Black Mayors

Black Mayors

Reviewed by David Chalmers

Vol. 24, No. 3-4, 2002 pp. 19-22

David R. Colburn and Jeffrey S. Adler, editors, African American Mayors: Race, Politics, and the American City, Urbana; University of Illinois Press, 2001.

The breakthrough came in 1967 when Richard Hatcher was elected mayor of Gary, Indiana, and Carl Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland, Ohio. Over the next thirty years, voters, elected African-American mayors in more than 300 cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Birmingham, and Dallas. Washington, D.C. and others were black majority cities, but Denver, Ann Arbor, and Spokane, which have negligible black populations, also elected black mayors. University of Florida historians, David Colburn and Jeffrey Adler have summed up the electoral experience of sixty-seven cities with populations over 50,000. In addition to Hatcher and Stokes, they have gathered essays on Harold Washington in Chicago and “Dutch” Morial in New Orleans, David Dinkins in New York, Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, Marion Barry in the District of Columbia, Coleman Young in Detroit, and Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young in Atlanta.

By the end of the 1960s, urban political campaigns took over from civil rights protest in the streets as the big show in black America. In the South. the struggle for power replaced the struggle for participation. Among the mayors profiled, only Hatcher, Andrew Young, and Marion Barry came out of the Civil Rights Movement. Coleman Young had been a labor organizer for the UAW, but the others were middle class professionals, educated in law and graduate schools, military service, and in local and state politics.

White resistance was more bitter and longer lasting in the big cities of the North and Midwest. The police were particularly hostile and Democratic Party organizations often worked for white Republican candidates. The race issue was less overt and lingering in the newer, more prosperous cities of the West and South, such as Raleigh, Charlotte, Dallas, Denver, Spokane, Seattle, San Francisco, and Houston.

In most cities, black mayors got elected by sweeping energized black electorates, combined with a sufficient portion, depending on local composition, of liberal white, Jewish, gay, and Latino voters. Race remained a persistent factor, but performance in office and political alliances became more important. In the 1980s and 1990s, voters became more accustomed to black candidates, and white support grew.

The revolution in black political participation has not been matched by a social revolution that many black people hopefully anticipated and whites feared. The resources and political power were not there. As the poor crowded into the cities, white out-migration was taking jobs and the tax base to the suburbs. Manufacturing was going overseas, the economy slowed in the 80s, and state governments and President Reagan’s Washington were less interested in helping.

Mayors faced structural limits on their powers. Vital boards, commissions, and agencies were beyond their reach, controlled by the county or state, or, in the District of Columbia, by the Congress. Almost a century before, the New Orleans commercial community had shifted power out of city hail as a protection against the Irish emergence. Within the black communities black mayors faced opposition from black nationalists and patronage-oriented black politicians.

Struggling with the problems of race and poverty,

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issues which counted to African Americans were crime and police treatment, jobs and minority hiring, inadequate schools and social services, neglected neighborhoods, the need for low-income housing, and recreation.

There were important gains. Institutional racism declined. Police behavior improved. There was minority hiring and promotion, affirmative action programs and minority set-asides, summer jobs for young people, and housing rehabilitation. Successful black mayors struggled to reform politics, city government, and social conditions, built machines, and made alliances and compromises. Often their successors became traditional patronage politicians. Of the mayors studies, Richard Hatcher, “Dutch” Morial, and Harold Washington were given credit for the strongest leadership in office.

Relations with the business community were crucial. His focus on the needs of long neglected black neighborhoods led the white business community and the press to batter Maynard Jackson’s administration in Atlanta. Peacemaking brought a shift in priorities, co-opting black business and political elites who hoped that private sector growth would benefit all. Priorities shifted from low-income neighborhoods and housing to downtown revitalization and tax benefits. Stadium building aided tourism at the expense of neighborhoods.

Both historians have studied business community history. In an earlier edited collection with Elizabeth Jacoway, Southern Businessmen and Desegregation (LSU Press, 1982) Colburn showed the role of the business community reaction to the 1964 Public Accommodation Law in fourteen Southern cities. Although politicians called for Resistance’ wiser businessmen counted the costs of social disruption. In Tampa, Columbia, Dallas, and Atlanta they took leadership in the necessary steps to avoid becoming another Little Rock. In non-growth cities like Louisville, Augusta, Memphis, and St. Augustine where they held back, conflict took to the streets.

In his book on the civil rights conflict in St. Augustine, Florida, Racial Change and Community Crisis (Columbia University Press, 1985). Colburn recorded the opposition of the business community to racial accommodation, led by the major bankers and John Birch Society elites, which opened up the city to Klan violence.

