The fable of the burning river, 45 years later Washington Post 6.22.2014
Special 2007 Plain Dealer section on Carl Stokes.
CARL STOKES —PROMISES NOW SADLY FADED
July 10th, 2017
We are getting close to the 50th anniversary of the election of Carl Stokes as the first black mayor of a major American city. It’s hard to imagine that so much time has passed.
We need the thrust of those days of dissent against the imbalance of today’s Cleveland. The difference we endure between prosperity and despair.
The first time I met Carl Stokes must have been in 1965, my first year at the Plain Dealer. I was a general assignment reporter and had to cover an event where Stokes was appearing. It was, I remember a Sunday and likely the reason I got the assignment. I talked with him before or after his meeting. I don’t remember any content, but 50 years does that to you.
I do remember the impression he left. The first impression of Carl Stokes remains clear 50 years on. Here was a man who didn’t like reporters. Likely didn’t trust them. His manner sent the message.
I can’t tell you what he said. I only remember the cool manner. I talked to him only a few minutes. It was all very perfunctory. The man was going to run for mayor and he should be covered. I guess that was the reason anyone was assigned to him that day.
I’m sure he had his reasons for disliking reporters.
He made it clear many times.
He once said at a press conference, “There is hardly a place in this community where two or more persons join that their disgust in the two newspapers is not expressed. Rich people, poor people, black and white people. There is a serious erosion of confidence in the truthfulness, the integrity and the sincerity of the newspapers. And yet, what recourse do the people have as a source of news? None, really.”
A lot of people agreed with that. I do with experience from inside. That is why I’ve used that quote more than once or twice.
Carl Stokes was the best politician I ever covered. He had charm. He had great political instincts. He carried himself with confidence and distinction. And good looks never left him. Never hurt him either.
He decided not to run for a third term, in my opinion, because he had become sick of the Cleveland plutocracy. His press secretary Dick Murway told me that bluntly. Stokes, he said, was tired of being their “house nigger.”
He had had it with the racism and in particular with the corporate community. Business interests after his election ran a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal. It was putting a brave face on its nervousness in having the first black mayor of a major U. S. city at a time of civil unrest. The ad bragged of an old blue chip city having bright new leadership.
In 1989 Fortune magazine described how Cleveland’s corporate leaders engineered a coup by dumping Mayor Dennis Kucinich. It was only the start of a takeover of city government. It has become the model for control and dominance. Limited to specific prized areas of the city.
Mayor Frank Jackson, now seeking a fourth term, comfortably represents the present Cleveland establishment. He totally lacks the political instincts of a Stokes. But this is an amazingly different time in Cleveland. Instead of civil rights and uprisings with hope, we have sporadic convulsions fed by a depressing succession of social disease caused by poverty and the lack of concern that spurred actions in the 1960s. We have a community illness lacking a spark of hope. Hopelessness breeds social disintegration. This may be Jackson’s legacy. His and corporate fear is that resistance has taken hold.
That’s why Jackson has begun to act as if he cares. And corporate interests are starting to strike back. Out of fear. It may be too late for them. Many citizens see the duplicity.
A first sign has been the formation of a church grouping to draw attention to a number of social issues that have gone unattended here. This is a crucial event. The latest attack against the groups indicates this realization. It was noticed. Not with pleasure.
The media play of the four of 43 religious organizations that left the Greater Cleveland Congregations organization because of its opposition to a multi-million gift to Dan Gilbert has the smell of Cleveland corporate politics at work. No one could convince me this isn’t Jackson/corporates string pulling. No doubt the PD won’t examine the elites and connections of the four dissenting church groups. The media will let it ride.
But it is the most relevant action in years.
In 1968, a kind of payoff program run by some business leaders—paying black militants to keep peace during Stokes’ primary run—provided resources that led to the purchase of guns used in the 1968 Glenville shootout with police.
That ended any real cooperation with Stokes from the business people.
Stokes wrote about the establishment in his Promises of Power, a perfect title for his political career.
He related his experience with the established corporates in his memoir of the times:
In the Spring and Summer of 1967, when the same power structure was grooming me as the man to back in the mayor’s race, I was invited to the most exclusive clubs in Cleveland to talk to them about myself and what I hoped to do for Cleveland. It became clear after a couple of these lunches that these men had two things on their minds—the fear of another riot and the possibility of an alliance between Stokes and Cyrus Eaton.
