By Roldo Bartimole
Some of the nasty partisan war by Republicans against President Barack Obama reminds me of how white politicians — mostly Democrats in this case — played politics against Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of Cleveland.
Stokes, like Obama, shocked political observers by winning Mayor of Cleveland in 1967, defeating oligarch Seth Taft, the grandson of U. S. President William Howard Taft. He was considered the first African-American mayor of a major U. S. city.
Both Obama and Stokes had to face attacks not based solely on politics but on the color of their skins.
There was a similar enmity toward Mayor Stokes, as reflected by Sen. Mitch McConnell. He said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” In Cleveland, the main concern of many was making it impossible for Carl Stokes to govern or be re-elected.
Of course the issues differ as one would expect with the different levels of government – city to national. There is great change too in our news media coverage. But one factor remained the same: race. Both men were, of course, black. Both too were firsts of their race to reach high office.
Both also faced particularly difficult times. We know of Obama’s – facing economic crisis. Stokes came to office in a city roiled by racial strife, including riots. Cleveland was a city damaged by bad urban renewal decisions. It prompted one federal official to tell me Cleveland was their Vietnam. “We’d like to get out but we don’t know how.”
Both men also faced exceptionally divided constituencies. Obama had a divided nation with opposition political forces safely ensconced in red states and not fearful of losing office. They could take radical opposition with impunity. Cleveland had an almost evenly divided city with a predominately white West Side and most blacks living on the East Side. This gave white Council members racially secure districts. Thus they could play racial politics with impunity.
The ridiculous birth certificate crusade revealed how low and racially charged the attempts to undermine President Obama went. The brazen attempt was to make Obama ineligible to be President as a non-citizen.
The charge reminds me of a similar effort at illegitimacy against Stokes. It had to do with his parentage. The Plain Dealer’s Doris O’Donnell attempted a vendetta against candidate Stokes. She seemed determined to damage him. She couldn’t, of course, pull an Obama birther issue. It was well known that Carl and his brother and Congressman Louis Stokes were born in Cleveland.
However, O’Donnell wanted to shame Stokes. Was he illegitimate? Can you imagine such an attack by a reporter?
O’Donnell, as Stokes explains in his book “Promises of Power,” publicly approached him after a campaign event during the primary of 1967. Stokes says that O’Donnell asked him loudly, “Mr. Stokes, isn’t it true that the man buried in Highland View Cemetery under the name Charles Stokes is not really your father? That in fact Charles Stokes was married to your mother but she had you by another man?”
That’s quite a charge to be made without proof to back it up.
Stokes told her she had “gone far enough” and that he would report her behavior to her editor. “That is your privilege,” She responded.
Stokes arranged a meeting with Tom Vail, PD publisher and editor, to complain about O’Donnell.
Stokes was told that O’Donnell had reported back the details to Vail essentially as Stokes explained it.
“They said she was unable to give them any explanation of why she had asked me those questions, nor was she able to account for staying to question me rather than leaving with Seth Taft (his opponent), as she had been assigned to do.”
Stokes pressed them as to “Why does she have it in for me?”
Vail astoundingly told Stokes that perhaps it was because “she is going through the change… When a woman is going through the change anyone is subject to her wrath.”
The attempt by O’Donnell to smear Stokes was reflective of that time as the birther movement is reflective of these times. It’s racist at its base and intention.
What can you do when people have mindsets that reflect racial biases they cannot control?
The hatred exhibited repeatedly by Republicans against President Obama reminds me of the revulsion shown by so many against Carl Stokes.
Obama endured a congressman’s scream of “You lie” during his address to the Congress; Rep. John Boehner refused the President’s request to address a joint session of Congress; and many offers of invitations to state dinners to legislators, including Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader were rejected by Republicans.
