Money and Mobilization: Volunteers in the Stokes Mayoral Campaign by Elis Ribeiro


Money and Mobilization: Volunteers in the Stokes Mayoral Campaign
by Elis Ribeiro

Carl Stokes’s narrow win could not have happened without the mobilization of his large African-American bloc vote and the small but significant portion of the white vote. These votes were delivered in 1967 by volunteers who offered their time, strength, and money in order to guarantee victory. While other important factors affected Clevelanders in their voting choices, it was the work of volunteers, who physically brought out the votes for Stokes and gave him the winning edge in both the primaries and general election of 1967. By drawing on their efforts from Stokes’s first mayoral race in 1965, volunteers were able to perfect their campaigning system. During his victory speech, Carl Stokes referred to his supporters, stating that “never has one man owed so much to so many.”1 While it may seem like political jargon, his narrow victory over Republican Seth Taft clearly shows the importance of Stokes’s volunteers.
The grass roots support for Carl Stokes’s mayoral campaign began even before he had intended to run. In fact, it was because of two women that Stokes entered the 1965 mayoral race. Geraldine Williams and Jean Murrell Capers, both active community leaders in Cleveland, went to Columbus, Ohio, where Carl Stokes was a State Representative, to convince him to run for Mayor of Cleveland. Stokes responded by telling them to get 20,000 signatures, 5,000 more than what was needed to run as an independent.2 The women returned to Cleveland and were able to gather about 25,000 signatures, with a significant white percentage.3 Carl Stokes realized he had a legitimate chance in the election and used these signatures to enter his Independent bid into the 1965 Mayoral race.

Stokes had decided to run as an independent, instead of as a Democrat, because it would mean that he could bypass the primaries, causing a four-way general election, where he could try to secure a plurality of votes in his favor. However, because he had registered as an Independent, he had no support from the political institutions that had helped to put him into the Ohio State Legislature. Therefore, he had to rely on his inexperienced but passionate volunteers. Through their work, his campaign became entirely a grass-roots effort.

To enlist volunteers, the Stokes for Mayor Committee had various means of reaching out to people. They had applications in the headquarters office, solicited through mailings, and had advertisements in the newspaper asking for volunteers. Outside supporters also helped them gain volunteers by holding speeches and rallying events.4 One volunteer said that “as each person was called in by Mr. Stokes himself or someone close to him, they stuck and brought in others.”5

In regards to African-Americans, the main strategy was to register voters and then get them to the polls on Election Day. They were the group that Stokes needed because they constituted almost 40% of the Cleveland population.6 The campaign committee, under the guidance of Marvin Chernoff, a 35 year-old office machine salesman turned volunteer, created an organizational hierarchy to have as much control and activity occurring at the rank-and-file level as possible.7 The highest level for a volunteer was as a block supervisor, who would maintain supervision over thirty to forty neighboring houses. Underneath them would be street captains who helped the block supervisors with organizing their streets.8 Together, they would blanket the neighborhoods with street signs, brochures, and visits reminding neighbors when to vote. The hierarchy structure allowed communication to flow easily among those involved in the campaign.9

In the 1965 Mayoral race however, Stokes lost the election against Ralph Locher, the incumbent Democratic mayor, by less than one half of one percent of the votes. Still he finished second out of the four candidates. The loss was actually beneficial to Stokes because it proved that he had a strong chance at a later victory. Many African Americans, who did not vote, had done so because they felt that Stokes did not have any chance to win.10 With the narrow loss, many people later realized that their vote could make a difference.

It was also a learning experience for all the volunteers involved. They had learned that the Block Supervisor strategy worked to mobilize voters, but more importantly showed what areas needed more support. Furthermore, the results showed that Stokes needed to draw more white supporters, of which only 3% voted for him in 1965.11 By applying these lessons to 1967, Stokes’s organization, with the help of outside volunteers, would be able to draw out the necessary support for his victory.

