1967 Twenty-five Years Ago

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On November 7 a quiet insurrection at the polls in Gary, Indiana, and Cleveland, Ohio, elected those cities’ first black mayors. Richard G. Hatcher took the fierce election in Gary by a mere thirteen hundred votes, a margin so close that his Republican opponent, a Gary furniture dealer named Joseph B. Radigan, refused to concede. In Cleveland Carl B. Stokes, an Ohio state representative and the grandson of a slave, became the country’s first black politician to lead a major American city when he beat Seth C. Taft, the grandson of an American President and the nephew of a U.S. senator. Stokes had barely lost in the 1965 election and benefited this time from a registration drive among the city’s black voters by Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference as well as from a vital endorsement in the primary from the Cleveland Plain Dealer , which gave him moderate, crossover appeal in a divided town. The great fires that ravaged Newark, Detroit, New Haven, and so many other inner cities that summer never flared in Cleveland, although it had suffered from some of the highest unemployment in the nation. One street slogan advised, “Cool it for Carl.” In the end Stokes’s cool articulation as a peacemaker and his self-made status made the difference with many Clevelanders outside his loyal base of support. Stokes’s views on the Vietnam War and other issues weren’t all that far apart from those of his opponent. “They’re both liberals,” asserted Taft’s campaign manager. “Seth would play short left field, and so would Carl.” Taft, however, remained a suburbanite who had moved to the city for the mayoral election and was isolated by his sterling Republican name in a Democratic town. During the campaign Stokes’s newspaper ads claimed, “The man of drive, boldness, imagination, basic experience and raw courage is named Carl B. Stokes. And once you accept this, the rest is easy.” In the end Cleveland’s Democratic majority delivered its first black mayor by accepting this, if barely.