The coming to political power of African Americans in the nation’s cities has been a political, but not a social or economic revolution. Now, with its fourth black mayor, Atlanta has undergone a rapid evolution. Maynard Jackson came over time to “embrace the priorities” of the business community. His successor, Andrew Young, told the business leadership “I didn’t get elected with your help, but I can’t govern without you,” and was even more business-minded. His successor, Bill Campbell, who served after the study’s time-line, primarily contented himself with exploiting Georgia’s great cash-cow, Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport complex. In 2001, Atlantans elected the highly capable Shirley Franklin, who had run the city for Andrew Young while he was representing Atlanta to the world. Perhaps, in time, Colburn and Adler will find reason to write about a new kind of African-American mayors.

Over the thirty-five years since the election of the first African-American mayors, a rapid evolution has taken place with as yet unrecognized psychological consequences. In a heavily urban United States, most white Americans have a close awareness and interactive relationship with a powerful, well-educated, sophisticated black man or woman–their mayor.

David Colburn is Provost of the University of Florida. David Chalmers is Distinguished Service Professor of History, Emeritus of the University of Florida, and is author of a forthcoming book, BACKFIRE: How the Ku Klux Klan helped the Civil Rights Movement.

Sidebar: African-American Mayors in Cities with Populations above 50,000

  • Floyd Adams, Jr., Savannah, GA 131,510 Population (57.1% Black)
  • James M. Baker, Wilmington, DE 72,664 Population (56.4% Black)
  • William V. Bell, Durham, NC 187,035 Population (43.8% Black)
  • Robert Bowser, East Orange, NJ 69,824 Population (89.5% Black)
  • Charles Box, Rockford, IL 150,115 Population (17.4% Black)
  • Lee Brown, Houston, TX 1,953,631 Population (25.3 % Black)
  • Willie Brown, Jr., San Francisco, CA 776,733 Population (7.8% Black)
  • Josathat “Joe” Celestin, North Miami, FL 59,880 Population (54.9% Black)
  • Michael B. Coleman, Columbus, OH 711,470 Population (24.5% Black)
  • Glenn D. Cunningham, Jersey City, NJ 240,055 Population (28.3% Black)
  • Preston Daniels, Des Moines, IA 198,862 Population (8.1% Black)
  • Ernest D. Davis, Mount Vernon, NY 68,381 Population (59.6% Black)
  • Roosevelt F. Dorn, Inglewood, CA 112,580 Population (47.1% Black)
  • Jack Ellis, Macon, GA 97,255 Population (62.5% Black)
  • Gwendolyn A. Faison, Camden, NJ 79,904 Population (53.3% Black)
  • Jack Ford, Toledo, OH 313,619 Population (23.5% Black)
  • Shirley Franklin, Atlanta, GA 416,474 Population (61.4% Black)
  • Willie W. Herenton, Memphis, TN 650,100 Population (61.4% Black)
  • James Halley, Portsmouth, VA 100,565 Population (50.6% Black)
  • Sharpe James, Newark, NJ 273,546 Population (53.5% Black)
  • Robert Jones, Kalamazoo, MI 77,145 Population (20.6% Black)
  • Wilmer Jones-Ham, Saginaw, MI 61,799 Population (43.3% Black)
  • Harvey Johnson, Jr., Jackson, MS 184,256 Population (70.6% Black)
  • Terry Johnson, Oceanside, CA 161,029 Population (7.4% Black)
  • William A. Johnson, Rochester, NY 219,773 Population (38.5% Black)
  • Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit, MI 951,270 Population (81.6% Black)
  • Bernard Kincaid, Birmingham, AL 242,820 Population (73.5% Black)..
  • Brenda L. Lawrence, Southfield, MI 78,296 Population (54.2% Black)
  • Mamie E. Locke, Hampton, VA 146,437 Population (44.7% Black)
  • James Mayo, Monroe, LA 53,107 Population (61.1% Black)
  • Rudolph C. McCollum Jr., Richmond, VA 197,790 Population (57.2% Black)
  • Lorraine Morton, Evanston, IL 74,239 Population (22.5% Black)
  • C. Ray Nagin, New Orleans, LA 484,674 Population (67.3% Black)
  • Elzie Odom, Arlington, TX 332,969 Population (14.5% Black)
  • Douglas Palmer, Trenton, NJ 85,403 Population (52.1% Black)
  • Willie Payne, Pontiac, MI 66,337 Population (47.9% Black)
  • Eric Perrodin, Compton, CA 93,493 Population (40.3% Black)
  • Paul Richards, Lynwood, CA 69,845 Population (13.5% Black)
  • Wayne Smith, Irvington, NJ 60,695 Population (81.7% Black)
  • Woodrow Stanley, Flint, MI 124,943 Population (53.3% Black)
  • John F. Street, Philadelphia, PA 1,517,550 Population (43.2% Black)
  • William E. Ward, Chesapeake, VA 199,184 Population (28.5% Black)
  • Wellington E. Webb, Denver, CO 554,636 Population (11.1% Black)
  • Anthony A. Williams, Washington, DC 572,059 Population (60% Black)

Source: 2002, National Conference for Black Mayors, Inc. For a full list of the 465 African American mayors, visit