Between 1965 and 1967, certain events came to the forefront of voters’ concerns. During the beginning of his administration, Mayor Locher developed a sorry record in regards to African-American concerns. City Hall had been unresponsive to the Negro community from the very beginning. Urban Renewal on the East Side was so disastrous that U.S. Secretary Weaver cut off federal funding coming into the city. His administration was already facing strong criticism early on.12

What brought racial issues to the height of Clevelanders’ concerns was the Hough Riots. For Cleveland, the riots symbolized the need for better race relations and law and order. The Riots started on July 18, 1966, when a Cafe in Hough refused to serve an African-American customer water. For a week, Hough was in chaos. By the time the rioting stopped, there were four people dead and millions of dollars in property damage.13

Mayor Locher’s response to the riots was that they had been fueled by Communists. He based this claim on the fact that his investigators had found a connection between the rioters and members of the W.E.B. Dubois Club in Cleveland, a Communist front.14 However, even with this conclusion, no one was charged for instigating the riots. Carl Stokes reacted to Locher’s response by demanding a federal investigation. He wrote to the U.S. Attorney General saying, “As a former assistant prosecutor for four years, I refuse to believe that if the County Grand Jury had evidence to support its conclusions [that Communists instigated the riots] that there isn’t an Ohio law under which those persons could be charged.”15 Others in Cleveland knew that Locher’s claim that it was a communist based problem was used just to avoid the real problems in Cleveland. “Actually, the living conditions were the things that caused the riots,” the Hough Community Relations Director said “They [the rioters] didn’t need any Communists to tell them they were suffering.”16

As racial tensions escalated, Mayor Locher continually refused to meet with African-American community leaders. Other events throughout that year only perpetuated the idea that someone was needed to address these racial issues. By 1967, it became apparent that Mayor Locher would need to start addressing these issues, or get out of the way for someone who could.

In 1967, the mayoral election was receiving national attention because of the strong possibility that Stokes could become the first African-American mayor of a major city. This time around, Stokes decided to run as a Democrat, not as an Independent. He explained his decision by saying “a realistic appraisal of the political situation indicates that the next mayor in Cleveland will be chosen in the Democratic primary.”17 He then explained, “High national officials of the Democratic Party have urged me to enter the primary. So have many rank and file Democrats, and thousands of good citizens whose only concern is the future of Cleveland.”18 In fact, President Johnson had actually helped to persuade Stokes to run as a Democrat, telling Carl that he would have his full support when elected Mayor. 19 Therefore, Stokes assumed that by staying within the party, he would be able to gain their support throughout the election process.

However, little support and much resistance came from the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party (CCDP) throughout this race. During the week before the primaries, the CCDP sent out newsletters stating that Stokes would become the Dictator of Cleveland. It said Stokes would allow Dr. Martin Luther King to take over the city. It asked “Do you want Dr. Martin Luther King and his disciples running your lives? Keep Martin Luther King out of City Hall. Ralph Locher is the mayor of all the people.”20 Furthermore, the CCDP refused to allow Stokes speak at any Party meetings. They claimed that because he had previously run as an Independent, they were entitled to refuse him entrance into party events.21

Unfortunately for the CCDP, this action only brought more positive attention to Stokes. Supporters held protest rallies and demanded that Stokes be allowed a chance to talk. One woman was quoted saying that “It looks like they put the party ahead of the people – the people want to hear Stokes, and the voice of the people should be honored.”22 At a protest rally in Ward 10, someone else argued that “We feel Mr. (Albert S.) [sic] Porter [President of the CCDP] has made a racial issue out of this matter, since Porter permits Mayor Locher, who the party endorsed, and Frank Celeste [the other Democratic Primary candidate], who was not endorsed, to speak before the Democratic Ward clubs, but denies Stokes the same right.”23 Therefore, instead of relying on his party, Stokes had to depend on his volunteers.

