings. He once hurled a chair at another black councilman.

But Forbes insists he was never the dictator his critics portrayed. Some of his retorts are believable. Others seem by-products of a selective memory. "I presided over council at one time with 10 black members and 11 white guys," he says. "Common sense tells you that, if I did all the things they said I did and I was that ruthless, there's no way in the world 11 white guys would have let a black guy do all of that. Not in Cleveland, Ohio."

Throughout his council presidency, however, many people did want to bring Forbes down, in one way or another. His gatekeeper in those days, former secretary Ruby Moss, says she didn't show Forbes much of the racist hate mail sent to his office. His life was threatened several times. One of his three daughters, Mildred, remembers being driven around by bodyguards, being harassed at school because of her father's politics, and losing so-called friends over him. She recalls coming across hate mail containing pictures of gorillas and photos of her father cut out of newspapers and doctored, one with a noose drawn around his neck.

By 1975, Forbes was the most prominent black leader in Cleveland and well on his way to becoming the most powerful person in the city. Although he was never elected by more than a few thousand voters in his ward, he would run council for a total of 16 years. During the weak mayorships of Dennis Kucinich and successor George Voinovich, Forbes, in essence, ruled the city.

Only later would it become apparent that Forbes could not have held so much power for so long if he had had to rely on a racially mixed constituency to elect him. Forbes's autocratic style and race-baiting ways scared and irritated white people. That became obvious when he ran for the mayor's office in 1989 against Mike White.

Forbes had the white business establishment and East Side blacks behind him. But he had little support from white voters, who still remembered being the subject of nightly blasts on his WERE radio show in the mid-'70s. Despite his best efforts to tone down his language and moderate his behavior during the campaign, there was no way West Side whites -- the "honkies" he used to rail against -- were going to vote him into the mayor's office.

The unfettered confidence that had always been an attribute in Forbes's political career became a hurdle he could not clear. After a bitter mudslinging campaign that began the downward spiral of his relationship with his former protégé, Forbes lost every white district to White, as well as the election.

Big Business Is Good Business

The end of George Forbes's political career did not signal the end of his power. Losing the mayor's race was just another stage in his evolution, as he passed from savvy politician to unofficial consultant for the business community on matters of race. It had taken many years for Forbes to become as comfortable in the corporate board room as he was in black neighborhoods, but the desire had long been there.

He embarked on that track the day lawyer and business leader Jim Davis first came to see him, shortly after Forbes assumed the council presidency. "At the time, I was following the philosophy that big business was damaging government," he says. "Then I met Jim Davis, and he showed me, "Look, it's a common interest. We want to make sure government is good, so that corporate America can survive.'"

Throughout the mid-'70s, Forbes seemed to have developed a split personality. While distancing himself from the city's white population on his bombastic radio show, he endeared himself to the business community behind closed doors. White business owners and developers considered him trustworthy, honorable, and reasonable. Unlike populist Mayor Dennis Kucinich, Forbes was approachable, and that made him the man to see in Cleveland in the late '70s for city help setting up a social program, making money, building a building, or just about anything else.

To Forbes's great disappointment, however, the business sense of his well-heeled cronies never rubbed off on him. He says he had moderate success with some radio stations he sold awhile back, but gives himself only a "C-minus, if not a D" for his other personal business ventures. His barbecue restaurant, The Three Little Pigs, never made him any money ("They got slaughtered -- not only the pigs, but the owners"); nor did a drive-in theater he's trying to sell.

Still, Forbes developed a great skill for dealing with heavy hitters in the business world.

"George could con, charm, and intimidate all at once," says James Carney Jr., who, as the son of one of Forbes's key business buddies, had ample opportunity to watch Forbes work.

But influence came with a cost. Besides his temper and his crudeness, Forbes's friendships within the white business establishment, with developers Dick Jacobs and Jim Carney Sr., drew the most criticism. Forbes insists he never gave the developers anything without getting something for black people in return. "I was never taken advantage of," he insists. "They wanted to see the city prosper, and I wanted to see black folks taken care of, so we kind of formed a match.

