Saturday, July 16, 2016

On Carl Stokes


Feb 20, 2011 I am a historian and am writing a book about the civil rights/Black Power era in Cleveland. Sad to see the ugliness in these comments and that all Clevelanders cannot embrace and be proud of the historical achievement of being the first major American city to elect an African American mayor. Stokes did not create the forces that led to urban decline in Cleveland, he had to contend with them. Sadly, those forces proved too great for his administration and subsequent ones. Stokes was a racial moderate caught between rising black militancy on the one hand and his dependence on white voters and business interests on the other. He tried to do some good things for the city, but the broader forces of deindustrialization, white flight, conservative reaction and urban disinvestment hampered his mayoralty. The problems of racialized urban inequality that his administration faced when he entered office were some of the worst in the country, in terms of employment and housing discrimination, impoversihment, segregation/racial isolation, unequal schools, poor infrastructure in communities of color, etc., and those inequalities were the result of decades of willful neglect, overt racism and systematic discrimination, as they were in every middle-sized and large U.S. city. The segregated and impoverished neighborhoods of Hough and Glenville were the main results of these broad forces. Police brutality against ordinary African Americans was commonplace, including unjustified arrest, intimidation, the use of racist language, beatings and even sexual assaults. Typical of the time, in 1965, the racist Cleveland police chief told state legislators in Columbus, "We need the death penalty to keep the Negro in line." The racial disturbances that took place in 1966 and 1968, and the black militancy that blossomed in that era, were largely fueled by the frustration and anger that came from this oppressive, racist situation and the unwillingness of most local whites, from political leaders to business leaders to other civic leaders and everyday citizens, to support the policies necessary for meaningful urban revitalization and truly shared urban power between the races. There were good people - black, white and brown - trying to do good things, but sadly, these broader forces of economic and demographic change, as well as the divided metropolitan politics between city and suburbs, and the unwillingness of a majority of whites to support meaningful racial change, were too strong, leading to an ever deepening urban crisis that we continue to face today.

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