Eaton was an unconventional corporate leader and a worry to Cleveland’s top business leadership. When I started Point Of Viəw in 1968 there was a silly rumor that he was financing me. Never met him. I never heard from him.
Stokes said one thing he learned from Eaton a Cleveland unwritten code. It was unstated “but hard as a rigid fist—against getting involved publicly on issues. That is the rule for the power structure, the business community, those very private men at the top of our businesses and industries. They couldn’t afford to fight Eaton in the public area because they do too many things the public must not know; their deceptions, their intrigues, their dealings with each other must remain private.”
Quite a telling truism. Backed by experience.
Of course, you could never forget the problems Stokes had with the Cleveland police. They refused to accept a black mayor. He blamed the media, particularly the Plain Dealer, for allowing the police to spew hatred. The Western Reserve University Civil Violence Center labeled the PD effort as “effectively keeping the vendetta going between the races.”
Calling the police department “blatantly anti-Stokes” in his book, he charged the PD with permitting them “to spew out their hostilities toward me on the front page.” (I remember writing that what the PD did was “print the ugly rumor from fact,” while promising to separate “ugly rumor from fact.” Chief among the PD reporters was Doris O’Donnell, a favorite of the cops.)
However, the police remained a significant problem for Stokes.
There is a police-corporate connection via Bluecoats. Wealthy Bluecoat donors provide help to officer’s families if killed on duty. At one Bluecoat meeting Fred Crawford, boss of TRW, Inc. made a racial joke about Stokes. The PD reporter cited it in his coverage but it was removed before publication. Someone sent the original copy to me and it appeared in POV.
Stokes may have thought he had a surprising solution. He believed he had found an answer in Gen. Benjamin Davis. Davis was retiring as an Air Force three star general. (He got a 4th star from President Bill Clinton). Stokes had had trouble with naming a Safety Director. So Stokes met with him secretly and asked him to come to Cleveland as Safety Director. The police would have to respect him, thought Stokes. He writes that he allowed himself “to be carried into the greatest personal debacle of my career.”
However, I believe the result revealed Stokes’s incredible political talent when his choice became a critical mistake. Davis was loved by the police and by the Cleveland business and media establishments. They thought of him as Stokes’s replacement.
I put the Davis situation in clear, simple language, noting that he was supposed to “bridge the gap between the police and the Stokes Administration.”
But I noted instead, “He joined the cops.”
Stokes put it another way in his book, “Jim Stanton (Stokes bitter rival and Council President) love him, the newspapers loved him, the white community loved him. And … the police fell madly in love with him.”
It didn’t work that way.
Davis, apparently taken by all the adulation he was receiving, struck at Stokes in a devastating way.
He wrote a letter of resignation, claiming Stokes was supporting “enemies of law enforcement.”
The hit was where Stokes was most vulnerable—on community safety.
“I find it necessary and desirable to resign as director of public safety,” Davis wrote in a letter to Stokes.
“The reasons are simple: I am not receiving from you and your administration the support my programs require. And the enemies of law enforcement continue to receive support and comfort from you and your administration. I request your acceptance of my resignation at your earliest convenience.”
It was a news bombshell. It became a news media frenzy.
I wrote at the time that Tom Guthrie, an assistant to PD publisher Tom Vail and someone reporters felt was intolerant of blacks, rarely wrote anything. But here he couldn’t resist, blessing Davis with “absolute integrity.” He apparently learned this reporting that Davis’s golf shots were “right down the middle,” revealing himself as a golf partner of the General.
Not only did Davis say enemies of law were ascended but Stokes was supporting them.
“This damn hero,” said Stokes, “was accusing me of harboring criminals; suddenly all the racist rumor about me were confirmed,” Stokes wrote.
The charge, however, lacked political shrewdness on Davis’s part. He was a straight-laced commander, not a politician.
He excited the news media. However, he wouldn’t name any “enemies of law enforcement.” He remained silent.
Stokes, shocked by the press favorable response to the Davis charges, called upon Davis to name the names of these “enemies of the law.”
Davis stood his ground. After all, he was the General. His word was The Word.