"I would meet with the business leaders about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, about the Sohio [BP] Building. I would say, "You want to do this, you've got to deal. Blacks get 20 percent [of the jobs].'"

Critics say Forbes often made sure he got something for himself as well. The media frequently criticized him for investing with white businessmen and representing them in legal matters. Many times he was jeered for holding up or pushing legislation in the interest of his friends. The business community, in turn, came to his rescue in 1978 when he was accused of taking money from carnival operators in exchange for political favors, sending one of the city's best trial lawyers to his defense. He was acquitted when the prosecution failed to prove its case.

Forbes dismisses a commonly held belief that he's rich. ("I don't know where that rumor came from.") But financial disclosure statements from when he was a public official show that he and his law firm benefited from his cozy relationships with developers and other businessmen -- something the media revisited frequently. At the same time that he was pushing for minority set-asides on big business deals and ferreting out racism, he was looking to improve his finances too. And he doesn't deny it.

"There's no virtue in being poor," he says. "At least I haven't found it to be so . . . I'd have been foolish to spend as much time in politics and make the sacrifices I did without looking out for myself and my family . . . I'd have been a fool."

Losing the mayoral election left Forbes thinking his days as a public figure were over. No more would detractors bother him about making money. Three years later, however, he was campaigning again. Not for public office, but for control of the Cleveland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Get the Paddy Wagons Ready

George Forbes did not slide easily into the position of NAACP president in 1992. The race was hotly contested. His opponents -- along with the local media -- spent much time pondering his motivation. Did the longtime council president really want to further the cause of black people? Or did he just miss the spotlight and covet a platform from which to criticize Mayor White?

His candidacy attracted scores of new members and invigorated the lagging organization. After he ascended to the presidency, Forbes surprised many people by trying to reconcile with the mayor. He gave White the Freedom Award, the organization's highest honor. For the next few years after that, the efforts Forbes spearheaded for the NAACP attracted relatively little attention.

Until the summer the Ku Klux Klan came to town.

Last July, when Forbes heard the mayor was considering letting Klan members dress for a planned downtown rally in the police garage downtown, he dusted off his old civil rights battle gear. This time, he thought, the mayor had gone too far. As the NAACP president and the grandson of a slave who was raped by a Klansman, Forbes promised White the black community would not stay away from the rally. He warned the mayor to "get his paddy wagons ready."

For weeks leading up to the rally, Forbes lashed out at White whenever there was a microphone or notepad in eyeshot. But despite his shenanigans -- including his attempted assault of the mayor with a chair one day before the rally -- Forbes, not White, won the support of the black community. At the rally, Forbes swaggered through the heavily policed streets with an entourage of supporters and politicians at his side, pulling him into bear hugs and pumping his hand in gratitude. Even the white cops had sided with Forbes. They shot him the thumbs-up as he walked past them in their riot gear.

The mayor, by contrast, isolated himself and his aides on the top floor of a parking garage across from the demonstration, watching the event through binoculars.

Sure, Forbes understood that the mayor had his reasons for wanting to deflect crowds from the downtown rally and hide the Klansmen from view as they dressed -- the safety of the city chief among them. But this was The Klan. And this was Forbes's reasoning: If you're black, how can you not resist the monsters who killed, raped, and tortured your ancestors?

"You can't ignore 200 years of abuse," Forbes asserts. Sure, he was "pilloried in the press from one side of town to the other" for organizing a counterdemonstration, but he didn't care. He was standing up for black people.

Other black leaders didn't buy it -- Reverend Marvin McMickle, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church, among them. But he respects that Forbes doesn't care what he thinks either.

"George has a quality that not everybody has," says McMickle, himself a former NAACP president. "And that's abandon . . . He's not afraid of the consequences. What are you going to do about him? You can't fire him for being George Forbes."

