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The election of President Barack Obama, not even a decade ago, has already been marked down in American history as a major step in the long march for civil rights. Of course, it is clear from the continuing work of advocates and activists today that it was not the last such step. However this month, Black History Month, beckons us to look back and remember all the steps that came before. Forty-Eight years ago, back when the man who would become the first African American President of the United States was only six years old, another man began paving that path of opportunity with strikingly similar tenacity.
In 1967, a different state congressman from a Midwestern state became the first African American to serve in a different prestigious office. Carl Burton Stokes made history when he was elected mayor of Cleveland, Ohio and became the first African American mayor of a major US city. Forty years separate his election from the election of President Obama. Yet their stories are parallel and related as they compose a chapter of the living history of African American perseverance in America.
Like the President who followed in his footsteps, Stokes was also raised by a single mother. He grew up first in a poor Cleveland neighborhood, and then in the city’s first housing project. Stokes was constantly reminded by his mother that education was the key to a better life. His early life was characterized by educational excellence and service to his nation. After serving in World War II, Stokes completed his legal studies and was admitted to the Ohio Bar. He served as an assisting prosecuting attorney for the county, before becoming the first African American to be elected to the Ohio House of Representatives.
As a young attorney and state congressmen, Stokes built a reputation as a civil rights advocate and political moderate, appealing to African American and white voters alike. After he was defeated following his third term in office, he responded to the setback by striving to make an even greater impact on his community. He sought a position which an African American man had never held before — mayor of Cleveland, a major American city. It was an uphill battle. Not only was two-thirds of the Cleveland’s population white, but Stokes’ opponent was the grandson of former President William Howard Taft. When he ran for mayor, the African American community in Cleveland was struggling and tensions between police and citizens were escalating to riots. In the end, he won his historic victory with a narrow 50.5 percent of the vote.
As mayor, Stokes was a fierce advocate for minorities in Cleveland and opened doors for African Americans and women to work at city hall. He united black and white business owners to fund Cleveland: Now!, a program to rejuvenate the city’s poorest neighborhoods. As race riots and financial troubles plagued the city, Stokes was a force of stability and reason earning him a second term. Following his tenure as mayor, he went on to break barriers in his storied career as a news anchor, a municipal judge, and a U.S. ambassador.
The impact of Mayor Carl B. Stokes’s accomplishments transcends his time in office. He was an early beacon of hope for the change we see continued today. Forty-eight years after Stokes’s election, not only is the president of the United States an African American, so are an estimated 471 other mayors in office today. Of course, leaders like President Barack Obama and former Mayor Carl B. Stokes do not just pave the way for African Americans to hold the same positions. They show our nation the importance of diversity and the benefit of empowering Americans of all backgrounds. They are proof of the value of perseverance. They are a testament to the American Dream and the spirit of “liberty and justice for all.”