Stokes, at a packed press conference, put out the names himself. He had gotten them privately from the General.
It blew a giant hole in the General’s and media’s damning story.
As I’ve written before the “enemies” list included the Council of Churches, the Call & Post, a black community newspaper, and a settlement house.
None were on anyone’s “wanted” list. It was a blunder by Davis, He didn’t understand Cleveland.
Stokes had set the political trap for Gen. Davis. His reluctance to name names did him in. Further, Stokes had more ammo.
At the time there had been attacks on blacks in the Tremont area. Police did little or nothing to suppress the violence. Davis ignored it. I had written about the issue two weeks before. Neither its councilman, Dennis Kucinich at the time, nor Davis moved to quell the violence.
Davis apparently thought he was headed for greater things in Cleveland.
I wrote in July 1970: “Davis began getting tacit support from parts of the media and the Democratic and Republican parties looking for a candidate in 1969.
Stokes, of course, not only survived the crisis but went on to win the election in 1969.
I had a young man in Stokes’s office that provided me with information. I was able to print that Davis tried to order 30,000 Remington 38 special, 125 grain hollow point bullets. At the City Club about this time, Davis charged that black nationalists were “out to get police and out to get us.” I then noted that it appeared he got it backwards.
After Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in July of 1968, Stokes walked the streets of Cleveland. Cleveland had no rioting that night as other cities exploded.
So the corporate community joined with Stokes in a program supposedly to attend to some of the urban problems. It was called Cleveland Now but was not heavily funded. The media played it up as a serious attack on poverty. It was a phony program.
In 1993 I was given a celebratory night marking 25 years of publishing the newsletter. I walked in and could see Carl Stokes standing in front of the stage. He was reading it. The headline on Vol. 1 No. 1 was:
Just ask yourself: Is the answer to the massive physical and social problems of American cities to be found in 55 cent contributions of widows, 10 cent donations of welfare children, or one hour’s wages of laborers.
Cleveland Now creates the illusion that it is. Therefore, it’s a pornographic answer to the city’s ills. It is a diversion.
I quickly walked up and said, “You don’t want to read that Carl.” He said, I believe amused, “It’s the only thing up there.”
When he left office, Stokes went off to New York City, where if you can make it there you can make it anywhere. He became an anchor at the local NBC TV station.
But he returned in the late 1970s. First to bolster Dennis Kucinich’s run against George Voinovich, the corporate darling who claimed to like “Fat Cats” and did. “I want as many in Cleveland as I can get,” he told the New York Times.
But his return had to be part of a deal. The United Auto Workers were big backers of Kucinich. The steel union became a Stokes law client. A major client he lost with a change in national union leadership.
I remember at the time meeting him on the street downtown. He invited me up to see his new offices. The office was being reconstructed.
I remember him telling me, “You didn’t think I came back to be a Councilman, did you?” Hadn’t even thought of that.
But I figured he came back to resume his place as the town’s major powerbroker, particularly in the black community. But it was too late. George Forbes had consolidated power and wasn’t about to share. Forbes had made his deal with the white Democrats and the white business community. And they with him.
He was their guy.
My personal remembrances of Stokes were mostly good.
When he was mayor WKYC-TV had televised press conferences with city hall reporters questioning Mayor Stokes. I pushed my way in. At one point Channel 3 management tried to bar me. Stokes essentially said I was in or he was out. They couldn’t so easily dismiss me, thanks to Stokes. The show went on for a time. It’s shameful that today there is no real live coverage of the mayor or the county executive. A weekly press conference would produce news.
One experience wasn’t good. That’s when he sent me a threatening letter. He threatened to sue me. I believe I know the reason. It had to do with that power thing. I ran the headline on his threat: STOKES: POV LIES [Page 3, JH].
He was right. I had inadvertently made a mistake. Indeed, I had called him about an organization I was to write about. He told me he didn’t really know much and that he wasn’t a member. His brother Lou Stokes was, he said.
When I ran the list of members I erroneously typed in both Lou and Carl Stokes. This was early 1982.
I apologized after running his entire letter of complaint. I never heard anything else about it.
I believe he was sending a shot across the bow. He worried about any criticism of him at that time, especially that someone would write negatively about him. I would have been a minor possible hazard but he knew Point Of Viəw did have limited but readership among politicians, media and corporate types.
