Stokes Broke Racial Barriers First Black Mayor Of Major U.S. City Dies At 68
Carl B. Stokes, the first black politician ever to lead a major American city when he was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1967, came to power as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched through the South and racial tensions simmered in urban centers across the country.
Following his death of cancer at the age of 68, Stokes was praised by contemporaries as a master campaigner who used humor, vision and hard work to show a generation of African-American political leaders how to bridge the racial divide.
“The election was just more than Carl Stokes winning - it was black people all over the country who won,” said Fannie Lewis, a Cleveland councilwoman who volunteered to distribute campaign literature for Stokes.
“It was just something that was a landmark for people. … Black folks didn’t understand politics, but this man was a master politician,” Lewis said.
Stokes’ mayoral victory catapulted him onto the cover of Time magazine as journalists from as far away as Japan and Sweden came to witness what he called the “American Dream come true.”
But Stokes’ political skills and his race weren’t enough at the time to heal Cleveland’s racial tensions. Though he won a second two-year term in 1969, rioting in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood the summer before damaged his future prospects.
“He was an important historical figure,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
“The problem was that the black political community inherited power just as the central cities began to decline,” Green said. “Those forces are really beyond the control of any local politician to deal with.”
“If he (Stokes) had come into power earlier or later, he might have moved on and moved up politically,” Green said.
Stokes, however, chose not to run for a third term and became, successively, a television news anchor at WNBC-TV in New York, an attorney in private practice and a Cleveland Municipal Court judge.
At the time of his death, Stokes was U.S. ambassador to the Seychelles, an island archipelago in the Indian Ocean. President Clinton, who appointed Stokes to the post in 1994, described the former Cleveland mayor on Wednesday as a “friend and valued colleague.”