Stokes, Carl Burton

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Stokes, Carl Burton

(b. 21 June 192 7 in Cleveland, Ohio; d. 3 April 1996 in Cleveland, Ohio), first African American mayor of a major U.S. city, Cleveland, Ohio.

Born to laundry worker Charles Stokes, who died in Carl’s infancy, and domestic laborer Louise Stone Stokes, Stokes grew up in poverty in Cleveland’s predominantly African American inner city. His older brother Louis became a congressman who served from 1969 to 1999.

Stokes learned early how to box and hustle pool. He dropped out of East Technical High School at age seventeen and served in the U.S. Army in Germany from 1945 to 1946. He then graduated from high school at age twenty. After attending West Virginia State College and Cleveland College of Western Reserve, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1952, receiving his B.S. degree in law in 1954. He then went on to Cleveland Marshall School of Law, from which he graduated in 1956. In 1957 Stokes passed the Ohio bar examination and entered law practice with his brother.

Stokes held a series of patronage jobs, including Ohio Department of Liquor Control retail clerk in 1948 and enforcement officer in 1950; Cleveland Municipal Court probation officer from 1954 to 1958; and Cleveland assistant police prosecutor from 1958 to 1962. Meanwhile he entered Democratic Party politics.

Stokes was handsome, articulate, charming, and witty, and enjoyed fine suits and cigars. He married Edith Shirley Smith on 27 December 1951 and, although they separated a year and a half later, they did not divorce until 1955. They had no children. On 28 January 1958 he married Shirley Joann Edwards, with whom he had three children. They divorced in 1973, and on 3 January 1980 Stokes married Raija Kostadinov (Miss Finland, 1969). They adopted a daughter in 1988, divorced in 1993, then remarried three months before Stokes died.

After a narrow 1960 loss, Stokes in 1962 became the first African American Democrat elected as an Ohio state representative. He was reelected in 1964 and 1966. During this time he angered fellow Democrats—and pleased many Cleveland corporate leaders—by supporting Republican reapportionment and capital improvement plans he believed would help blacks.

In 1965 Stokes challenged the incumbent Democratic mayor Ralph Locher. Although only 34 percent of Cleveland’s residents were black, they represented two-fifths of registered voters and were well mobilized by civil rights campaigns. Stokes filed as an independent in the general election, expecting whites to divide among three white candidates. Shunned by other black politicians, Stokes created his own inner-city campaign network of enthusiastic “Stokes Folks.” Stokes also received help from some whites, drawn by civil rights and reform appeals. Stokes’s bid fell short by a slim margin (87,858 to 85,716), but the 1965 run impressed big business and showed blacks that the Cleveland mayoralty was within their reach.

Conditions favored a second Stokes mayoral bid in 1967. A July 1966 race riot frightened many, and Mayor Locher angered blacks by neglecting their problems and demeaning civil rights activism. In January 1967 the federal government stopped funding urban renewal in Cleveland because the city had failed to complete earlier projects; hostile national press coverage ensued. African Americans wanted one of their own in City Hall; at the same time, corporate chiefs hoped Stokes would calm racial unrest, restore money from Washington, and halt Cleveland’s economic decline.

Stokes ran against Locher in the 3 October 1967 Democratic primary. To African Americans, as one campaigner on Stokes’s team recalled, “We sold blackness…. This was their opportunity to make black history.” Among white people of Eastern European, Italian, and Irish backgrounds, Stokes stressed his qualifications and pledged he would be mayor for all. Stokes also courted white business leaders. His strategy worked: black turnout was high, and Stokes increased his share of the African American vote from 85 to 96 percent. Stokes quintupled his share in white wards to 15 percent, and Cleveland’s elite delivered campaign donations and press endorsements. He defeated Locher soundly, 110,769 to 92,321.

In the 7 November 1967 general election, Stokes faced Seth Taft, grandson of President William Howard Taft and a member of Ohio’s top Republican family. Unions helped Stokes, but white Democratic regulars did not. Stressing his party label and comparing his rise to that of European immigrants, Stokes nudged his vote in white wards from 15 to 19 percent. Meanwhile, black turnout climbed to 80 percent, and Stokes took 95 percent of the African American vote. With the slogan “Let’s Do Cleveland Proud,” Stokes barely edged Taft, 129,396 to 127,717.

During Stokes’s two two-year terms, he gave minorities more city jobs and work in businesses contracting with Cleveland. He insisted that city contracts go to black businesses, and he forced banks to lend African Americans money. Stokes also secured urban development funds from corporations and the federal government. His “Cleveland: NOW!” crusade sought $177 million from federal, state, local, and private sources for jobs, housing, day care, health, and recreation. Stokes enforced housing codes, demolished slums, and built 5,500 public housing units. Finally, he made blacks feel part of government. But Stokes proved a better campaigner than mayor. Close aides left, saying that they could not work with him. Other top advisers and administrators departed due to scandals and conflicts. Critics decried Stokes’s absences for paid speaking tours and campaign trips on behalf of black candidates. Relations with city council and the news media, good at first, soured, and Stokes’s charm turned to angry outbursts.

