restricted access 23. Carl B. Stokes, Cleveland, and the Limits of Black Political Power
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23 ARL STOKES’S election as mayor of Cleveland in November 1967 marked a watershed in African American history. Not only did Stokes become the first African American mayor of a major city, but his election began the transformation of the black freedom struggle from protest to politics. During his four years in office (1967–1971), Stokes wrestled to put into effect the policies that civil rights activists had demanded for a generation. He fought to improve the lives of the black urban poor, to give blacks a voice in municipal government, to raise awareness about the urban crisis, and to prove to the nation that an African American could govern a major city. Stokes was successful in achieving the latter three goals, but he encountered serious resistance to his attempts to enhance the socioeconomic status of the city’s black poor. As the first black mayor of a major U.S. city, Stokes was also the first to experience the limits of black power. Carl Burton Stokes was born in obscurity on June 21, 1927, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Charles and Louise Stokes, both Georgia natives. The Stokes family already included one boy, two-year-old Louis. After Carl’s father died suddenly in 1928, mother Louise and grandmother Fannie Stone struggled to raised the children. Although Louise worked tirelessly as a domestic, she often found it hard to provide for her two boys. When old enough, Carl and his brother supplemented the family’s small income by selling newspapers and running errands. But times were still hard for the Stokes family. Despite the family’s poverty, Carl excelled in school, first at Giddings Elementary and then at Central Junior High. He lost interest, however, in education while attending East Tech High School, dropping out at the age of 299 Carl B. Stokes, Cleveland, and the Limits of Black Political Power C LEONARD N. MOORE  vantne_3rd_chap23.qxd 11/10/2003 3:36 PM Page 299 300 BUILDERS OF OHIO sixteen. Realizing that opportunities for black high school dropouts were slim, he joined the army in July 1945. “This was not a moral decision,” he recalled, “the war was over. I just wanted to get the hell out of a world I had had enough of.” When his tour of duty expired eighteen months later, Stokes returned to Cleveland. “Almost immediately on arriving home,” he later recalled, “I was enveloped in everything oppressive about being poor and black and uneducated.” He quickly concluded that without a high school diploma he was going “nowhere.” This was the turning point in his life: “My attitudes had been changed. The contact with educated black men in the Army had made me see a new value in going to school.” Consequently, in 1947 he re-enrolled in school and earned his diploma. After brief stints at West Virginia State College and Western Reserve University, he worked as a state liquor agent before receiving his bachelor of law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1954, and his law degree from Cleveland-Marshall Law School in 1956. FIG. 18 Carl B. Stokes. Courtesy of Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library. vantne_3rd_chap23.qxd 11/10/2003 3:36 PM Page 300 301 CARL B. STOKES While in law school, Stokes worked as a probation officer. His job brought him into direct contact with the black urban poor. Late one evening, the wife of one of his parolees called and told him that rats had attacked their baby. When Stokes arrived at the filthy apartment, he noticed that the child’s nose and upper lip had been completely mutilated. This incident convinced him that the black poor needed more than social workers, “they needed advocates at the highest levels of government.” After passing the bar exam, he went into private practice with his brother, but he increasingly desired a career in politics. To increase his visibility in both Cleveland’s black community and the city’s Democratic Party, Stokes joined the local chapters of the Urban League, the NAACP, the County Federated Democrats of Ohio, and the mostly white Young Democrats. Seeking wider exposure , Stokes also volunteered at numerous community events. “Whenever some small church group needed a speaker, I would accept without question,” he recalled. Stokes made his entrée into politics as a successful campaign manager in the 1957 Cleveland City Council elections. One year later, he entered the state senate race to gauge his chances in future elections. He received only 5,000 votes...


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