A look back at Mayor Carl Stokes from the Plain Dealer November 4, 2007.
The new mayor brought hope, but did the dreams die?
Plain Dealer Reporters
Sick and tired.
Like with other once-vibrant big blue-collar cities, those two words described the Cleveland that Carl Stokes inherited in November 1967.
Residential and commercial white flight had caused the city’s tax base to dwindle. Federal and state funding relief was meager. Decent housing and good jobs were just dreams for many.
The string of mild-mannered mayors had done little more for the city than be custodians of the status quo, some thought. The city begged for a visionary leader.
We needed a change, said former Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Thomas Matia, one of the members of the Young Democrats, a mostly white organization that worked hard to put Stokes in office.
Cleveland had had several mayors in a row, all of whom were extremely honest, intelligent and dedicated, but these men were not men of vision, explained Matia. Carl represented hope.
Hope not only for blacks, who made up one-third of Cleveland’s population. That applied to white people, too, Matia said.
The campaign for the first black mayor of a major American city shook the city out of its lethargy.
It was not like a campaign, it was a crusade, said retired Plain Dealer reporter Richard Peery, who was a United Parcel Service truck driver then. Everywhere he went on his deliveries, people spoke of registering to vote because they wanted to vote for Stokes.
The Jackie Robinson of politics, who ran on the slogan Let’s Do Cleveland Proud, started changing things immediately. Stokes, who grew up in poverty in the Outhwaite public housing project, took the unprecedented step of using his inaugural ball to raise $130,000 to clothe needy kids.
He also overhauled the way the city did business. Stokes, who served two two-year terms, placed blacks, women and white ethnics in key city jobs and revamped the entire municipal work force.
Nowhere was Stokes’ resolve for equal opportunity more apparent than at Cleveland City Hall, writes biographer Leonard Moore, a Cleveland Heights native and author of Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power.
Stokes made us aware that there were a lot of injustices and unfairness. He opened everyone’s eyes to the fact that we should all have the same opportunities, said Virgil Brown, a former director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Cuyahoga County commissioner, executive director of the Ohio Lottery Commission and a black Republican who was elected in 1967 for his first term on Cleveland City Council.
Sara J. Harper, now a retired Ohio Court of Appeals judge, became a prosecutor during Stokes’ first term, a rarity in male-dominated 1960s government. The first black female graduate of Case Western Reserve University Law School had been friends with him since they were teens growing up in Outhwaite.
Carl was responsive to smart people, said Harper. It didn’t matter if they were women.
Charisma transcended racial, ethnic differences
A savvy political strategist, Stokes didn’t forget that Cleveland had long been an ethnic town. His staff assistant, Andy Dono, represented Stokes in meetings in the Hungarian community. He brought Norman Krumholz from Pittsburgh (in 1969) as his planning director, and appointed banker and lawyer Ben S. Stefanski II public utilities director.
Then, he left his Cabinet alone so it could attempt to fix the city.
He said, ‘You do your job, and I’ll take care of the politics,’ Stefanski said. His political mind was awesome. He could melt people who were upset. He defused them. By the end of the meeting, he had them in the palm of his hand.
The first black mayor of a major American city drew plenty of attention. His pioneering win made the cover of Time in 1967. In 1970, a national Harris poll named him the third most respected black leader among black people the top two were organizations, the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. While he was mayor, the White House asked Stokes to represent the country on goodwill trips abroad.
Stokes’ charisma was contagious.
William Fissinger, then vice president for development at John Carroll University, said he witnessed Stokes’ appeal many times, but especially recalled when the mayor spoke at a black youth rally encouraging higher education.
From the moment he began speaking, Carl’s young audience treated him like a rock star, hanging on every word.
And like the U.S. Army pingpong champ he was, Stokes was good at playing both sides of the racial net.
Cleveland attorney Leonard Davis said Cleveland’s strong ethnic groups made the city great, but also held it back. The groups tended to guard their own turf.
Stokes transcended those differences, said Davis, who is Jewish and became friends with Stokes after he became a state representative in 1963.
Carl was 20 years ahead of the ethnic divisions in Cleveland, Davis said. He was the kind of person that many diverse groups believed would lead Cleveland back to greatness.
Yet Stokes’ four years in office weren’t idyllic. He battled obstacle after obstacle while trying to implement his reforms.
Despite his enthusiasm, some efforts went bust
It’s like a Greek tragedy, said former Cuyahoga Community College history professor Ed Miggins, who believes that Stokes had a firm grasp on the challenges looming for big cities with shrinking populations and tax bases. There was no one more prepared than Stokes to address these issues.
Stokes started the city’s first Cleveland Water Task Force intent on cleansing the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie before the federal government made clean-ups mandatory. But a chlorinated pool in the lake, a curtained section of Lake Erie at Edgewater Park beach, was ruined when severe storms devastated the West Side on July 4, 1969.
He launched a massive redevelopment program called Cleveland: Now!, wooing back urban renewal dollars that the federal government had yanked during the previous administration, and raising millions more from local businesses.
Later, Cleveland: Now! caused a public relations disaster for Stokes when it was disclosed that some $6,000 of its funds intended for an arts and crafts program had instead been used to buy guns for black nationalists behind the 1968 Glenville shootout.
But Stokes was successful with an equal employment opportunity ordinance that was enacted just before Christmas 1969. It required that any firm doing business with the city have minority employees on its staff. Stokes described it in his 1973 autobiography, Promises of Power, as the single most important legislative accomplishment of my four years as mayor.
He made a deal with white council President James Stanton to swap votes for a project Stanton wanted. It helped too, he claimed, that the legislation was buried in a raft of statutes rushed past council just before its winter recess. To his amazement, the Equal Opportunity Employment Ordinance was approved.
When I read it, I was stunned, said Peery, who was a Call & Post reporter when the legislation was passed. Some companies that had done business with the city for 50 years lost contracts. There had never been anything like it across the country. It was copied by other mayors. It made a national impact.
It was his proudest moment. Yet it was a rare victory against a hostile city council that battled Stokes bitterly.
‘Racial problems continued to exist’
Stokes often clashed with whites in his own Democratic Party when he attempted to put forward reforms and new policies, said Arnold Pinkney, who served as Stokes’ chief of staff. It wasn’t whether it was right or wrong, it was the fact that Stokes was the one to propose it.
Biographer Moore wrote that Stokes’ confrontational style sometimes got in the way of his own progress. Stokes was so focused on his political agenda that whites considered him too black, too insensitive to business interests, and believed that he polarized the races instead of being a bridge-builder.
Weary from the pressures of the job, Stokes decided not to seek a third term. He exited City Hall with his dreams of widespread reform unrealized.
For the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, a Stokes friend and volunteer in his 1967 campaign, it was sad watching his political career flame out so fast.
The high of his taking office was matched by the low when he left office, said Campbell. Racial problems continued to exist and just because he was a black man didn’t mean he could resolve them any better, but there was an expectation that he would be able to . . . .
To this day, Cleveland remains a city that is poor and racially divided, noted Campbell, who is the mother of former Mayor Jane Campbell.
Because he was the first, people expected some kind of miracle that didn’t come, Campbell said. And in some ways, Carl expected it of himself.