Voter drives in African-American neighborhoods were started as soon as Stokes had announced his candidacy. A united effort from the NAACP, The Urban League, and the United Pastor’s Association established a coordinated program to register voters in the inner city. Martin Luther King and other African American figures came to Cleveland to show their support and urge people to register to vote. 24 Later on CORE, which had a strong local chapter in Cleveland, joined with the UPA and SCLC with its mobilization efforts. They donated “several thousand dollars in equipment and supplies. This would include staff workers, researches door to door workers, community relations, and transportation workers some of whom would work on a volunteer basis.”25 In fact, CORE had a $175,000 grant from the Ford Foundation in order to register black voters.26

Call & Post, July 15, 1967. 12A Courtesy of WRHS
Even small community groups came together to start their own registration drives. One early group was called “Teens for Stokes”. A group of about 300 high school students came together for gathering signatures for the candidacy petition to help Stokes file as a candidate. After he announced his candidacy, they held social events to gather support. For example, they would hold dance-offs where teams would compete against each other, dancing to live bands. 27  These events brought the community together and let people have fun while registering to vote, donating money or signing up to volunteer.28

These efforts were separate from those of Stokes’s own mobilization campaign. They launched a voter registration project in eight East-Side wards. This effort began early and was carried on very quietly. The Stokes for Mayor effort made sure to separate themselves from the outside groups, for fear of the backlash among white voters.29 They first targeted citizens who had been dropped off of the voting registers for changing their name, moving, or not voting in the past four years.30 Using the 1965 Block Supervisor model, this time they were able to have over 2,000 supervisors who worked the streets in a massive effort to contact every person on their block with a listed telephone.31 After someone registered, they received a bright orange sticker saying “Registered, STOKES, Vote Primary, Vote STOKES”32

Besides simply signing people up on their own, volunteers also drove citizens to the Board of Elections offices to register. Again organized by the united NAACP, SCLC, and CORE efforts, car-pools took thousands of voters in the downtown area to register. In a period of three weeks, it was estimated that over 3,000 people were driven downtown to register, with an average of 177 people per day. One of the most targeted areas was the Hough neighborhood, which saw 432 new registrants due to the car pools.33 However, the city did try to prevent these efforts by forcing car pool drivers to move their cars, threatening to ticket them.34

To gain white voter support, Carl Stokes needed financial resources to create mainstream ads and appeal. Outside volunteer organizations were important to this financial support. The added emphasis for funding is seen by the increase in contributions between 1965 and 1967. In 1965, Stokes had only $40,000 for his campaign, but in 1967 he had over $250,000.35 While much of this money was donated by business leaders who had been swayed by Stokes’s personality, many significant donations were made by collections from the communities. Any donation was appreciated, and people were ready to give Stokes their financial support. Less than a week after Stokes filed as a candidate, a thirteen-year-old girl donated her entire piggy bank savings to his campaign.36 Every little bit did add up for support.

Professionals also came together and donated considerable amounts to Stokes’ campaign. For example, Lawyers for Stokes donated 5,000 dollars to his campaign. Also, Dents for Stokes, a group of dentists, donated 5,350 dollars.37 Members or labor groups came together to donate as well. A group of African-American plumbers in the Cleveland area each sent checks for undisclosed amounts to the Stokes’ for Mayor committee.38 African-American professionals would also hold fundraising dinners to raise thousands of dollars as well. 39

Letterhead of Feminine Touch, 1967. Courtesy of WRHS
Others developed unique and different methods of fundraising. For example, “The Feminine Touch,” also known as “Thins for Stokes,” was a group started by one woman. Similar to a pyramid program, she asked one hundred women to head up nine teams with thirty-six workers.40 Between September 18th and 27th, each woman involved was asked to find ten friends to donate $1. In turn, each of her friends was to ask ten friends for a donation and to recruit ten more friends 41 With 46 members on each team raising $10, each team would have $460. If each team brought in their required amount, the one hundred teams would have raised $46,000. The idea symbolized how simply donating a small amount could do so much. In two weeks, they were able to raise over $24,000.42