Stokes did invite me to speak to a class he was teaching at Case-Western Reserve University. Most mayors seem to get teaching positions at local universities after serving.
Following the class with Stokes he asked me to dinner at the now gone Boarding House on Euclid near Mayfield Road. We had dinner upstairs.
When we finished and were coming down the stairs, a young black man playing pool looked up. He said, “Hey aren’t you….” and anyone could finish that sentence: “Carl Stokes, right?” But instead he continued, “Roldo?” I was recognized because The Edition, a classy alternative, used a caricature of me with a column I wrote. More people recognize me from that drawing than from any photo of me.
I couldn’t believe that Carl Stokes would go unrecognized. It didn’t upset him but it reveals how easily we forget our history.
As we left the restaurant, Stokes said something to the effect that “wouldn’t Dick Feagler make a story of that.”
Feagler was a favorite of Stokes. He could write the touchy-feely columns that just aren’t done here anymore.
I always regret that the last time I saw Stokes he was picking up something from my home. We didn’t talk long. I regret that I didn’t ask him to sit and share some time with him.
He died not long after.
Carl Stokes: Reflections of a veteran political observer
By Brent Larkin, The Plain Dealer November 04, 2007 at 5:52 AM, updated November 04, 2007 at 6:06 AM
By midnight, all seemed lost. And the mood inside Carl B. Stokes’ downtown headquarters had turned decidedly gloomy.
Destiny was about to deny Stokes what he wanted most — to be the first black elected mayor of a major American city. With 70 percent of the vote counted, Republican Seth Taft had built what seemed an insurmountable lead. As Election Day turned to Wednesday, Taft had pulled in front by 20,000 votes.
It seemed that Stokes, a 40-year-old state representative who had handily defeated incumbent Mayor Ralph Locher in the Democratic primary, would lose the general election to a Republican — in a city with a minuscule Republican population.
Cleveland Press reporter Dick Feagler would write that women wept during this “tense, trying period” when defeat seemed certain.
“A Dixieland band played ‘S’Wonderful,’ but it wasn’t,” described Feagler, adding that for “four hours it appeared Seth Taft had won.”
“There was really a sense of despair,” recalled Anne Bloomberg, at the time a 26-year-old civil rights activist and campaign volunteer. “Our hopes were so high going in, and it looked like it would all be for naught.”
But then it all began to change. Votes from predominantly black, East Side neighborhoods were the last to be counted. Slowly, but inexorably, Taft’s lead began to shrink.
“We had ward-watchers in the neighborhoods and we knew Carl would come back,” recalled Ann Felber Kiggen, Stokes’ campaign scheduler. “When it began to happen, I remember this incredible feeling that swept through the headquarters. People were dancing and holding hands. It was uncontained joy.”
It was 3 a.m. when, with nearly 900 of the city’s 903 precincts reporting, Stokes took the lead for the first time. Out of 250,000 votes cast, he won by 2,500.
Then, as the mayor-elect appeared before about 400 jubilant supports, the room grew quiet when he declared, “I can say to all of you that never before have I known the full meaning of the words, ‘God Bless America.’ ”
In his autobiography, “Promises of Power,” Stokes would later marvel at the magnitude of what happened that night.
In a race for high office, the grandson of a slave had defeated the grandson of a president.
That had never happened before. And it hasn’t happened since.
The Cleveland that elected Carl B. Stokes mayor was a far cry from than the one that chose Michael R. White as the city’s second black mayor 22 years later — and light years removed from the one that elected Frank Jackson in 2005.
In 1967, Cleveland was still a top-10 city, with a population north of 750,000 — nearly 300,000 more than today. Because race was as much a factor in city politics then as it is now, Stokes’ election was all the more remarkable; the city’s black population was only about 35 percent then. Today, that figure surpasses 53 percent.
To defeat Seth Taft, a decent man with a magic name who would later serve with distinction as a Cuyahoga County commissioner, Stokes needed white votes — lots of them.
“We knew we had to broaden our base on the west and south sides,” recalled Charlie Butts, Stokes’ brainy, 25-year-old campaign manager fresh out of Oberlin College. “But we had to be careful not to give the appearance of running different campaigns in different parts of town.”