Most of Stokes’s difficulties, however, were not of his own making. African Americans lost patience with menial jobs, police abuse, and inferior segregated schools. After the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King on 4 April 1968, many in Cleveland feared ghetto residents would react violently. Stokes eased tensions by walking the street and speaking to people, and the local news media suppressed reports of violence. Three months later the city was less fortunate. On 23 July 1968 a gun battle between black nationalists and police in the black neighborhood of Glenville left seven dead (including three policemen) and fifteen injured. Arson and looting followed. For one night, Stokes excluded whites (including police) from Glenville, using black police and civilian patrols. No one else died, but white journalists and police were furious. Stokes suffered politically from his good relations with black nationalists. After reports that the nationalist leader Fred (Ahmed) Evans bought guns with Cleveland: NOW! funds, corporate donors deserted. Moreover, whites discovered that a black mayor could not necessarily prevent eruptions of racial violence.

Residents feared rising crime, so Stokes shifted some 200 police officers from desks to streets, hired more minority police, and tried to sensitize police to minorities. But most officers resisted change and civilian interference and remained prejudiced against African Americans, including the mayor. Meanwhile, a revolving door of police chiefs (four in four years) and public safety directors generated negative headlines. A civil service examination scandal in 1968 and 1969 involving Stokes’s appointees also stained his image.

Stokes’s housing and renewal plans met resistance. West Side whites balked at his Neighborhood Development Program and scattered-site public housing. Some tried to secede from Cleveland; many moved to suburbs. Class barriers also stymied Stokes. He wanted to build 277 units of owner-occupied housing for the poor in Lee-Seville, a middle-class black district. Intense protest there killed the proposal.

Inflation, reindustrialization, white flight, and rising demands for services eroded Cleveland’s fiscal health. In 1968 the city council doubled the income tax to 1 percent. But in 1970 and 1971, voters spurned Stokes’s pleas to hike the income tax rate to 1.8 or 1.6 percent. Meanwhile, pay for city workers rose, propelled by 1970 garbage and mass transit strikes. By 1971 Stokes faced a huge deficit and laid off city employees.

In 1969 Stokes narrowly won a second term, squeezing by the Republican county auditor Ralph Perk, 120,616 to 116,863. Once again, most white voters put race above party. Stokes recalled, “My second term was almost total war between … the mayor and everyone.” In 1970 he and his brother Louis quit the local Democratic Party and launched the Twenty-first District Caucus, an independent black political force. White Democrats vowed to deny Stokes a third term. On 17 April 1971 Stokes announced he would not run again.

Stokes’s post-mayoral career dimmed his reputation. In 1972 he moved to New York City as coanchor on the WNBC-TV evening news, and then worked as a WNBC reporter. Early reviews were unflattering. In 1980 he returned to Cleveland as a United Auto Workers legal counsel. His law partner ended their relationship and sued to evict Stokes in 1983. Cleveland voters elected Stokes a municipal court judge from 1983 to 1994 but denied his bids for a county judgeship in 1986 and city housing court in 1989. His colleagues chose him as presiding judge but then ousted him. Store employees caught Stokes shoplifting in 1988 and 1989, and the resulting news accounts were humiliating.

In 1994 he became the U.S. ambassador to Seychelles, but in June 1995 Stoke entered Cleveland Clinic for esophageal cancer treatment. He died there at age sixty-eight and was buried in Cleveland.

Stokes was the first black big-city mayor, a symbol of rising African American urban political power. He inspired other blacks, and his policy goals became theirs. However, three white ethnics succeeded him, so Stokes’s local legacy was limited. Stokes showed that simply becoming mayor was not enough, for Cleveland’s city council and bureaucracy blocked much of his agenda. Stokes stood for big-government liberalism when both white ethnics and young African Americans rejected it. He mounted an independent reform challenge to Democratic Party regulars. He also challenged older, more accommodating black politicians. Ghetto divisions between integrationists and revolutionaries ensnared him as well. Though many of his misfortunes were of his own making, Stokes’s mayoralty shows how hard it was to govern cities in decline.

Stokes’s papers are at the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland. His autobiography is Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography (1973). Useful sources include Kenneth G. Weinberg, Black Victory: Carl Stokes and the Winning of Cleveland (1968); Estelle Zannes, Checkmate in Cleveland: The Rhetoric of Confrontation During the Stokes Years (1972); Philip W. Porter, Cleveland: Confused City on a Seesaw (1976); William E. Nelson, Jr., and Philip J. Meranto, Electing Black Mayors: Political Action in the Black Community (1977); and Leonard N. Moore, The Limits of Black Power: Carl B. Stokes and Cleveland’s African-American Community, 1945–1971 (doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University, 1998). Obituaries are in the New York Times (4 and 9 Apr. 1996) and Washington Post (4 Apr. 1996).

Michael W. Homel