The Stokes campaign adopted this idea by promoting people to donate one dollar to the campaign through his own ads.43 Whenever the campaign received a dollar, they replied with a thank-you letter. The letter acknowledged that “One dollar can still buy four quarts of milk, twenty nickel candy bars, three packs of cigarettes, or a night at the movies.” Instead of spending on food or entertainment, they were contributing towards making Cleveland a better place.44

These financial donations were used to wage an advertising campaign to woo white voters. Learning from the previous election, the Stokes campaign knew that they had to draw in more white support to guarantee a victory. Thus, the advertising campaign was used in television and radio spots, newspaper ads, and literature to attract swing voters.45 Stokes recorded various television spots ranging from 30 second ads to 5 minutes of him discussing issues such as jobs and urban renewal.46 While his 5 minute clips had him talking in depth, the 30 second ads tended to focus on race relations and law and order, pushing the message that Carl Stokes could help unify Cleveland. For example, one commercial had a police officer, alone in a locker room, putting on riot gear. The narrator meanwhile stated “Some people go to a lot of trouble to go out Saturday night. It doesn’t have to be.” 47 The Stokes campaign made sure to send out the message that he was a leader for all people, who could bring back unity and prosperity to Cleveland.48

Another key demographic that financial resources were used to attract was the Hispanic population of the West Side.49 His pamphlets, showing his opinion on Cleveland issues, were printed in Spanish and distributed in these areas.50 Carl Stokes spent numerous days there campaigning to prove to the primarily Puerto Rican area that he could address their needs. He would go to community dances and social events to appeal to the larger groups.51 While many of the other ethnic neighborhoods on the West Side were not as receptive to Stokes, the Hispanic community felt he could best serve their needs. Ultimately, they contributed a 2,000 solid voter bloc for Stokes.52

On the Primary Election Day, over 5,000 volunteers came out to make sure things ran smoothly. Within the campaign, Block Supervisors had gone door to door putting up notices on every door knob saying “stop- have you voted today?”53 Later in the day they went door-knocking to make sure people were going out to vote. Poll watchers would count up votes to predict the results. In fact, they were within 10 votes of the actual results. 54  They also made sure to note the amount of activity at each precinct. If there were too few people voting, they would have volunteers sent to neighborhoods to encourage voters. 55

One important group of volunteers on Election Day was made of college students. Bill Hunter, a recent college graduate, traveled around to thirty different colleges in Ohio to recruit students to help with the campaign.56 He appealed to them by claiming the election was an important facet of the civil rights fight. Many of these students were not African-American but did feel strongly about civil rights. Even before October 3rd, they were helping out by working the telephones and licking stamps. 57

However, on Primary Day, they came on buses or in their own cars to help out. They would baby-sit children while the homeowner would be driven to their polling places by other students.58 Around 50 students came from Oberlin College, 35 from Kent State, and two busloads came from Central State. Even students from other states came to help. Emma Willard College, in Troy, New York, brought in students to observe the campaign activity for a class, as well as help out between taking notes.59

Carl B. Stokes won the Democratic Primary on October 3, 1967. While the CCDP formally backed Stokes, they still provided little support. Between the Primaries and the General Election, the volunteer tasks were solely focused on voter education. Unlike the 1965 campaign, where Stokes was an Independent, this election had two voting days. Few newly registered voters understood that Stokes was not yet the Mayor. So, the NAACP and Urban League, as well as other grassroots organizations, launched a voter education drive. They had trained instructors to teach voter education to their own mass meetings, small groups, street and neighborhood clubs, and civic groups.60  Even the Call & Post printed weekly information about the general election ballot to make sure people were prepared for the General Election.61