To give his campaign legitimacy, Stokes desperately needed support from whites in corporate boardrooms and city neighborhoods. He got it from this newspaper, which endorsed him on the front page.
He got it from people like Bob Bry, a vice president of Otis Elevator who organized a group of business leaders to take out newspaper ads on Stokes’ behalf.
“I was a registered Republican, but my sympathies were with what Carl was trying to do,” said Bry, now 84 and living in Florida. “Some business leaders were bothered by it. But no one ever said anything to my face.”
He got it from people like Ann and Joe McManamon — and hundreds of others like them — who paid a price for welcoming Stokes into their living rooms and churches.
“There were recriminations,” remembered Ann McManamon. “We got some very hateful phone calls. It got a quite nasty. But our friends stuck with us and were supportive.”
Nearly one in five whites voted for Stokes — which meant he needed nearly nine out of every 10 black votes.
To win those votes, Stokes built a political organization that, to this day, serves as a model for black candidates across the country. It was a base that relied heavily on churches, ward leaders and a grass-roots field operation that extensively schooled street captains on how to maximize turnout.
That same base later enabled Stokes’ brother, Lou, to become an institution in Congress. It helped make former City Council President George Forbes powerful and wealthy. And it twice brought Arnold Pinkney to the brink of becoming Cleveland’s second black mayor.
It was a base built to last — and last it did.
“All around the country — in places like Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago — black candidates copied what Carl was able to achieve in Cleveland,” said his brother. “What made it special was that it was done so well and had never been done before.”
There was no blueprint for electing a black mayor of a major American city. So Stokes drew his own.
“He had a plan on how to win, and he never strayed from it,” said Forbes. “In his prime, there was none better — none.”
Stokes won re-election in 1969, but did not seek a third term in 1971, leaving soon after for New York, where he was a television anchor and later a reporter for NBC. Over the years, Stokes gave various reasons for his decision not to seek a third term, but he was clearly tired of the constant struggles involved in leading a big city with mounting problems.
Stokes record as mayor was decidedly mixed. He brought a sense of fairness to the city’s hiring practices, helped raise the level of social services, and aggressively fought to improve housing conditions. But Stokes fought repeatedly with City Council, and revelations that some funds from a poverty-fighting program he founded went to nationalists involved in the killing of police in the Glenville riots significantly eroded his popularity.
Upon his return to Cleveland in 1980, Stokes found that the new political stars were his brother and Forbes. In 1983, he became a Municipal Court judge — an important position that lacked the high profile of a powerful congressman and council president. There were also some troubling and embarrassing moments. Stokes engaged in some high-profile political fights with onetime allies and was twice accused of shoplifting — he paid restitution on one charge and was acquited of another.
But none of what happened later detracts from the significance of what Stokes achieved in 1967.
Many black leaders in the ’60s aspired to be Cleveland’s mayor, but only one ever stood a chance.
“Only one person could have built that base,” said Pinkney. “Only one person had the charisma, the experience and the drive to win. Back then, it took a special talent for a black to be elected mayor. And only Carl had that talent. ”
Stokes was not a civil rights leader. He was a politician. And four decades later, Pinkney and others still speak with a sense of awe of Stokes’ political gifts. Charles Butts thinks Stokes was born with “an intellect, understanding and chemistry that allowed him to connect to voters” in ways almost unprecedented. Forbes volunteers that Stokes “had the whole package — looks, the charm and one of the sharpest political minds I’ve ever seen.” Ann Felber Kiggen says he was “the most charismatic man anyone could hope to ever meet.”
In his book, Stokes wrote that he considered the 1965 campaign for mayor, in which he narrowly lost to Locher in the Democratic primary, “the high point of my career.”
He was mistaken. The 1965 campaign energized Stokes’ base. And it set the table for what would follow. But it paled, compared to what would happen two years later.
For all his winning ways, Stokes was also the most complex politician I ever dealt with. He could be warm and witty one day, your enemy the next.
On Jan. 30, 1996, we visited over lunch at an East Side restaurant. He knew by then that his fight with cancer of the esophagus was one he couldn’t win.