Bubbling Subterfuge

"George Forbes is not a friend of black people or white people," Bert Jennings says. "He's a friend of money." The corresponding secretary of the Carl Stokes Brigade and self-declared "voice for the little people," Jennings may be the worst enemy Forbes doesn't remember meeting. Although there are few black leaders besides Carl Stokes on whom Jennings bestows his approval, he reserves a special antagonism for Forbes.

For the past 13 years, Jennings has been gnawing away at Forbes's reputation. He has led groups of NAACP expatriates in protests outside Forbes's Rockefeller Building law office, where they have burned their membership cards and marched out a life-sized effigy of Forbes with a tire around its neck (a reference to the "necklacing" done to apartheid collaborators in South Africa). Even now, talk of picketing Forbes fills Jennings with troublemaking glee. He's done it so often that Forbes's perceived slights against black people seem to jumble together in his mind.

Jennings, who produces The Carl Stokes Forum, a public access television show airing on Channel 52, tried to have Forbes removed from the council presidency once by spearheading a proposal that would have let the voters limit the City Council president's term in office. Jennings lost his job at the Board of Elections while pursuing the initiative, which ultimately failed. Convinced his termination was a direct result of retaliation by Forbes, Jennings sued the board. Although the Forbes link was never proven in court, a judge did award Jennings nearly $13,000 because she believed Jennings's political activity was a factor in his firing. Jennings remains convinced of Forbes's involvement.

"The man bubbles with subterfuge," he insists.

Forbes doesn't recall ever meeting Jennings. He does, however, remember (with a hearty chuckle) Jennings's protesters, who seem to show up on his doorstep whenever he does something they deem dastardly. They come out time and again, undeterred by the fact that, without Forbes, the local chapter might have gone bankrupt.

It's widely known that Forbes saved the organization financially. When he took over the presidency in 1993, the NAACP had a budget of about $100,000. It had so much trouble paying the rent and salaries of its 1.5 employees that board members often had to "ante up" themselves at meetings, Executive Director Pauline Tarver recalls.

Within a year, Forbes had more than doubled the budget. He's also been credited with getting the NAACP new office space and initially attracting more volunteers and members. Forbes certainly had the financial health of the organization in mind when he raised individual membership fees, once $10, to $30.

But some say the local chapter has been more concerned about its money than its mission. "He's embarrassed a lot of people, and a lot of people have withdrawn from the NAACP, white and black," says George Edwards, president of the Carl Stokes Brigade.

Forbes, now the longest-serving local chapter president in history, does have a track record of making people mad. Shortly after he assumed the NAACP presidency, Forbes found himself in the headlines for telling students at Cuyahoga Community College to forgo studying black history in favor of subjects that would actually get them jobs. In 1998, protesters came out against him again, after the NAACP rescinded its support for a pricing discrimination lawsuit filed by East Side blacks -- presumably so Forbes could defend the company against the lawsuit.

As recently as last year, protesters showed up at the NAACP offices carrying signs demanding Forbes be removed from the presidency after he sent a profanity-laced missive to Mayor White. The letter got Forbes in trouble with national NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who reprimanded Forbes in writing for embarrassing the organization. The next month, National Chairman Julian Bond echoed Mfume's sentiments from the podium of the City Club, where he was speaking on other issues.

"He knows his behavior has not been up to the standards of the NAACP," Bond remarked, in response to a question from the audience. Forbes scowled from his seat at the front table, dignified and unapologetic.

About those who criticize him, Forbes says, "When the pressures come from white people on black people, they have no other person to come to except me, because the one thing they all understand is that I'm not afraid."

Sow and Ye Shall Reap

George Forbes is still recognized just about anywhere he goes. Recently, a middle-aged black woman stopped him as he left the elevator in his building.

"It's George Forbes!" she exclaimed, grabbing for the arm of her son.

Forbes beamed and shook her hand.

"Who?" asked the boy, who didn't look old enough to have been born the last time Forbes held public office.

"George Forbes!" she said again. "You met him when you were a baby."

Forbes says he doesn't recall the woman, but she has clearly made his day. She reminds him of what's really important.

