Tuesday, November 6, 2007 at 8:25 AM
The eyes of the world were on Cleveland this week, 40 years ago, when Carl Stokes became the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city. In the first of a two-part report, ideastream's David C. Barnett examines the background of an election that changed American politics.
The sanctuary at Cleveland’s Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church was packed on a Sunday morning 40 years ago as pastor E. Theophilus Caviness stepped up to the podium. But, the morning’s message didn’t come from the Bible. Rev. Caviness had more earthly concerns, as he turned to a special guest.
E. Theophilus Caviness: Everybody that’s standing on his or her feet now is voting for you, Mr. Stokes. And we’re just happy to have you.
Carl Stokes: The thing upon which I have depended is that if you show people that you have the qualifications, then you’re not going to be penalized, just because you happen to be a Negro.
Biographer Leonard Moore says part of Carl Stokes’ appeal was that he could connect with a wide range of audiences.
Leonard Moore: He had the ability to deal with people in the ghetto and people in the street and the pool hall, and also with bigwigs.
Stokes wasn’t the first African American to try for the city’s top job. In 1955, a black candidate got 10,000 votes—not nearly enough to win, but Leonard Moore says it was enough to send a signal that the city was changing.
Leonard Moore: Between 1940 and 1960, Cleveland’s black population tripled. From 80,000 to around a quarter of a million—a very significant demographic shift.
Like Detroit, Pittsburgh and a number of other northern industrial cities, Cleveland had become a magnet for black migrants from the South looking for work. But, that burgeoning population was shunted to a few segregated and overcrowded neighborhoods. Over the years, absentee landlords and a deteriorating housing stock planted the seeds of anger and resentment that, in 1966, would explode into a week-long binge of looting and fires along Hough Avenue on the city’s east side. Mike Roberts covered the Hough riots for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Mike Roberts: Those of us who started out on the police beat were able to go out and see the living conditions and what was happening out there on a nightly basis, we understood. We were taken aback by it.
Writer Leonard Moore says the Hough disturbance led the business establishment to back Carl Stokes, the following year.
Leonard Moore: After the riots, I believe the corporate community here, they looked at Stokes as an insurance against racial unrest.
But, political consultant Arnold Pinkney says there was more to it than that. In the mid-60s, there were just over a half million whites in the city and just under 300,000 blacks. Pinkney says Stokes worked those numbers to his advantage.
Arnold Pinkney: Carl Stokes knew how many votes he had to get in each precinct across the city of Cleveland. He knew if he could get 90% of the black vote and 15% of the white vote, that he could become mayor. A lot of people didn’t take the time to do that type of detailed mathematical calculation.
Journalist Mike Roberts recalls that the 1967 race attracted international attention.
Mike Roberts: I remember a Danish television crew interviewing me in a men’s room to keep me away from a German television station. The NYT was here in full force, all the national media was here. It was just an incredible time.
That election evening was a nail-biter. Future mayor Frank Jackson was in the crowd at the old Sheraton hotel on Public Square, awaiting the results. The 21-year-old didn’t know much about politics, but an image from that night has stayed with him ever since.
Frank Jackson: And when he came out and we knew that he had won, there was this man who was a hardcore street hustler—this dude was hardcore—he was crying. I mean, it was that personal to him.
Carl Stokes had done it. He was the mayor of Cleveland and in a position to create some social changes for his home town. But, tomorrow you’ll hear why that proved to be a lot harder than he could have ever imagined.
Government/Politics, Community/Human Interest
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