Stokes had opposition leaders fight him on new public housing, on fair housing legislation and Council President Jim Stanton oppose Stokes’ measure to increase the city income tax. All seemed aimed at damaging him. Stokes had appointed a new public housing director who made progressive change. He was fought at every turn. Eventually he lost a three-year battle when a new commissioner helped dump the Stokes-backed director. There were constant battles of this type.
Similar battles that now take place over Obama’s appointments were evident during Stokes’s time.
Even some corporate leaders got into the act. Then chairman of TRW, Inc. Fred Crawford at dinner for police officers told a racist joke. The PD reporter covering the event wrote: “Crawford told two racial jokes to the all-white audience. In prefacing one joke, he commented upon someone being ‘blackballed.’ Crawford then added: ‘I guess it takes two black balls to get elected in this city.” The passage didn’t make it into the paper but the reporter’s copy was slipped to me and it ran in my newsletter in November, 1970.
Not too surprisingly they were Democrats who gave Stokes a hard time. You had to search here to find a Republican in city government.
One of Stokes main thorns was Dennis Kucinich, allowed free reign to attack Stokes by Council Presidents Jim Stanton and Tony Garofoli.
Here’s what Estelle Zannes, a communications teacher at Cleveland State University and a favorite of student Kucinich, wrote in her book “Checkmate in Cleveland”:
“Dennis Kucinich, age twenty-five, diminutive in size, was a little man with a big voice in Cleveland. Since taking office in 1969 he had relentlessly oppose the Stokes administration, calling directors to task on council floor, accusing the administration of inefficiencies and mismanagement. He actively opposed the city income tax and consistently attacked the mayor. He considered himself the watchdog of the administration. For two full years since he gained office he had engaged in one campaign after another. The media called him a gadfly but found him a colorful figure and devoted more space to him than to the combined members of council, including Council President Anthony Garofoli.”
I described Kucinich in this period this way: “Kucinich, who has been carefully building a city-wide reputation as a youthful, anti-black politician, blames, as might be expected, left-wing radicals for Tremont (his ward) troubles (attacks by whites on the few blacks living there).” Quite ironic considering Kucinich’s politics today.
The over-the top vitriol that has been tossed at President Obama, for example, comparing him to Hitler, decrying him as some socialist dictator, had similar, if not more offensive, words lobbed at Stokes.
A member of his cabinet told me of a tape Stokes played for his staff to hear, a recording from the police department of a complaint by a citizen. A black citizen. The response to the citizen’s plea for help was, “Call your nigger mayor.” I remember hearing similar charges of police making such statements to white citizens. The obvious intention to make it seem there would be no police protection under a black mayor.
Indeed, the Plain Dealer lent itself to the police animosity against a black mayor. Shockingly, Doris O’Donnell headed a series of articles under the guise of “What’s on the Mind of Cleveland Police.” Stokes called it the most “damnable single act” against him in his book. The one purpose it had, he wrote, was “to show the hatred and animosity the Police Department had for Carl Stokes and for what he was trying to do.” The PD ran a litany of police complaints against the mayor.
This past election revealed the extent that some states devised to suppress the vote, particularly in urban areas where most black and minorities live. It, of course, backfired as we saw people waiting hours in lines to vote.
But voter suppression isn’t a new tactic.
In Cleveland, the police tried to suppress the vote when Stokes ran for reelection by preventing blacks from voting. It was a bold, blatant action.
Leonard Moore in “Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power” wrote about it:
“On the day of the general election several hundred armed off-duty police officers showed up at East Side (where blacks primarily lived) voting locations to act as so-called challengers and witnesses. In reality they were acting as intimidators. Not only were they visible in East Side voting locations but some officers went into the voting booths to challenge black voters. Several Stokes’s cabinet members traveled to the sites once they got word of the illegal activity.”
Moore quotes one official saying, “I talked to the polling officials, the presiding judge and the other ladies who were there, and they were frightened, just totally intimidated. They said that these policemen had been interrogating the citizens who came in to vote and just browbeating them. And they were handling the books, the polling books, which is against the law.”