As Stokes picked at food he could barely swallow, he spoke with no rancor as he reminisced about those days of glory that landed him on the cover of Time magazine. He wasn’t finished looking ahead, either: He eagerly agreed to meet with a group of young journalists at this newspaper to talk about how the political process affects minorities, and we chose a date in February.
But when the day came, he was too ill. By early April, he was gone.
He had long before kept the date that mattered most, though. That was the one back in 1967 that made him, in the sense of history, immortal.
Brent Larkin is director of The Plain Dealer’s editorial pages
“Burn On, Big River…” Cuyahoga River Fires The Pop History Dig
Surprisingly good web content on the Cuyahoga River fires
Seth Taft Congratulates Carl Stokes in 1967 (Cleveland Memory)
The Election That Changed Cleveland Forever
By Michael D. Roberts
That autumn in Cleveland was crisp and colorful with low clouds, high expectations and an anxious electorate. With the season, came the wonder whether the city could look beyond race and elect a black man as its mayor. It had never been done in a major American city. The world wondered whether it could be done.
By 1967, race had been the dominant issue in Cleveland since the beginning of the decade, first with demonstrations against what minorities considered a segregated school system, and then with a riot that left four dead and required the Ohio National Guard to quell four days of looting and violence.
In the wake of the Hough riot in the summer of 1966, an ominous apprehension settled over the city. Those venturing to the eastern parts of the town did so warily for sporadic gunfire was a common occurrence. A policeman had been ambushed in his zone car and killed. A black student was murdered near Murray Hill.
Downtown, the business community grew apprehensive. For years, the city had ignored the quality of life among the growing black population, which had migrated here from the south to work at jobs created by three wars. The housing was dilapidated, the schools inadequate, and the future bleak.
The anger created by these conditions was manifested in the demonstrations and finally in the riot.
In the midst of the turmoil, the emerging black political figure was Carl B. Stokes, a lawyer who had grown up in poverty, and had worked as a liquor agent and then was elected to the Ohio state legislature. Stokes ran for mayor in 1965 and met narrow defeat at the hand of incumbent Mayor Ralph Locher.
Locher was one of a long line of mayors who rose from the neighborhoods and represented the ethnic politics that had bound the city for two decades. The hallmark of ethnic politics was a numbing status quo that rendered the city somnambulate.
All was not well as the city prepared for the 1967 mayor’s race in which Locher would try to retain his office and once again face the charismatic Stokes and his growing number of East Side followers who registered to vote in multitudes.
The last minute appearance of Stokes in the 1967 Democratic primary was a change from the strategy that saw him run as an independent in the 1965 election. Several other veteran politicians measured their chances in the primary and opted out with the exception of Frank Celeste, who had made a name for himself as the mayor of Lakewood.
The Locher administration found itself embattled following the 1965 election. A failing urban renewal program and the riot had attracted the attention of a national media that had become so critical that Locher refused to speak with out of town reporters.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development called Cleveland the Vietnam of urban renewal and ceased funding the city’s program. The local media piled on to criticize the Locher administration with acid regularity, bemoaning a city hall that had seemingly lost its course
Conversely, the appearance of Stokes in the primary attracted the attention of not only the national media, but the international as well. As the primary campaign shifted into gear, it was clear that Stokes was becoming a political persona of some dimension.
And finally, when The Plain Dealer endorsed his candidacy in a surprising editorial, Stokes in his own words was legitimized. That attention magnified when he defeated Locher in the primary by 18,231 votes.
Now the stage was set for one of the most dramatic and interesting mayoral races in Cleveland history. It would feature Stokes against Republican Seth Taft whose political heritage included a U.S. president, William Howard Taft, and a U.S. Senator, Robert Taft.
Seth Taft was a lawyer in a prominent Cleveland law firm, and was an ardent supporter of regional government. He did not match up well with Stokes when it came to personality or oratory skills. No one questioned his honesty, competency and dedication, but he was a suburban interloper from Pepper Pike.
What Taft needed most was name recognition in the city. He had to position himself as close to Stokes as he could in order to challenge his opponent’s knowledge of the Cleveland and the government that ran it. Taft was a student of government process.
He also was a decided underdog as an early poll showed him getting only 16.4% of the vote in a race with Stokes who could expect 49.2%. Of those polled, the rest were undecided or said they would not vote.
