The area in which African Americans made the greatest political gains during the late twentieth century was in city government. By 1990 most of the large cities in the United States, including four of the top five, had elected African-American mayors. This political shift took place with astounding swiftness. Although a few black mayors were elected in small southern towns during Reconstruction, and numerous all-black towns during the Jim Crow era had black chief executives, the first African-American mayors of large cities were elected only in 1967, with the elections of Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Ohio, and Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana. That same year, Walter Washington was appointed mayor of Washington, D.C., although he was not elected to that office until 1974.
The institution of black political control in the urban areas of the United States at the end of the twentieth and into the beginning of the twenty-first centuries was the product of several factors, including the shifting racial demography of cities. As the industrial sector of the American economy declined, unemployment as well as taxes increased while city services declined. As a result, many affluent city residents, overwhelmingly white, moved from cities to adjacent suburbs, and black-majority or nearmajority populations were created within city limits.
The other important factors were the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s. The effects were most evident in the South, where movement efforts inspired passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other measures that ensured full political participation and provided federal protection to blacks attempting to exercise their right to vote. However, even in the areas of the country where blacks were able to vote throughout the twentieth century, the civil rights movement provided an inspiring ideology and model for black political action. Many of the black activists who went south returned as cadres and organizers responsible for voter registration and the formation of alliances. The Black Power movement, with its emphasis on black control of black areas, also proved influential. The urban riots and rebellions of the 1960s, which publicized black powerlessness and at the same time hastened white outmigration, accelerated the election of African-American mayors.
Another factor that shaped the early black urban governments was the federal government. Federal civil rights legislation and affirmative-action programs improved the political and economic status of black communities. In addition, Great Society antipoverty programs provided black communities with sources of organization and patronage outside the control of white-dominated urban political machines and stimulated black interest in electoral politics.
African-American mayors can be divided into two main types: those from black-majority or near-majority cities (including virtually all southern cities with black mayors) and those with predominantly white electorates. The first wave of mayors, with the exception of Carl Stokes, came from black-majority industrial cities in the North and Midwest that had previously been the site of riots and other racial tensions. Elected with the help of black communities and movement organizations, they generally had little or no white voting support. Richard Hatcher (1933–), the first of these mayors, was elected mayor in the declining steel town of Gary, Indiana, where blacks represented just over 50 percent of the population. Another notable figure, Coleman Young (1918–1997), of Detroit, a former United Auto Workers activist, was elected in 1973.
One model of this type of mayor is Kenneth Gibson (1932–) of Newark, New Jersey, who was elected in 1970. Newark's industrial core and population had declined through the postwar period and by the late 1960s had a
black-majority population. The city's notoriously corrupt machine-dominated government had traditionally excluded blacks. In 1967, one year after Gibson, a city councilman, ran unsuccessfully for mayor, a major racial uprising in the city occurred. In 1969 Newark's mayor, Hugh Addonizio, was convicted on federal corruption charges and removed from office. Meanwhile, black militants led by writer Amiri Baraka organized a coalition of African-American and Puerto Rican voters and selected Gibson as a consensus candidate. In 1970, with the help of heavy black voter-registration efforts and bloc voting, Gibson was narrowly elected. Once in office, Gibson reached out to the white business community to counteract economic decline and attempted to assure a black majority on the city school board. He drew heavy criticism from black radicals over his perceived inattention to black community problems and from whites over municipal corruption, but he remained a popular figure and was reelected for several terms before being defeated by another African American.
Gibson's experience in office typifies the problems of mayors of black-majority cities. Black mayors come to office amid high expectations of policy reforms in the police department, school board, and welfare agency. However, administrative change is difficult and hard to finance, particularly in declining "rust belt" cities with straitened budgets. Mayoral power over city agencies is often limited, and the health of city economies depends on relations among mayors, white-dominated business interests, and state and federal government officials. However, despite some disappointments, African-American mayors of black cities tend to be reelected for several terms, and then are usually followed by other African Americans.
African-American mayors of southern cities—such as Willie Herenton of Memphis, elected in 1992; Bernard Kincaid of Birmingham, elected in 1999; and C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans, elected in 2002—have also come from black-majority or near-majority cities. Little Rock, Arkansas, was the only predominantly white southern city of any size to elect black mayors during the 1970s and 1980s. However, they have differed in a few respects from their northern counterparts. First, not surprisingly, given the electoral history of the South, these candidates had little or no prior experience in electoral politics. Also, while some came from declining "New South" industrial cities, the southern mayors tended to inherit more viable city economies. Thus, although these mayors were elected by a united black vote, they have often run as moderates, hoping to cement links with white business interests. Also, southern black mayors, particularly in Atlanta, have developed affirmative-action programs and provided assistance that has helped expand and solidify the black middle class in their cities.
