Black Mayors In The U.S., Part 1 – The Old School

The other day, me and one of my Twitter followers had a rather in-depth conversation surrounding black mayors past and present in the United States and how their cities have faired over the years.  Initially it began as a conversation about me not being immediately thrilled with Democratic candidate nominee for U.S. Senate from Illinois Alexi Giannoulias and that I was going to give the Green Party candidate LeAlan Jones a serious look.  And I added that because LeAlan was black that this was a good things in my book.  Of course this sparked the age old debate about blacks voting for black candidates just because they were black and the notion of “blindly” voting for a candidate.  To which I rebutted, at least here in the city of Chicago if you’ve ever voted in a local election and seen the list of 100+ candidates up for retention judge seats, blacks go through and vote for the black sounding names, women vote for the women, Irish folk look for the O’Malleys and the O’Rourkes, Jewish folks look for the Berghoffs and the Steinbrenners and Polish folk look for the names with all of those consonantal clusters….so on and so forth.

Finally, he said “All I know is 30 years of black mayors has done WONDERS for Atlanta blacks …#notreally” and from there we launched our conversation.

It got me to wondering about the state of affairs that black mayors have left their cities in over the years. Namely speaking, those names aren’t always the most pristine.  Especially when we think of the more infamous such as Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit and the father of them all Marion Berry former mayor of Washington, D.C.  But, what I think bears witnessing that usually is a small footnote when the stories are told of these black mayorships of major cities is that many of the major players when we think of the group of black mayors assumed their position when American cities were seeing the beginning of of the decline of the industry in their backyards.  Especially in cities in the Midwest and in Northeastern regions where factories were beginning to fold like dominoes one after another and other jobs were quickly being outsourced to Mexico, China and Japan.

This was also the time when “white flight” was in full effect.  By now inner cities of many large American cities were plagued with gangs violence and terrorism, city police departments were having to create from scratch how to deal with the influx of crack/cocaine hitting the streets, and city public housing departments were at their zenith of complete, utter and abysmal dysfunction.  Such living conditions for black, poor and inner city residents are what prompted a December 4th, 1987 New York Times piece to be dramatically entitled “What It’s Like To Be In Hell.”  Black mayors were at the helm when Jonathan Kozol famously wrote one of his masterpieces Savage Inequalities: Children In America’s Schools writing about the gross negligence and benign neglect in black and Latino communities and their public schools (much of what was seen in the movie “Lean On Me” ).

I am making the claim that black mayors, in a large part inherited city governments rife with dissent from previous political machines, full of corruption, city budget crises, dwindling tax bases due to white flight, and cities with neighborhoods taken over by gangs, drugs and all other kinds of violence.  Essentially, many black mayors were given the helm to sinking ships.  This is not at all absolving black mayors of personal responsibility when it came to committing illegal acts, but for me, it does put into context how well history has painted their mayorships and “what they have done” for their respective cities.

So here’s a list of black mayors from what I consider to be the old guard.  They exist in the public eye of the nation that come to mind when we have these discussions.  However, they exist almost as a snapshot of a not-so-distant past.  These are the old guys who, we see at random civic functions and who we pay homage to for paving the way.

Maynard Jackson

Maynard Jackson, D-Atlanta (1973).  By all accounts, Maynard Jackson was a good mayor.  He was able to secure the building of Hartsfield International Airport, now Hartsfield-Jackson named after him, which is now the busiest airport in the world, he was around when the MARTA rail system was constructed and various other public works projects that helped modernize the city.  Jackson was succeeded by famous civil rights activist Andrew Young, and later ran again securing the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Jackson, by historical accounts did well, but it was his predecessors that have failed far in comparison.  It’s no secret that for the Olympics convicted former Mayor Bill Campbell allowed for homeless persons in downtown to be bussed out to Clayton County to maintain a pristine image of downtown Atlanta, and former mayor Shirley Franklin out of the Jackson political machine failed to keep city budget records; there was always random dollars just floating about.  Many feel that although now current Mayor Kasim Reed connected to the black constituents of lower economic status that he’s still just more of the same Atlanta political machine–with Jackson running Atlanta from the grave.

Tom Bradley

Tom Bradley, D-Los Angeles (1973).  Bradley remained in office for 20 years following his election in 1973 meaning that he was doing something right.  This does count for something in a city where the African American population was not a significant voting bloc as it was in a city like Atlanta where there was a supermajority of blacks in city with regards to population distribution.  Personally, I don’t know much about Tom Bradley and the ins and outs of his mayoral tenure, and frankly I’d encourage any Los Angelinos to chime in on their former mayor.  But, I do know that he was black and his name certainly occurs in my memory bank.

Ernest Morial

Ernest “Dutch” Morial, D-New Orleans (1977). Dutch Morial was quite the character as told by black New Orleanians who remember him being in office.  They speak with mixed feelings of course.  His interesting relationship with the city seeming to be on their side at one point and then grandstanding on the other hand leads to him having mixed reviews. One thing is that his predecessor Moon Landrieu (father of current U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu and current New Orleans Mayor and formert Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana Mitch Landrieu) was credited with implementing affirmative action jobs and Morial was key in promoting that practice.

