The Closed Doors of Justice
“Justice delayed is justice denied” is an oft-repeated legal maxim, but it holds little meaning in some cases.
For over five decades, in the racially-polarized city of Cleveland Ohio, one man, Winston E. Willis, has waged a mighty war against corrupt local government officials and courtroom manipulations that led to racially motivated property thefts and the destruction of his vast real estate empire. During this time, in a classic David and Goliath underdog vs. giant-type scenario, the former millionaire real estate developer courageously stood his ground and defended his constitutionally guaranteed property rights. But even after educating himself in the law and courageously taking on the perpetrators and exposing rank legalized discrimination in his community, it soon became clear that he was powerless against the reigning elitist band of power brokers and institutional giants. As a result, he suffered numerous illegal posse comitatus type gun-point evictions, false imprisonment, attempts on his life, and other atrocities. In every court in the State of Ohio, he has been rendered civilly dead; consistently denied his civil rights, subjected to judicially sanctioned property thefts as well as despicable human rights abuses. Finally, in 2007, finding local courthouse doors repeatedly closed to him, he took his case to the United States Supreme Court. The case was accepted and docketed only to be subsequently denied several months later. Where are the custodians of justice? The interpreters of the Constitution? The so-called defenders of the rule of law? Where is the outrage for what was done to this man?
Is he the curmudgeonly neighborhood eccentric he appears to be? Or is he the real Winston E. Willis, the legendary former millionaire land baron? His appearance and circumstances are misleading, but his face retains enough character to indicate that he is still in possession of a razor-sharp mind. For beneath the graying beard and the sunken gravitas of his cheeks is the once handsome visage of the former wunderkind real estate mogul who created a huge business empire during the early ’60s. Shrewdly taking advantage of widespread riot-triggered white flight, he took a blighted area of town and revitalized it with brightly lit colorful buildings and well-run stores and created “an inner-city Disneyland”. In a relatively short period of time he amassed a fortune in real estate, only to have it illegally taken from him years later by corrupt city government officials and an equally corrupt local judiciary.
The Real Price of Black($) Power In 1960s America
During the turbulent, riot-torn 1960s, Winston E. Willis was once described in the local press as “an anachronism; sartorial in custom-tailored suits, elegantly well-spoken, yet simultaneously militant and exuding racial pride.” He had blown into Cleveland like a whirlwind in 1959 at the age of 19. Uniquely armed with innate business acumen, a lucky pool cue and sharply honed billiard skills, this fiercely intelligent high school drop-out made enough money on his first days in the city to begin building a small and successful business empire. Having also learned the value of land ownership and entrepreneurial autonomy from male relatives in his family in his boyhood homes in Montgomery Alabama and Detroit Michigan, the usual worldly distractions for young men of his generation held absolutely no interest for him. This young man was all about owning land, running businesses, and making money.
When he first came to local prominence, the atmosphere all across the nation was racially charged and explosive. In ethnically controlled Cleveland, Winston stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. He was aggressive. He was smart. He was good looking and classically well-dressed. He was eloquently articulate. He was also black and unafraid. Cleveland had never seen anything like him, and they didn’t know how to take him, or more importantly to them, what to do about him. The blue-collar town was, at that time, rated as “the third most racially polarized and segregated city in the United States”. The nation was awash in social unrest, civil rights and anti-war demonstrations; flower children; political assassinations; and riots. Among blacks, there existed a paradoxical scuffle in the pursuit of social change. From stoic, non-violent resistance and a multi-racial civil rights movement to stentorian cries for “Black Power!” and “Burn, Baby, Burn!” Although he was an acknowledged and outspoken disciple of Marcus Garvey and Malcom X, Winston’s true allegiance was to economic empowerment and autonomous control of black communities. At times lionized, but more often vilified in the local press, his personal philosophy and vision were often obscured by his penchant for showmanship, but there was always, at the heart of his deeds, an inherent and genuine compassion for his people and their welfare.
