CLEVELAND — Cleveland has played a pivotal role on the political stage over the years. But the city’s mayoral race in 1967 made waves around the world. That’s when Carl Stokes made history as the first black mayor of a major American city, his victory marking a major turning point in American politics.
It was a local election so significant, the world tuned in. It was 1967 and Carl Stokes had been elected mayor of Cleveland. He was the first black elected to lead a major American city. Stokes – great grandson of a slave -- outpolled Seth Taft who was the grandson of an American president.
The legacy of the Stokes accomplishment is still reverberating in America as it set the stage for a wave of black elected officials nationwide.
Carl Stokes won the mayor’s job in a city which was 68% white. Because of his victory, thousands of other blacks across the nation began to become more politically active as candidates themselves. Stokes had shown the way.
He was born and raised in Cleveland. Educated. Assistant county prosecutor. State representative in the Ohio legislature. Now Cleveland mayor. So significant was his election in the then ninth largest city in the country, he was front page news across the country, lead story on network newscasts, and on the cover of national news magazines. Because of the Cleveland victory, many other blacks from around the country came to Cleveland to study the route Carl Stokes had taken to victory. Many would duplicate the feat in their own communities. A year later, Stokes' older brother, Louis, who had served as a campaign manager and strategist, ran for Congress from Greater Cleveland and a seat he would hold for the next thirty years.
The 1967 story of Clevelander Carl Stokes marked a turning point in black political power. It was not only at the ballot box. You could feel a sense of change in the air. I was in the army at the time and was in the jungles of Vietnam fighting a war. But I was a Clevelander. And from Vietnam, I cast my ballot absentee. Yes, it was politics. But it was also pride on the ballot.
The election of Stokes still resonates to this day with black candidates and officeholders nationwide. The prime example is Barack Obama who won the White House in 2008. There is a direct line from Carl Stokes in Cleveland in '67 to Barack Obama in 2008. It is a line of political strategy and political power which still grows across the nation. President Obama publicly said without Carl Stokes in Cleveland City Hall, there could be no Barack Obama in the White House.
Now a new chapter has been added to the Stokes legacy. Senator Kamala Harris – the first black and South Asian woman to have a major party’s nomination for the nation's vice presidency. It is the continuing story that began in Cleveland when this city and its mayor marked a turning point in political history 53 years ago.