At first glance at the title of this article, one could assume that I am writing about a law firm or a musical group. Yet, the names in the title carry just a little more weight than attorneys or musical performers. All three individuals once served as elected leaders of America’s three largest cities. Moreover, as African American high-profile chief executives, all three mayors served as precursors to Barack Obama. Ironically, Barack Obama, at different points in his life lived in all three cities. When Obama first came back to the mainland from Hawaii to start college, he attended Occidental College in Los Angeles. He later transferred to Columbia University in New York City. Looking to become a political organizer, Obama was first found a job in Chicago. It was in Chicago where Obama met Michelle and start his family and career in politics. It is also in Chicago where Barack Obama’s presidential library will be built.
Tom Bradley served as mayor of Los Angeles from 1973 until 1993 when he decided not to seek reelection. Bradley was mayor of L.A. during many of the city’s most momentous events. He was elected mayor eight years after the Watts Riot in 1965. This massive urban disturbance occurred only five days after Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Bradley’s retirement from office came only one year after the L.A. Rebellion resulting from the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of Rodney King. Considered a popular mayor of America’s second-largest city, Bradley ran for mayor twice during his tenure. He was defeated each time. The first loss came as a surprise given the fact that Bradley essentially led in the polls. This lost in 1982 introduced a new concept into America’s political landscape. The concept came to known as the “Bradley Effect.” The Bradley Effect happens when White voters poll as if supporting a Black candidate, but the general election vote reveals something quite different. It is assumed that when questioned, Whites claim to support but in the sanctity of the voting booth vote for the other candidate. It was widely feared that the Bradley Effect would happen during each of Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency. However, the surprise result never materialized.
Harold Washington was elected as Chicago’s first African-American mayor in 1983. He served in this capacity until his untimely death in 1987. America will not know the full potential of Mayor Washington due to his death in office and not having the opportunity to seek reelection. However, the mere fact that he was elected in such a racially divided city speaks volumes to his tenacity and political acumen. Dr. King suffered his most humiliating defeats in Chicago attempting to address issues around segregated housing. The infamous police riots occurred during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Beyond this, a major recollection from Washington’s campaign for mayor was the fact that Democratic Alderman switched their support to the Republican candidate rather than support a Black man for mayor. Nevertheless, Washington’s victory caused the same type jubilation in the Black community as did the election of Barack Obama for to be President.
David Dinkins, the former Manhattan Borough President, was served as mayor of New York from 1990 until 1993. Dinkins election signaled a period of Democratic resurgence after Reagan and Bush. Two years after Dinkins’s election, Bill Clinton was elected as President. Dinkins lost his bid for a second term. His lost to Republican Rudolph Giuliani, had similar ramifications to a Republican Administration succeeding President Obama. The two mayors shared no values and there was a sharp lurch to the right when Giuliani came into power. Nevertheless, Dinkins’s legacy as the first African-American mayor of New York City cannot be erased.
Although this article focused on the three big city mayors Tom Bradley, Harold Washington, and David Dinkins, the dean of Black Mayors was Carl Stokes who became mayor of Cleveland, Ohio on January 1, 1968. Not only was Stokes the first Black mayor of Cleveland, he was the first Black mayor of a major American city. His election is considered a direct result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ushered in the current era of the Black elected officials. It remains to be seen how much time will elapse before another Black person is elected mayor of Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York City. At the mayoral level, the high profile of these three cities rivals the pursuit of Blacks seeking gubernatorial seats. In addition to finding successors to these pioneers, there are other frontiers upon which to fix our gaze and political imagination. For example, who will be the first Black woman to become a Supreme Court Justice? Perhaps that will occur after we have our first woman President. Will there ever be a Black Speaker of the House of Representatives or Senate Majority Leader?
Black politics seems to be in holding position at the moment in a post-Obama political world. Yet, because of pioneers such as Bradley, Washington, and Dinkins, it is only a matter of time and place before the next major Black political breakthrough. Here, however, I must strike a cautionary note. Being Black is not enough. There is a difference between Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas. There is a difference between Barack Obama and Ben Carson. We need more of the former and less of the latter. We must send a shout out to Bradley, Washington, and Dinkins for showing us what caliber of a politician for which to seek.
Anthony Neal earned his Ph.D. in political science from Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Dr. Neal is an associate professor at State University College, Buffalo. The author of numerous book reviews and journal articles, he has had his work published in the Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Black Studies, and Black Issues in Higher Education. In 2014 Dr. Neal received the university’s Faculty Appreciation Award, was named Instructor of the Year by the university’s United Student Government, and Professor of the Year by the Student Political Society in the Department of Political Science. In 2015, he published The American Political Narrative which is a succinct yet poignant narrative about the development of the American political system and what is needed to maintain it. In 2016, he will publish a book of poetry entitled “Love Agnostic | from 9/11 to Charleston”