Thursday, March 30, 2017

Black Politics in Cleveland: From Apex to Nadir

Black politics in Cleveland has a long and rich history, dating to the 19th century and the activism of men like Harry C. Smith and George A. Myers. And of course there is a long line of firsts that perhaps reached its apotheosis between 1967 and 1972. Those pivotal years saw Carl Stokes elected mayor [1967], elder brother Louis Stokes elected to Congress [1968], and the formation of the Twenty-first District Caucus [1970], perhaps as potent and sophisticated a political organization as black people have ever created in this country.

Comprised mostly but not exclusively of Democrats, the Caucus — its very name became a household word — at its zenith had the power to elect its friends and defeat its political foes, irrespective of party affiliation. It forced open doors and claimed seats at the table.

That short but sweet epoch of black political power began to recede when Carl Stokes left Cleveland in 1971 for New York and a new line of work. And while there are likely close to 100 black elected officials in Cuyahoga County today, including Congresswoman Marcia Fudge and Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson, no one with a memory of those days would tolerate the notion that the entire lot of them wields more than a fraction of the power the black community exercised through the Caucus.

Those halcyon days are long gone, thanks to a number of factors, including population sprawl, demographic changes, the complex and unforeseen effects of a civil rights revolution that knocked down the walls that kept black people segregated in this northern mecca, and the unwillingness or inability of black leadership to groom and grow the next generation of leaders.

Moreover, the outsized role that money now plays in political and public affairs means that even when blacks are elected to public office, they are not necessarily responsive to their constituencies. Politicians of all hues respond first, fastest, and most often to those interests that speak green.

My intent when starting this post was to report on an event of great promise that occurred in town the night before last. But the foregoing attempt to provide context for that report has resulted in painting such a dismal outline of the current state of black political affairs that I don’t want to join the two in one piece. Instead, if you will permit me to extend this preamble a bit, I promise some breaking news in the context of further comment on the failure of black leadership and the prospect of better days ahead.

Our community’s failure to develop long range plans has retarded our progress immeasurably. The lack of leadership development is but the most visible evidence. Our key institutions — political, civil rights, commercial, and cultural — have all suffered from this failure. Fortunately, as we have reported over time, several have begun to emerge from the depths. The Urban League of Greater Cleveland, for example, after being driven to near-insolvency by an ossified board of trustees, has rebounded under the focused leadership of Marsha Mockabee and a reconstituted board to become more relevant and engaged. The United Black Fund, after recycling the same old same old leadership for what seems like a quarter century, is likewise beginning to make major strides under new professional and lay leadership. And the Cleveland NAACP, static for near a half-century, is at least stirring again.

Black Cleveland once had many strong black voices, perhaps none more resolute and louder than W. O. Walker, former publisher of the Call and Post. Of course, he owned a printing press. But he was also a national spokesperson on issues of civil rights, an elected official, and the first African American to serve in an Ohio Governor’s cabinet. My reading of several books in the past few years about aspects of national black politics and culture has enlightened me to many of Mr. Walker’s accomplishments, and my respect for him has only grown over the years. Thus it is all the sadder and more depressing to see what has become of his pride and joy under the ownership of Don King. The last issue I picked up had a severe portion of its news hole devoted to drivel about the virtues of our current president, much of it disguised as paid advertising.

Politically, we have hit rock bottom, best epitomized by the fact that 83-year old Una H. R. Keenon pulled petitions this week to run for mayor of East Cleveland. It seems she is no longer content to pull the strings on the city’s governance from her various perches [retired judge, current school board president, imperial wizard of the Black Women’s Political Action Committee].

There are countless other examples, a few of which can be found on Cleveland’s city council, where Ken Johnson Sr. still presides over the Ward 4 seat from which he retired.

Age of course is not an indicator of competence or lack thereof. We have inadequate leadership across all chronological dimensions. Yesterday morning I called a Cleveland city councilperson about 8am to discuss a few issues. I of course inquired about the prospects of the multi-million dollar Quicken Loans expansion project legislation that is simply the biggest local issue of this decade. The member literally declared total unfamiliarity with the issue, notwithstanding having participated in the 17-0 vote to refer it to committee just last week.

The good news? All Cleveland city council members are up for re-election this fall and most face brisk opposition and an increasingly attentive and engaged electorate.

Better news? Come back tonight and read the report we intended to publish in this space. We promise it will be 100% positive!


Anonymous said...

Great article. This needed to be written. If the old guard does not get this, the new guard must open its own door. Sometimes, battles prevent a war.

Richard said...

Yes indeed. I for one found it refreshing that so few "old guard" were present. I have no doubt they will get the message, and I think their serial responses are predictable: first, dismissal followed by ridicule and skepticism. Next will come concern, then fear, then supplication, and finally respect.

Nothing new under the sun in some quarters.

Thanks for reading and commenting.