The General Election Day efforts were similar to those of the Primaries, except they were even more prepared. Members of the Stokes for Mayor Campaign had sent out questionnaires to all poll workers to gather enough information about what needed to change. Out of 3,500 forms, 2,100 were returned. The results were used to judge what areas needed more support at polling places, who needed more training, and which areas could use a higher turnout.62

On the General Election Day, the campaign made sure to fix those problems. For example, more college students were in areas where they would be needed to drive people to polls or baby-sit while someone went to vote. Also, more poll watchers were placed in transitional wards, which were areas with an equal amount of African-Americans and White voters, where there had been problems before. By learning the details of each precinct during the October primary, volunteers were able to apply these lessons to November 7th. 63

By the end of the night, as the results of the primarily African-American wards came in, it was clear that Carl Stokes would be Mayor. It was through mass mobilization of eligible voters that the 1967 election had one of the highest voter participation in Cleveland history. The turnout in African-American wards was 80%, the highest ever, with over 90% voting for Carl Stokes. Instead of the 18% of white ward support, it was over 20%.In transitional wards, with 79.1% voter turnout, 60.5% voted for Stokes.  Stokes won with only 50.5% of the votes. With half a percent of a lead, Carl B. Stokes became Cleveland’s 50th mayor and the Nation’s first African-American mayor of a large city.64

Stokes volunteers did whatever was needed in order to bring out the African-American votes. Through the financial contributions of community members, Carl Stokes was able appeal to enough white and ethnic voters to receive a substantial percent of the votes. It took the 1965 election to perfect the grass roots technique to put the first African American into the City Hall of a major city. In an election as close as the one in 1967, frustrations with the previous administration and racial tensions were not the motivating only force behind bringing out the voters. It was those who were going through neighborhoods and encouraging people to vote. It was the volunteers.

About the Author:
Elis Ribeiro is a junior at Case Western Reserve University majoring in Political Science and History. She is originally from Ellicott City, Maryland. Since her freshman year she has worked for the Undergraduate Admissions Office. Currently she is the Vice President and Webmaster of Case Democrats. She is also a member of Phi Delta Theta, the History Honors Society, and Pi Sigma Alpha, the Political Science Honors Society. Next semester, she will be interning in Washington, DC. After graduation, she plans to attend Law School in the DC area.


1 Eyes on the Prize II. writ. and prod. by Judy Vecchione, v.9. PBS Video, 2000, videocassette.. [18:20]

2 Stokes, Carl. “Excerpts from Promises of Power: An Autobiography.” Cleveland Plain Dealer Sept. 24, 1973, 1A.

3 Nelson, William E. and Merento, Phillip J., Electing Black Mayors Columbus: Ohio State University Press, c1977, 91.

4 “The Campaign Plan to Elect Carl B. Stokes as Mayor of Cleveland, Ohio” Carl B. Stokes Papers, Container 1, Folder 9. WHRS.

5 as quoted in Nelson and Merento, 96.

6 Nelson and Merento, 91.

7 Sheridan, Terence. “Volunteer Block Supervisors were Key to Stokes’ Victory” Cleveland Plain Dealer October 5, 1967, 9A.

8 “Letter to Street Captains” Carl B. Stokes Papers, Container 6, Folder 87, Volunteers. WRHS

9 Nelson and Merento, 124.

10 “Stokes Victory Depends on Negro Registration” Call & Post. August 19, 1967, 4B.

11 Cuyahoga County Board of Election Results from 1965

12 Roberts, John W. “How to Beat City Hall” Grass Roots, Fall 1967, 8.

13 Stokes, Carl. Promises of Power, 94.

14 “Ted Kennedy Seeks Broader Riot Probe” Cleveland Press August 11, 1967, A14.

15 “Stokes Calls on US to Probe Hough Riots” Carl B. Stokes Papers, Container 4, Folder 65, WRHS.

16 “Jury Hough Report Praised, Belittled” Carl B. Stokes Papers, Container 4, Folder 65, WRHS.

17 “Stokes Files in Primary Race” Call & Post Saturday July 8, 1967, 1A.