At the heart of both campaigns was a series of debates that would showcase the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. Taft wanted debates on specific issues, but Stokes wanted a more free-wheeling approach, which would emphasize his oratory skills.
But lurking behind any topic that a debate might feature, was the factor of race. Robert Bennett, who was Taft’s campaign manager, remembers a meeting in which the candidate told the staff that he would not tolerate the use of race in any aspect of his campaign.
The Stokes campaign made the same vow, but the circumstances involved, and the historic nature of the event, made the approach different. It had to make white voters think beyond the color of the candidate’s skin—to the man himself.
Both candidates needed the debates to legitimize them as potential leaders and gain the support of the business community, the grassroots and perhaps most of all, the newspapers. The debates would be the proving ground for attracting the necessary support to win.
The Stokes victory over Locher had a transcendent effect on his campaign for now the weight of the Democratic Party, which had been reluctant to embrace him, unified with a mighty rally at Public Music Hall which sent an ominous warning to the Taft camp.
In the wake of the spirited moment, the candidates agreed on four debates with the last being the traditional City Club confrontation that generally was considered the final argument in Cleveland mayoral contests.
Meanwhile, the ranks of visiting journalists were swelling with arrivals from Germany, Holland, Italy, England and elsewhere. They descended on their local counterparts, searching for insights into the race like soothsayers studying tea leaves.
The fall was electric with anticipation and excitement. There was never anything like it in recent memory and media covered every machination in the campaign, including the baby elephant that the Taft camp had hired to tout its candidate.
The first debate was held on the black East Side at Alexander Hamilton Junior High School, which Taft selected to thrust himself into the midst of Stokes country. The evening was unseasonably hot as the two met for their first duel. The auditorium was full and the debate was broadcast to an estimated 100,000 television viewers.
The media had cloaked the confrontation in drama, and the evening took on the allure of a sporting event.
But for all the tense expectation, the night turned out to be a bust for Taft, who was no match for the elusive Stokes who dodged and weaved through the debate as the boxer he once was. Stokes painted Taft as an intruder in Cleveland, a “carpetbagger” from Pepper Pike, which he contrasted to embattled Hough. He noted repeatedly that Taft lived in a house with seven bedrooms.
Taft responded weakly, noting that Carl Stokes had no programs designed to meet the growing urban problems. Later, Taft acknowledged to his staff that the debate had been a disaster for him.
And then, two nights later, in the second debate on the white West Side at John Marshall High School, Carl Stokes, basking in triumph, made a mistake that would suck the momentum from his campaign. It showed how combustible the race issue was.
Taft did so poorly in the first debate that he had attracted a sympathetic following that viewed Stokes as being arrogant and overbearing to his opponent. That was the background on which the miscalculation played out.
The white West Side crowd at the second debate was disposed to Taft, especially when he opened with a condemnation of Stokes, citing his arrogance, belligerence and bravado. The audience responded with cheers and applause.
When Stokes took the podium and proceeded to ridicule Taft for living in a mansion in Pepper Pike, he was roundly taunted to the point that the crowd interrupted his prepared speech. And then he made the mistake that made the campaign a neck and neck race.
“I am going to be brutally frank with you—and brutally frank with Seth Taft, Stokes said. “….Seth Taft may win the November 7th election for only one reason. That reason is that his skin happens to be white.”
The remark had the effect of a bomb. The auditorium reverberated with noise and anger as the crowd hollered in protest. Taft sat dumbfounded, stunned that his opponent would open up himself to the race issue in such a blatant manner.
And then, in what would be the best moment of his campaign, Taft rose and said: “It seems that the race issue is with us. If I say something on the subject it is racism. If Carl Stokes says something it is fair play.”
With that, Taft held up a full page newspaper ad for Carl Stokes. In huge type was the crying pronouncement:
DON’T VOTE FOR A NEGRO, vote for a man. Let’s do Cleveland Proud! What has Cleveland done that makes us so proud? Nominated a Negro for mayor! Do yourself proud by electing one.
The reaction to the introduction of the race issue was so vehement that Stokes’ campaign manager, Dr. Kenneth Clement, was quoted as saying that he wished there was a third candidate that he could vote for. He predicted that if his candidate continued to dedicate his campaign to race he would lose.