Marion Barry

Marion Barry D-Washington, D.C. (1979). I really learned a lot from the HBO special on Marion Barry that I was able to catch last summer.  Barry’s heart certainly was in the right place coming out of the 1960s civil rights era.  But, as the 1908s came to a close his political machine was crumbling.  The former deputy mayor, the deputy mayor of finance had all been indicted, and shortly the FBI began drug investigations against Barry.  And famously, in 1990, Barry decried “Bitch set me up” after a sting operation with a mistress at the time.

Although, Barry has a storied history with DC after being tried, convicted and serving jail time, he came back in 1994 and won re-election for a fourth term as mayor of the District. Since then he’s ran in successfully for Ward 8, which is in Southeast DC as a councilman.  He’s certainly still remembered for his mayoral stints, and apparently is endeared to the people of his district which, being in SE DC is majority black and poor.  His name entered national news recently in 2009 when he was the lone holdout when DC City Council voted to acknowledge gay marriages from other states within the District.

He cited his “moral compass” for him voting against it.

Harold Washington

Harold Washington, D-Chicago (1983). Harold Washington, in my opinion was a fluke, and won his first election because the odds were in his favor. Because the state of Illinois doesn’t do run-off elections (or at least Chicago doesn’t) Harold won with the plurality of the votes simply because he was the only black candidate running. White votes were split between other candidates and blacks of course voted for Harold. Of course he campaigned for it, and registered tens of thousands of new voters which of course padded his win.  And certainly by his second election term, persons voted for him because he was the best person for the job winning by an even larger margin.  But this was after a highly charged campaign season of 1982 and early 1983 where clearly the political lines had been drawn in terms of race.

His first term was marred by the Council Wars where other council members formed a voting bloc of 29 alderman who deadlocked any legislation Washington proposed to the city council floor, and the leader, Ed Vrdolyak famously mounting his desk in the council chambers and yelling from standing on top of his desk.

The legacy of Washington has been that many of his initial plans for addressing the cities dubious title of “Beirut on the Lakefront,” CTA ridership and what was to be School Reform of 1989 all came from the Washington administration and was capitalized on by the now current Mayor, Hizzoner Richard M. Daley when he assumed office in 1989.  The legacy of Washington was also one that showed how starkly race relations played out in everyday lives of average citizens in a northern city.

MOVE Bombing in Philadelphia under orders from Mayor Wilson Goode

Wilson Goode, D-Philadelphia (1984)  Frankly, I had to look up his name because he had all but vanished into the annals of American history only to be a Wikipedia entry.  But, so famous was the order firebomb attack ordered on a civilian residency that Goode will go down in national history as “Philly’s black mayor who bombed some other black folk in West Philadelphia.”  Aside from that, the city’s bond ratings had fallen to junk status by the time he left office and was officially a month away from declaring bankruptcy. Yes, it was that bad.  But it seems much of Goode’s good deeds occurred after he left the public sector.

David Dinkins, D-New York City (1990).  Dinkins was a one-term mayor losing to Rudolph Giuliani who was able to capitalize on the racial undertones following the Crown Heights Riots in 1991.  Dinkins did do a lot for the city of New York such as bringing in a new police commissioner and beginning to address the issues of gang violence and public housing crises that were facing large northern metropolitan cities; he was indeed instrumental in the “turning of the corner” so to speak.  But again, Dinkins goes down in history more for the historical nature of him being black and being a mayor rather than being a mayor who happened to be black.

Stay tuned for the next installment where I’ll be discussing these new black mayors.  Often times the second, maybe third black mayor of respective metropolitan cities, and this idea of the new face of black politicians.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

8 thoughts on “Black Mayors In The U.S., Part 1 – The Old School

    1. @ BTTC

      As I noted, I was talking about mayors who went through the urban renewal phase of American city life. Carl Stokes was elected back in the 60s even before MLK was killed. Additionally, Douglas Wilder, if I’m not mistaken was the governor of Virginia, and I was only covering mayors. And Willie Brown, again, if I’m not mistaken was elected after 1995, which for me puts him in the category of a new school of thought when it comes to black politicians.

  1. So are you voting for LeAlan? Beyond his identity, his platform is the best remedy to what ails this country.

    As for Harold Washington, he wasn’t a fluke. He was a sign of things to come.. in a state that went onto elect Carol Mosley Braun and Barack Obama. Like it or not Illinois has been way ahead when it comes to electing African-Americans to statewide office.

    1. @ campaignmanager

      It was a fluke in a sense that Harold’s candidacy was an anomaly. Ever since then there have been a field crowded with black candidates that split the black vote in the city, and for the last 21 years has assured Daley winning the Democratic nomination, and winning the general election with upwards of 70% of the vote.

  2. Yeah, Coleman was the man. He’s been dead for 13 years and people STILL use him as an example of black political strength or chicanery, depending on what color skin you are.

  3. Tom Bradley’s biggest claim to fame was bringing the Olympics to LA in 1984 — at the time one of the first cities to host the games twice. The 84 games are also one of the few to turn a profit (the 76 games nearly bankrupted Montreal).

    His biggest infamy was the Rodney King Riots, which happened during the twilight of his tenure as mayor.

    (Full disclosure: he and my mother knew each other as kids waaay back in the day; I have a letter from him when I wrote to express my distress over the Rodney King beating.)

  4. i’m trying to find a black mayor of a city in Illinois by the name of Elwood Washington Smith,this was in the 60’s,could someone e-mail at if you can find out before me of his whereabouts,I would like to know because this is very personal. Thanks for all of you who assist me obtaining this information.thanks

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