Beginning with his first major business venture in Cleveland, a popular coffeehouse/night club called the Jazz Temple, Winston unwittingly set into motion an enmity that would continue for decades. The racially restricted University Circle area had previously been off-limits to blacks, but Winston had the youthful courage to challenge the white establishment community and the city’s old money nabobs. The liquor-less nightclub, which seated approximately 450 people, was located in the ethnic enclave known as Murray Hill/Little Italy. The Jazz Temple was enormously popular with the college crowds, and the legendary jazz acts that performed there solidified its growing notoriety and popularity — all under the watchful and resentful eye of local racist white residents. The bomb threats were relentless, and the Cleveland police added to the problem with constant harassment, but Winston stood firm for several years. Finally, the bomb that had been promised leveled the club and ended its reign as one of the best jazz establishments on the East coast.
Subsequently, Winston went on to open several other successful businesses, restaurants, bars, and movie theaters on the lower East side. Then shortly thereafter, in the wake of the Glenville riot, which triggered massive white flight out of the city, he began to acquire huge parcels of land and businesses fronting on Euclid Avenue, between University Circle and The Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
One Man’s Wilderness Is Another Man’s Theme Park
During this time, the two reigning institutional Goliaths, University Circle Incorporated (UCI) and Cleveland Clinic Foundation joined forces and began to initiate plans to form an alliance to create a sprawling medical-educational metropolis and become one of the most dominant medical facilities in the country. Included in this mega-billion-dollar project was a far-reaching and prodigious plan to expand the world-renown Cleveland Clinic’s campus and connect it with Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals, essentially creating their own private driveway. The only “temporary obstacle” to their master plan was Winston Willis’ strategically located strip of land and properties with twenty-eight wildly successful and thriving businesses, and several hundred employees, perched right in the middle of the proposed expansion project.
They Wanted Him Gone! The growing pressure to remove Willis and his business growing empire was immense. Not only was Winston in their way, he was also fearlessly outspoken, employing all the financial resources that his growing wealth could buy to defend his rights and hold onto his properties. With one notable exception, Mayor Carl B. Stokes, an old friend, every other Cleveland mayoral administration participated in this plot to remove Winston Willis from the 105 thand Euclid block and surrounding areas. Stokes, however, deflected every takeover attempt against Winston’s properties that came to his attention. And when insulting propositions were offered, Winston rejected them immediately and sought legal remedies. His courtroom battles with the city were like theater and achieved folklore status within the community. But eventually, finding no fair treatment or equal justice under the law available to him in the local courts, he mounted a very public forum on which to voice his objections. He hired a local artist, and with his in-house construction crew, erected a gigantic billboard on his tallest office building fronting on Euclid Avenue ( UCPD, University Circle Property Development, Inc.) exposing the racist activities of the local judiciary and city government officials. He had at last claimed the constitutionally guaranteed right to be heard so long denied him in the courts.
This, of course, infuriated the local judiciary and the people who ran the city’s powerful institutions and sent them into a rage, and they struck back with every despicable device at their disposal. Among them, the courts, the police department, city housing inspectors, and several local law firms. The assault was vicious and relentless, and creative. The powerful local white establishment was resentful of the fact that Winston demonstrated over and over again that he had the capacity to think for himself as well as to outsmart them. So they resorted to utilizing various tactics such as bogus fire inspections, constant police harassment, housing court violations, judicial manipulations, fires “of unknown origin”, and raids and threats of all kind. The push was on to rid University Circle and Cleveland of the Winston Willis presence. With the levying of these blatantly illegal tactics having become a blood sport, and with no other legal recourse available to him, Winston took full advantage of his First Amendment privileges. Initially utilizing the newly erected billboard structure as his own personal platform and bully pulpit, he exposed, protested and criticized the rampant practice of racism by local city officials and so-called philanthropic institutions. Gargantuan in scope, looming high and provocative from the most visible side of his recently purchased building, his voice and expressions captured city-wide attention.
His initial posted comments were bold, fierce, astute, nettlesome, and provocative. And to his institutional neighbors, explosive:
“Cleveland Clinic — The Evil Empire — Strikes Again! Continuing its sweeping elimination of Black people’s community. Sears is now gone. Big blow to Blacks.”
Soon the billboard became the talk of the town. A tourist attraction, and ultimately an embarrassment to the establishment and the staid University Circle community. Following several weeks of posting personal interest assertions, he recognized the overall benefit of also publishing Black American interest propaganda as well.
“Stand Up For What You Believe In — No Matter Who or What Opposes You.”