The following day results of the Stokes blunder began to flow into Taft headquarters in the form of money and pledges of support, which energized the campaign staff in a way no other event could. The problem was that the polls still reflected poorly on the Taft effort.
Taft began to chide Stokes, telling voters and reporters that people were beginning to see through the guile and charm the candidate brandished to find the man had no substance. He accused Stokes of avoiding him at neighborhood meetings.
A third debate, held downtown at St. John’s College on Thursday, October 19, proved to be so uninspiring that it received little or no news coverage.
Carl Stokes was not only facing Taft in the race, he began to struggle against the indifference of key supporters like the Democratic Party and labor which offered lip service but in the campaign trenches did little. Racism was at work like an unseen gas it wafted through the city.
Taft was beginning to annoy Stokes, who had a temper that when unchecked appeared to alter his personality. Taft’s continuous harassment, that his opponent had no real program or agenda for city hall, was beginning to bother Stokes both emotionally and politically. The once insurmountable lead that he held over Taft was eroding.
The planned final debate was the traditional City Club meeting which took place the Saturday before the election. That was too late. Taft another shot at the wounded Stokes. He needed another debate.
Both candidates sensed the need for an extra debate, but for different reasons. Taft needed recognition as a legitimate candidate and Stokes had to show that he had the intellectual wherewithal to bring change and performance to city hall. They agreed to the extra debate which turned out to be as anticlimactic as yesterday’s newspaper.
The candidates needled each other on Saturday, October 28, at the Music Hall an afternoon when most of the television audience was watching Notre Dame lose to Michigan State in an important football game for the national championship ranking.
On top of that, the debate was less than newsworthy, a tedious recitation of tired charges and overused rebuttals. But there was a noticeable change in the manner in which Stokes carried himself.
As the race began to conclude Stokes was trying a different strategy. He was toning down his style, hoping to appear more reflective and above the brawling rhetoric that had marked his entry into the campaign. His earlier reference to race had been a calculated effort to get the issue out in the open early. Now his advisers feared that Taft supporters, outside of the official campaign, were employing whispering tactics and using race against Stokes.
On the first of November, a Wednesday, The Plain Dealer published a poll with stunning results. It showed Stokes receiving 50.14% of the vote and Taft, 49.86%. Taft had gained substantially, and with the election just six days off, the final debate at the City Club loomed as large as any that had taken place in the citadel of free speech, as the club bills itself.
That Saturday, November fourth, the debate was held at the Hotel-Sheraton Cleveland (now the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel) to take advantage of its spacious ballroom. Taft came out aggressively calling his opponent an absentee Democrat, an absentee legislator and implying that he would become an absentee mayor as well.
Stokes, his emotions in check, carefully outlined his plans as mayor and stuck to his prepared text, ignoring Taft’s barbs. The Stokes camp was tense, for every time the candidate wandered from carefully prepared remarks, he got himself in trouble. This time he persevered and delivered the last major blow of the campaign.
The very last question that Taft presented to Stokes was a reference to his less than stellar attendance record in the legislature. Stokes paused for a moment and then reached into his pocket and withdrew a letter and read it.
“The reports I hear of your performance in Columbus are excellent and I congratulate you on the job.”
It was signed by Seth Taft.
Three days later Carl Stokes was elected the mayor of the City of Cleveland by a vote of 129,396 to 127,717. The count went well into the early morning hours and only in the end was it clear that Stokes was the winner. He garnered only 15% of the white vote but it was enough to tip the election his way.
Afterwards, the two opponents had a private meeting and cleared the air of the animosity that had accumulated during the campaign.
Meanwhile, as that November hardened into winter, a sense of decency and pride descended like gentle snow upon the town. The election of Carl Stokes was one of the most triumphant moments in Cleveland history and a major national civil rights achievement. The town deserved to be proud as did the world.
Michael D. Roberts was a Plain Dealer reporter in 1967 and covered the entire Stokes-Taft campaign. At the conclusion of the race he wrote a lengthy account of the race with the reporting of William C. Barnard and James M. Naughton. The newspaper recognized the historical moment and devoted resources and an enormous amount of space in its Sunday Magazine on December 10, 1967. The original Sunday Magazine piece is here