Carl B. Stokes (1927-1996), mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, was the first elected black mayor of a major American city.
Born of a poor black family in Cleveland on June 21, 1927, Carl Stokes was raised by a hardworking mother (his father died when Carl was 3) who constantly stressed the value of education. After receiving his discharge from the Army, he attended West Virginia College and the Cleveland College of Western Reserve. He received a BS degree from the University of Minnesota Law School (1954) and the JD degree from the Cleveland-Marshall Law School (1956). He passed the bar examination in 1957.
In 1962 Stokes resigned as Cleveland's assistant prosecutor and with his brother founded the law firm of Stokes and Stokes. Stokes was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1962 and was twice reelected. In the House he served on committees of judiciary, industry and labor, and public welfare. While urging civil rights and welfare bills, he sponsored a measure empowering the governor to send in national guard troops to defuse a potential riot.
In 1965 Stokes lost the Cleveland mayoral election by a small margin. Deciding to run again in 1967, Stokes worked hard to win the white vote by showing that he was a moderate who was concerned with the welfare of all Cleveland citizens regardless of race. By winning the primary, Stokes became a symbol not for Cleveland alone but for the United States; several national news magazines and Ohio newspapers made this point. The Cleveland Plain Dealer said, "By electing Carl Stokes in the primary we have shown the nation, indeed the world that Cleveland is today the most mature and politically sophisticated city on the face of the earth."
Stokes next faced Republican Seth C. Taft, scion of the famous family, in the mayoral election. Stokes refused to make race an issue in the campaign and based his candidacy on his abilities as a politician. In television debates between the candidates, Stokes showed his expertise concerning urban problems. Cleveland's leading industrialist and its leading banker supported Stokes, while economically disadvantaged blacks raised $25,000 for his campaign. The election was close, with Stokes winning with 20 percent of the white vote and 96 percent of the black vote.
As mayor, Stokes addressed a number of immediate problems typical in urban America. He made a special effort to reduce crime by using more policemen but insisting that the police treat all citizens with courtesy and respect. He won praise for his handling of a disturbance which followed the ambush of a white policeman by black nationalists in 1968. He fired an administrative assistant because of her interest in an illegal liquor establishment, saying that maximum integrity was "imperative" for all members of his administration.
Stokes's reelection in 1969 revealed that he again received practically all of the black vote and the majority of votes in 8 of the 11 all-white wards. His administration continued to battle problems such as pollution, housing, urban renewal, and federal assistance to state education. In 1970, the National League of Cities, comprised of mayors and county officials from across the country, voted Stokes as its first black president-elect. However, Stokes did not run for mayor in 1971, and in 1972 made a major switch in careers. He became the first black anchorman to appear daily on a New York City television outlet, WNBC, NBC's flagship station. He was with WNBC for eight years, serving as urban affairs editor and foreign correspondent to Africa.
Stokes returned to Cleveland and became the first black lawyer to serve as general counsel to a major American labor union, the United Auto Workers. He jumped back into the political arena, being elected as a judge in Cleveland's Municipal Court. With that election, he completed service in all three branches of government—legislative, executive and judicial.
In 1994, Stokes served in the Clinton Administration as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Seychelles, a cluster of islands in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa. He served in that post until he was forced to take a medical leave of absence, suffering from cancer of the esophagus. He died in Cleveland on April 3, 1996.
During his life, Stokes was awarded 12 honorary degrees from various institutions, including Cleveland-Marshall Law School, Tufts University, and Oberlin College.
Further Reading on Carl B. Stokes
Kenneth G. Weinberg, Black Victory: Carl Stokes and the Winning of Cleveland (1968), is good. Information on Stokes's election is also in Leonard I. Ruchelman, ed., Big City Mayors (1969). A good background study is Chuck Stone, Black Political Power in America (1968). Stokes's administration is analyzed in "Carl Stokes," a chapter by James F. Barnes in Seven on Black: Reflections on the Negro Experience in America, edited by William G. Shade and Roy C. Henenkohl (1969).