Reacting to a controversial case in which a White man had gotten away with the murder of a Black man his billboard posed the question: “When will it become a capital crime in America for a White man to kill a Black man?” This, of course, infuriated the local judiciary and sent them into a rage.
The “community billboard”, as it came to be known colloquially, quickly became the featured attraction for neighborhood residents in the Black community and patrons of Winston’s numerous business outlets on the block. The copy was changed every two weeks, and was soon elevated to folklore status. Although it was in no way, violent in tone (as with the macho-posturing Black Panthers “Total liberty for Black people or total destruction for America”, it was, nonetheless politically inflammatory. It was also tremendously irritating to the city administrators and to private sector interests. To them, these billboard publications were the impudent insults of another loud-mouthed Nigger who didn’t know his place. With blazing newspaper headlines and television news reports bringing Muhammad Ali’s “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet-Cong” draft refusal and Malcolm X’s “chickens coming home to roost” rhetoric into local Black’s awareness, they had no intention of tolerating such militant verbosity in their city.
The Social Network of the Time
So-called city fathers and community action boards and the Cleveland Growth Association dispatched influential leaders and numerous other emissaries to demand that Winston take the billboards down. When he refused, late night city construction crews were sent to remove them. When the billboards immediately re-appeared, there were death threats. When the death threats were ignored, a vanguard of political and judicial officials organized and mounted a hate crime conspiracy for the sole purpose of eradicating Winston Willis’ civil existence.
Fear of a Rich Young Black Man
Although initially intrigued by his uniqueness, Cleveland’s powerful establishment elite soon grew uncomfortable with Winston’s standing in their community. His very presence among them exacerbated their most inherent fears about the potential power of the black man, and to them, there was even more to fear in this instance. This seemingly fearless young black man was also rich, and therefore, dangerous. He did the unthinkable for a black man of his time. He took on the white establishment, infuriating the people who ran the city’s powerful institutions and the local judiciary.
Over decades of documented illegal activity, i.e., property seizures, unlawful evictions, and wrongful imprisonment, these local governmental agencies, in concert, mounted a far-reaching, judicially-sanctioned hate crime conspiracy to cripple Winston Willis economically via the unlawful taking of his vast real estate holdings, inflicting violence against his corporal being, cruel and unusual pain and punishment upon him and his family, and ultimately cause and exact his unlawful civil and social death.
In final analysis, however, even considering the unbelievable bigotry and racism he endured, Winston E. Willis was a lightning rod for controversy. Outspoken, combative, and unflinchingly pro-black. By all accounts, black and white, he was somewhat of a renegade. A bellicose provocateur who confronted and publicly exposed racism at every opportunity. All but daring his powerful enemies to come down on him. Had he been willing to bow submissively to his oppressors, or had he represented himself as a so-called “good Negro who knew his place”, he most certainly would’ve been “handled” differently. But this was a young black man who refused to be “handled” at all. He bowed before no man, feared no one, and fought back mightily against powerful adversaries, proclaiming his constitutional rights in stentorian tones. Some might reasonably conclude that, as in the fable of the sleeping giant, young Winston poked the proverbial giant in the eye and suffered the consequences. And in his youthful exuberance, he may very well have underestimated the giant’s power and potential for rage. But in his enemies’ retaliation, laws were clearly broken, and if we are a nation of laws, how is it useful to have laws if those who violate those laws are not held accountable for having done so?
Winston’s storied business career, his success and affluence while still maintaining his racial pride and militancy were to be his eventual undoing. The warnings were dire and omnipresent, but his instinct to fight back became a singular obsession. Ultimately, his opponents were more powerful and diabolical in their elaborate and covert plan to take him down and get rid of him — once and for all. This has now been accomplished.
Today, counted somewhere among the nation’s growing impoverished population, 80 year-old Winston E. Willis continues to fuel his decades-long singular obsession with the same steely determination he had as a young millionaire entrepreneur. He lives in abject poverty yet he is a legal scholar, the result of decades spent in the trenches of the legal system fighting to defend and protect his property rights. The amount of “just compensation” for his illegal taken properties, as well as relocation benefits for his displacements over these past decades is virtually incalculable. But if justice is finally achieved and this nation’s property laws are ever applied as they were intended to be, this one man could potentially bankrupt the city of Cleveland and topple several of its world-renown billion-dollar institutions.