"I always knew I was a black man," he explains. "It never left me. It never leaves me. In a society that is not just and does not treat people equally, my job was to make sure the downtrodden got a fair shot."

People love him for talking like this, especially inner-city blacks who have witnessed his rise from angry black man to a wealthy power broker. It seems there's nothing Forbes can do that won't be forgiven by his supporters. His latest chair-throwing row with the mayor, for instance, was followed by a surge in NAACP membership.

As NAACP president -- a leadership role, by the way, that his wife Mary Forbes suggested to her husband -- Forbes still enjoys the benefits of public office, with none of the responsibilities. He has media attention, public support, and pull in the business community. Yet, Forbes no longer has to return phone calls or answer endless media inquiries about such pesky matters as assaults on other public figures. Supporters contend he's done many things for minorities since he left office that have won him little or no recognition.

In 1997, for instance, Forbes, who serves on the Ohio Workers' Compensation Oversight Commission, initiated a new investment policy for the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation, which requires 10 percent of the $20 billion state insurance fund be invested with minority firms. The program is a boon for minority brokers, money managers, and financial advisers, who, until then, had never managed such large accounts.

Forbes is also still involved in the current events of his choosing. In East Cleveland, for instance, he's working with the school board to get local minority participation on a $106 million school renovation project. In Cleveland, he's representing former Civil Service Secretary Cynthia Sullivan, who is central to the Civil Service Commission controversy. And his NAACP battles, though subject to board approval, are often chosen because of Forbes's personal feelings as well.

History has yet to close its volume on the man. Ask a black from the East Side, a white from the West Side, and a wealthy businessman about Forbes's influence on the city, and you'll get three radically different opinions.

"A lot of people get upset about what he says," explains Michael Polensek, the current council president, who once served with Forbes. "I think they need to look at what he does in order to judge him."

Some credit Forbes for holding the city together after its embarrassing default in 1978. Others say the default wouldn't have happened if it were not for his contentiousness. Forbes has also been lauded for helping blacks profit from downtown development, but criticized for polarizing an already racially segregated city.

A good debate over Forbes's legacy as a politician could be rivaled only by one over his current role as NAACP president.

Some of Forbes's behavior certainly hasn't befitted a civil rights leader. Forbes describes some of his friends as "the wealthiest people in Cleveland" -- one of whom, Dick Jacobs, actually donned a Klan hood on his airplane in front of Forbes, who only laughed. Despite heading up the NAACP, he has represented companies accused of discriminating against black people. It seems to be a clear conflict of interest to everyone but to Forbes and his die-hard supporters.

"He's very passionate about his beliefs, but I think he has a fear of being broke," says one friend. "That puts him at cross-purposes. He's certainly passionate about civil rights, but he wants to make George Forbes wealthy too. That's where he gets his wires crossed."

Forbes agreed not to represent Shell Oil in its pricing discrimination lawsuit only after another friend, former U.S. Congressman Stokes, intervened.

"I think the rationale behind it is that George feels he has paid his dues, and at this stage in his life, he's also entitled to make some money," Stokes says. "I think he feels no one can question his commitment to black people, and in these instances he thinks he can work these matters out by virtue of his commitment to black people and at the same time represent the business interests -- which is, of course, a conflict."

Anyone who knows George Forbes knows that something other than public opinion guides him. His friends say it's a deeply rooted belief in the Bible, in the principles of right and wrong, and a yearning for social justice. His enemies say it's greed. It may be that Forbes is just trying to soften the edges of his legacy. Or that he is haunted by the prospect that there is no one to take his place.

Sharing the Wealth

In several interviews and in a recent Plain Dealer guest column, George Forbes has bemoaned what he perceives as a lack of black leadership. As an example, he brings up the recent issue of hospitals closing in areas with large minority populations.

Forbes, credited with keeping Mt. Sinai Hospital open in the early '80s, says he declined to take a position on the threatened closure of Mt. Sinai this spring because he felt it was a battle better fought by the city's black politicians. To his great distress, the hospital closed.