He noted that some blacks with challenged as having “underworld” connections were told by police officers that if they voted, “They would be taken to jail.” One assumes they were attempting to frighten anyone with a minor infraction from voting.
I contrast this with the story of “a very old lady” who was helped to vote in an ethnic area. She was unable to read English and had to be helped to mark her ballot in the 1967 election.
“She was asked how she wanted to vote and replied, “To keep it like it is.” She meant voting for the sitting mayor (Ralph Locher, Stokes’s opponent). The Stokes poll witness knew that this procedure violated the election laws and that she should have been challenged that vote. But she…”with the sensitivity of a poet… (she) wasn’t going to stop her,” as reported in “Black Victory” by Kenneth Weinberg.
Democratic Party chairman Joe Bartunek in 1970 told party and labor leaders, I reported that he had no intention of registering blacks and turned down funds for that purpose. This too is a form of voter suppression.
Candidate Obama had to withstand withering criticism over being a member of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s congregation. As Obama’s pastor opponents tried to associate him with Wright’s more radical assertions. In one sermon Wright charged that America’s “chickens are coming home to roost.” He noted violence of American armed forces and said, “Violence begets violence” after the 9-ll attacks. Obama had to distance himself from Wright.
Stokes had a church and minister problem, too. This scandal erupted when he was in office and seriously threatened his tenure and his reputation. It was a little different from Obama’s problem. In one serious way it differed was that it was caused by the ramrod stiff Gen. Benjamin Davis, a U. S. Army General Stokes named as safety director. Davis was black. He might as well been white. He became a hero to the Cleveland police. He also became a news media darling.
Davis had problems with black citizens but was loved by the Cleveland police. Stokes and the general had a testy relationship after his appointment.
After a short term Davis resigned. Stokes described it as a “very devastating” resignation.
Davis forwarded his resignation in a short, hand-written note:
“I find it necessary and desirable to resign as director of public safety, City of Cleveland. The reasons are simple: I am not receiving from you and your administration the support my programs require. And the enemies of law enforcement continue to receive support and comfort from you and your administration. I request your acceptance of my resignation at your earliest convenience.”
The charge that Stokes was supporting “enemies of law enforcement” was a bombshell. The news media spent days of wild speculation over it. It, indeed, became a crisis.
Davis didn’t name these “enemies” so the speculation went rampant. It was also difficult to counter the charges without details. Since Davis refused to name the supposed “enemies” the newspapers and TV news continued wild with speculation. Stokes called a press conference and had Davis appear. He thought the press would demand Davis specify the “enemies.” He remained mute on the charges.
Moore noted the damaging headlines in the newspapers. One said, “Mayor is Dealt His Worst Political Blow.” It revealed the nature of Stokes’s problem. On a third day of press conferences Davis refused to attend or name the “enemies.” Finally, Stokes, who had learned the names, released them himself at another press conference.
The “enemies” list included the mild-mannered head of the city’s community relations department, a black minister, Rev. Arthur LeMon; the Council of Churches; the Call & Post, Cleveland’s black newspaper; and several black nationalist-type organizations.
The revelation of the names hit like dart into a big balloon. Davis’s charges now looked absurd. The General looked the fool. Stokes had timed his revelations perfectly. The military man was outmaneuvered by a crafty politician.
But the media’s jumping on the charges (some pushed Davis for mayor) revealed the danger of stereotypes and racial prejudices that can be tapped in the general population.
Maybe it’s also the evidence of slow advancement of thought as both Obama and Stokes were re-elected. Obama cannot run again. Stokes in 1971 choose not to seek a third term.
In 1991 he was awarded the Second Annual Joe Callaway Award for Civic Courage in Washington, D.C. He received the Distinguished Service Award of the Society of Professional Journalists, Cleveland chapter, in 2002, and was named to the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame, 2004. [Photo by Todd Bartimole.]