Arnold Pinkney, Civil Rights Activist Who Ran Campaigns in Cleveland and Nationwide, Dies at 84

Arnold Pinkney in a 2009 WVIZ documentary.
Arnold Pinkney in a 2009 WVIZ documentary.
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Arnold Pinkney was born in Youngstown during the Great Depression. He came to Cleveland as a young man, and here he met a youthful, ambitious lawyer named Carl Stokes.

Pinkney later recalled in a 2007 interview with ideastream’s Dee Perry that he helped drive Stokes to campaign stops in Stokes' bids for the state Senate and House.

And in 1967, Pinkney worked on Stokes’ campaign to become mayor of Cleveland -- the first black politician elected to run a major American city.

Pinkney said he went home on election night to watch the results come in on TV. He said at first, it seemed like Stokes was going to lose.

“And so around midnight, the African-American precincts’ votes starting coming in, and he closed the gap," Pinkney said in 2007. "And so we really saw where the votes were still outstanding, we knew that he could win. But we also knew that it was going to be very, very close, and it was.”

Not long after, when Carl’s brother Louis Stokes made a bid to become Ohio’s first black member of Congress, Pinkney managed the campaign – and won. The year after that, Pinkney secured a reelection victory for Mayor Stokes.

Pinkney sold insurance for Prudential, and then as a partner at his own firm, Pinkney-Perry.

In politics, he earned a reputation as a tireless, diligent campaigner who knew how to get Cleveland voters to the polls.

Rev. Otis Moss Jr., his friend and the pastor emeritus of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, says Cleveland has felt his influence through decades of elections.

“Every major endeavor for the improvement of our community, elections and reelections, education, bond issues, economic development, civil rights and human rights, Arnold Pinkney has been a key out front activist and contributor," Moss said in a phone interview.

He caught national attention, working at top levels of Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign. In the 1980s, he engineered the victory that sent Dick Celeste to the Ohio governor’s office.

And in 1984, the Rev. Jesse Jackson picked Pinkney to work as his national campaign manager in his bid for the White House. Jackson remembers Pinkney as a smart, trusted adviser who could talk with anyone.

“Whether he was talking with the media, or talking with bankers, or talking with political or labor leaders, he had the capacity to make people feel comfortable, and at the same point – at the same time, give penetrating insight," Jackson said in a phone interview.

There were times when Pinkney’s fortunes turned sour. He made two bids himself to become mayor of Cleveland – both unsuccessful.

And in 1985, he was convicted of having an unlawful interest in a public contract after selling insurance to the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority while serving on its board. Pinkney said he didn’t wittingly do anything wrong, and in 1989, Gov. Celeste pardoned him with unanimous support from the Ohio Parole Board.

Pinkney was a member of Cleveland’s school board for many years, and served as its president.

Former mayor Michael White says when he was 14 years old, his high school wanted students to meet a prominent African-American businessman, and sought out Pinkney.

Later, the two men became friends. White says he turned to Pinkney often as a confidante during his 12 years as mayor.

When I wanted advice, and I wanted it from an unbiased person who was concerned not only for the city but for my welfare as a human being, I always went to Arnold," White said in a phone interview.

Pinkney helped Frank Jackson unseat Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell in 2005.

When Jackson took the oath of office to begin his third term as mayor earlier this month, he thanked his family and Arnold Pinkney.

“Without him, the job would have been much more difficult, and I don’t know if I would have won the first time," Jackson said.

Rev. Otis Moss Jr. says Pinkney stands shoulder-to-shoulder with a generation of leaders who fought to open a path forward for African-Americans to occupy top elected offices. And he says Cleveland has reached countless milestones in its civic and political evolution with Arnold Pinkney helping to chart the course.

Update: Olivet Institutional Baptist Church will hold a public viewing 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 18. There will be a wake from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., and the funeral is set for 11 a.m.

Correction Jan. 18: Based on a birth date mentioned in a 1975 newspaper article, this piece originally listed Pinkney's age as 83. Federal census records and a death notice by E.F. Boyd & Son funeral home show he was born in 1930 -- not 1931, as the archival newspaper article suggested. This piece should have listed his age as 84.

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