A few weeks later, when St. Michael Hospital in Slavic Village was destined to suffer the same fate, U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich -- the city's former mayor and onetime Forbes adversary -- sprang into action. Forbes calls Kucinich's successful efforts to save the hospital "masterful."

"Contrast that with black leaders," he says. "[With the closure of ] Mt. Sinai on 105th Street, nobody said a word."

Ironically, Forbes himself has been blamed for not fostering the kind of leaders he demands. In the mid-'80s, an Ohio State University professor, William E. Nelson, wrote that Forbes "has not sought to utilize his personal power to build a base of effective political influence in the black community." In his article "Cleveland: The Rise and Fall of the New Black Politics," Nelson credited Carl Stokes with mobilizing black voters in the Twenty-First Congressional District Caucus, making it one of the most powerful political organizations in the county. It endorsed both Republican and Democratic candidates, punishing and rewarding them accordingly.

Nelson attributed the death of the caucus to the decline in black political influence in Cuyahoga County. In its absence, no organization emerged to educate black voters, groom candidates, or mobilize the electorate. At fault for that, he argued, was Forbes, who concentrated instead on cultivating ties with the business community and strengthening the bond between the black community and the Democratic Party. Forbes may have also thwarted the emergence of other strong black leaders to keep them from threatening his power base.

Forbes dismisses the criticism, insisting he bears no responsibility for the present state of black leadership. "I think it's regrettable," he says. "I think it's horrible. And no one is to blame except for these young people in positions of leadership."

But several black leaders object to Forbes's characterization of them as weak. Councilman Bill Patmon, who heads the powerful Finance Committee, insists that today's black politicians all have their own styles. Helping black people doesn't require just picketing. Many of them choose to negotiate rather than protest.

"There is leadership emerging," he says. "There is no such thing as The Leader, since the Martins and the Malcolms have gone. But there is a group of us all working on different issues."

In a sense, it seems hypocritical for Forbes to criticize other black leaders for preferring to work behind the scenes, when he was one who pioneered that strategy.

No Excuse

Weeks after the Wal-Mart workshop, George Forbes is back in front of an audience. It is Sunday morning at Werner United Methodist Church, a brick structure on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive that hardly seems big enough to contain Forbes's personality, let alone an entire congregation. Forbes has been a member here since the '50s. He's been teaching Sunday school in the church cafeteria on and off for 18 years.

The men are cooking breakfast. The women, prayer books open, listen to Forbes, while bacon and sausages sizzle in the kitchen. Forbes paces in front of a chalkboard, weaving personal anecdotes into the Bible lesson. The theme for the day was "going from sorrow to joy" through forgiveness.

He had to learn to forgive, he admits. He had to forgive his mother for smacking him too many times with a peach tree switch when he misbehaved as a boy -- a story that elicits knowing smiles and laughter among the ladies, many of them old enough to be grandmothers. Later, at his office, Forbes becomes more serious about this issue of forgiveness.

Early in May, during the United Methodist General Conference, he spoke at an event for the Ohio Methodist colleges at Severance Hall, where he suddenly became very personal with the crowd. Recently honored by becoming one of 500 people to serve on the World Methodist Council, Forbes's own transgressions weighed heavily on his mind and his soul.

"For those of you who do not live in Cleveland, I've been known to do some crazy things," he says he told them. "But I have been honored by my church. Never again will I publicly use profanity."

He harbors the same regret for his physical assaults.

"I look back, and there's no excuse for it," he says, after brief contemplation. "I apologize for it."

Then, when the reaction is not profound enough, he says, "Did you hear me? In this article, I'm apologizing for it."

He speaks this last quote as if it were preceded by a drumroll, as if the new George Forbes were about to take a bow. But "repentant politician" just doesn't fit the persona Forbes has worked so hard to develop. The idea of reinvention, however -- even at age 69 -- does.

He wants the whole city to know that the black activist turned council king turned master negotiator is about to become a more refined rabble-rouser.

One who doesn't throw chairs.

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.