The other major type of black mayor has been the "crossover" mayor: chief executives elected with significant white support, usually in cities without dominant black populations. The best-known members of this group include Carl Stokes of Cleveland, elected in 1967; Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, elected in 1973; Wilson Goode of Philadelphia, elected in 1983; Harold Washington of Chicago, elected in 1983; David Dinkins of New York City, elected in 1989; and John Street of Philadelphia, elected in 1999. To this list might be added Sidney Barthelemy of New Orleans, who, in 1986, was elected mayor of a blackmajority city over another African-American candidate. While Barthelemy's opponent gained a majority of the black vote, Barthelemy won with a small black vote and a solid white vote.
The "crossover" mayors form a diverse group. Many of these mayors, of whom Dinkins is the most celebrated example, came to office in cities torn by racial tension, campaigned as peacemakers, and convinced white voters that a black mayor could more effectively "control" crime and urban rebellions. Through personal charisma and skill in reaching out to diverse minority and interest groups (Latinos, Jews, gays and lesbians, labor unions, women's groups, etc.), these candidates were able to forge successful coalitions.
By the early 1990s black mayoral politics had entered a new stage of development. Black mayors were being elected to office in greater numbers of cities. Among them were several black women, representing both major cities (Sharon Sayles Belton of Minneapolis, elected in 1994; Sharon Pratt Dixon of Washington, D.C., elected in 1990; and Shirley Franklin of Atlanta, elected in 2002) and smaller cities (Carrie Perry of Hartford, Connecticut, elected in 1987; Jessie Rattley of Newport News, Virginia, elected in 1986; Lottie Shackleford of Little Rock, Arkansas, elected in 1987; and Brenda Lawrence, of Southfield, Michigan, elected in 2001).
Furthermore, in the 1990s greater numbers of African Americans were coming to office in cities in which African Americans represented only a small percentage of the population. For example, Norman Rice of Seattle, elected in 1990, and Sharon Sayles Belton of Minneapolis presided in cities where blacks were, respectively, some 10 percent and 13 percent of the population. In 2000 Michael B. Coleman was elected mayor of Columbus, Ohio, where blacks are about a quarter of the population. Previously (with the exception of Tom Bradley of Los Angeles), only a few cities without significant black populations, such as Boulder, Colorado; Spokane, Washingon; and Santa Monica, California—university towns and other areas that tend to vote liberal—had had black mayors.
In some cases black mayors in nonblack-majority cities were succeeded by other African Americans, but in many cities black electoral power was not fully expressed until the late twentieth or early twenty-first century. For example, it was not until 1999 that Macon, Georgia, elected its first black mayor. Jackson, Mississippi, and Savannah, Georgia, despite their black majorities, did not have black chief executives until 1997 and 2003, respectively. Moreover, most black mayors in racially mixed cities were elected by very narrow margins; their victories consisted of overwhelming percentages of the black vote along with a split white vote. For example, in his successful mayoral bid in 1983, Harold Washington won 51 percent of the vote, gaining 99 percent of the black vote, 60 percent of the Hispanic vote, and 19 percent of the white vote. Similarly, David Dinkins won the 1989 election by 47,080 votes, the closest election in city history, with 92 percent of the black vote, 65 percent of the Hispanic vote, and 27 percent of the white vote. Their electoral majorities remained vulnerable, and many of these mayors were defeated following small shifts in voter support in subsequent elections, while increasing racial polarization in large nonblack-majority cities made the election of future black mayors extremely difficult. By 1993 white mayors had succeeded blacks in the nation's four largest cities—New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia. That year, following a shift of fewer than 100,000 votes, New York Mayor David Dinkins lost a close mayoral race, becoming the first big-city black mayor to fail to be reelected. The negative trend continued in the mid-1990s.
Although in 1995 Lee Brown became the first black mayor of Houston, and Ron Kirk became Dallas's first African-American mayor, the heavily black city of Gary, Indiana, elected a white mayor that year, and white mayors took power following the departure of black mayors in Seattle in 1998 and Oakland in 1999. In 1999 Philadelphia again elected a black mayor, John Street; in 2005 Street was the nation's only black mayor of a city with a population of more than a million. Despite setbacks, the office of mayor continues to be a main focus of black political aspiration, and African Americans have established themselves as solid, responsible chief executives in cities in every part of the country.
Browning, Rufus, Dale Rogers Marshall, and David H. Tabb, eds. Racial Politics in American Cities, 3rd ed. New York: Longman, 2003.
Colburn, David R., and Jeffrey S. Adler, eds. African-American Mayors: Race, Politics, and the American City. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
Greer, Edward. Big Steel: Black Politics and Corporate Power in Gary, Indiana. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979.
Karnig, Albert, and Susan Welch. Black Representation and Urban Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Thompson, J. Phillip, III. Double Trouble: Black Mayors, Black Communities, and the Call for a Deep Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
greg robinson (1996)
jessica hornik-evans (2005)
David M. Palliser
may·or / ˈmāər/ • n. the elected head of a city, town, or other municipality. ∎ the titular head of a municipality that is administered by a city manager. DERIVATIVES: may·or·al / māˈôrəl; ˈmāərəl/ adj. may·or·ship / -ˌship/ n. ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French maire, from the Latin adjective major ‘greater,’ used as a noun in late Latin.
So mayoralty XIV. — OF.