18 “Stokes Files in Primary Race” Call & Post Saturday July 8, 1967, 12A.

19 Stokes, Carl. “Excerpts from Promises of Power: An Autobiography.” Cleveland Plain Dealer Sept. 24, 1973, 1A.

20 “Newsletter from Cuyahoga County Democrats Executive Committee” Sept 29, 1967. Carl B. Stokes Papers, Container 5, Folder 75, WRHS.

21 “Ward 13 Dems Revolt, Demand Stokes Speak” Call & Post Saturday, August 26, 1967, 1A.

22 “Ward 13 Dems Revolt, Demand Stokes Speak” Call & Post Saturday, August 26, 1967, 1A.

23 “In Protest Rally: Ministers for Stokes Night for Ward 10 Dems” Call & Post Saturday August 26, 1967, 2A.

24 “Urban League, NAACP Join Voter Drive” Call & Post Saturday July 15, 1967, 1A.

25 “CORE to Announce Plans this Week” Call & Post Saturday August 4, 1967, 1A.

26 Moore, Leonard. Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power, Urbana : University of Illinois Press, c2002, 56.

27 “Young Adults Across City Rally for Stokes” Call & Post Saturday July 15, 1967, 12A.

28 “Teen Walk for Stokes” Call & Post October 7, 1967, 14A.

29 Roberts, 8.

30 “Letter to Volunteers” Carl B. Stokes Papers, Container 6, Folder 87, Voter Registration. WRHS.

31 Roberts, 8.

32 Nelson and Merento, 122.

33 “Car Pools Take Thousands to Register for Primaries” Call & Post  Saturday August 12, 1967, 1A.

34 “Voter Registration Volunteers Claim Police Harrassment”  Call & Post August 16, 1967, 6A.

35 Moore, Leonard, 55.

36 Williams, Bob “Carl Stokes Seeks Dems Endorsement” Saturday July 15, 1967, 1A.

37 Financial documents in Carl Stokes Papers, Container 5, Folder 78. WRHS.

38 “Plumbers Contribute to Stokes Campaign” Call & Post September 30, 1967, 2A.

39 Nelson and Merento, 130.

40 “The Feminine Touch” Carl B. Stokes Papers, Container 5, Folder 78, Feminine Touch. WRHS.

41 “The Feminine Touch” Carl B. Stokes Papers, Container 5, Folder 78. Feminine Touch. WRHS.

42 Nelson and Merento, 127.

43 Stokes for Mayor Ad, Call & Post August 19, 1967. 3A.

44 “One Dollar Thank-You” Carl B. Stokes Papers, Container 5, Folder 75. WRHS.

45 “A Ostrow Campaign Strategy for Carl Stokes” 18 June 1967, Carl Stokes Papers, Container 1, Folder 9, WRHS.

46 Various transcripts of TV spots, Carl B. Stokes Papers, Container 1, Folder 9, WRHS.

47 “Saturday Night” and “Long, Hot Summer” from Political Advertising in the 60s, London International Advertising Awards, 1992, Videocassette.

48 Moore, 58.

49 Roberts, 6.

50 Various brochures, Carl B. Stokes Papers, Container 6, Folder 91. WRHS.

51 “La Bamba” Carl B. Stokes Papers. Container 6, Folder 91. WRHS.

52 Nelson and Merento, 136.

53 Roberts, 10.

54 Roberts, 8.

55 Roberts, 10.

56 Nelson, and Merento, 129.

57 Roberts, 10.

58 Roberts, 10.

59 “Collegians Trek here for Stokes Campaign” Call & Post November 11, 1967, 1A.

60 “Accent Moves to Voter Education” Call & Post September 16, 1967, 3A.

61 Call & Post, October 14, 1967-November 4, 1967, 2A

62 Nelson, and Merento, 148

63 Nelson, and Merento, 148

64 Cuyahoga County Board of Election Results from 1967


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