Carl B. Stokes Trailblazer: First African-American mayor of a big city led the way into new political era.

April 09, 1996

A PERSON LOOKING at predominantly black Cleveland now might wrongly discount the significance of the election of Carl B. Stokes as its first African-American mayor. But that Ohio city today isn't the same one that Mr. Stokes was elected to lead in 1967. Then, just as it was in most of America's big cities, the overwhelming majority of Cleveland's citizens were white.

To become the nation's first black mayor of a major city, Mr. Stokes ran a race-neutral campaign that spotlighted his ability to run a big city. He expected blacks would support him, but he didn't court them. How ironic that, 30 years later, veiled and direct appeals to race are being used by some African-American incumbents in mostly black cities to stay in office.

The April 3 death of Mr. Stokes, at age 68, provides an opportunity to look at the impact his election had on America. Within three years the nation had 48 black mayors; today there are more than 350. The political success of Mr. Stokes was uplifting to African Americans far beyond Cleveland, coming as it did when the well of civil rights triumphs appeared dry.

But the euphoria was short-lived. White flight and the corresponding loss of tax base exacerbated urban problems in many cities. Within months they were ripe for the riots that were starting to rock the nation even before the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Mr. Stokes and other black mayors saw the limits of their $H new-found political power without parallel economic strength. He didn't run for a third two-year term, saying he was tired of "white bigotry." He became a TV news anchor in New York in 1972, returned to Cleveland to be a municipal judge in 1983 and two years ago was named ambassador to the Seychelles.

The story of Carl Stokes and his older brother Louis, who has served 14 terms in Congress, is one of inspiration. Their great-grandfather was a slave. Mr. Stokes was a high school dropout who, after serving in the Army during World War II, went on to earn a law degree and serve in the Ohio legislature. His election as mayor of Cleveland showed the world what is possible when worth is not calculated by race. His tenure showed clearly the need to consider urban problems the problems of all America.

Pub Date: 4/09/96

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