Office of Citizen
Rest in Peace,
Carl Stokes Had a Black Minister Problem, too
Submitted by Roldo on Thu, 05/01/2008 - 12:13.
The circumstances certainly were different but in 1967 Carl Stokes also had a black minister problem.
It wasn’t as explosive as presidential candidate Barack Obama’s differences with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. However, it was fraught with the tension of an unwanted attachment during a hotly contested and historic political campaign.
The black minister for Stokes was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As Stokes put it in his book, Promises of Power, “With my base intact, my success with business, my exposure to white voters, I could see all the pieces fitting together. You learn to expect the unexpected in politics, you even try to plan for it. But how could I have ever dreamed that suddenly a threat to all my plans, my attempt to put black people in power in the eighth largest city in the country, would appear in the form of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Stokes felt that King and other civil rights groups would do him damage by arousing a white voter backlash. He had one of his top aides, Dr. Kenneth Clement, meet with King’s people and to try to convince them that “… we already had a winner, but that it could be lost if black pride started prodding white fears.”
King, however, suffering setbacks in his first Northern foray in the Chicago area, was looking for somewhere to show his relevancy. So Stokes was unable to convince King not to come to Cleveland.
As I remember there was an article in the Plain Dealer that King and others would work to register 40,000 black voters. That, of course, was not what the message Stokes wanted highlighted. His campaign feared that such headlines would spur white voter registration.
Indeed, the then chairman of the Democratic Party, County Engineer Albert Porter put out dire warnings to Cleveland white Democrats.
“Will Dr. Martin Luther King actually be the mayor of Cleveland if Carl Stokes is elected Tuesday? This would give the noted racist control of his first city in the United States. He is in Cleveland now blackmailing reputable business people, telling them who should be promoted and to place money in Negro banks and advertising in Negro newspapers.”
And another incendiary Porter message, cited in the book, “Black Victory” by Kenneth Weinberg, a Stokes supporter, said:
“Do you want Dr. Martin Luther King and his disciples running your lives? Do you want earned promotions and job advancements to be canceled and placed on a race basis? Do you want to be told to place your money in a Negro bank? Do you want to be told to sell your home and used car through a Negro newspaper? This is what the King-Stokes combine stands for.”
Hard to believe such messages would be put out today but conditions have changed. More subtle attempts to use race, however, haven't.
Stokes met personally with Dr. King. As he writes in Promises of Power, “Martin,” I told him, “if you come in here with these marches and what not, you can just see what the reaction will be. You saw it in Cicero and other Northern towns. We have got to win a political victory here. This is our chance to take over a power that is just unprecedented among black people. But I am very concerned that if you come here you’re going to upset the balance we’ve created.”
Obama must have some of the same feelings.
Stokes wrote, “He listened to me, but I could see that he was going to stay. He needed to be on the scene of a victory.”
King, unlike the Rev. Wright, promised “there will be nothing inflammatory,” Stokes wrote. Stokes said that King did “limit his visits” and act in a “restrained manner.”
Stokes wrote that his “asking Dr. King not to stay was one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make. It was a confrontation with a man whose recorded words I turn to for solace and inspiration at moments of depression.”
There was some conflict on the night Stokes was elected as the first black mayor of a large American city. Some say that Stokes didn’t want King at his victory acceptance speech to a huge crowd in downtown Cleveland.
Here’s the way Stokes explains it in his book:
“When we went down to announce the victory, Al Ostrow, the campaign public relations man (and later his press secretary), was concerned about Dr. King’s presence. After the speech, Ostrow came to me and said Dr. King was calling a press conference. He said I had to stop him or he would take all the credit. I told him Dr. King wouldn’t do that, that he was one of the greatest men in the country and nobody was going to stop him from holding a press conference. I certainly wasn’t going to make things embarrassing or awkward for Dr. King. I felt bad enough about the earlier situation.”
But the fact that King wasn’t at Stokes’ victory acceptance speech suggests that Stokes didn’t want to share his victory with King.
Rev. Wright apparently believes that he played a more significant role in the development of Obama and sees his protégé’s success without him at center stage as a betrayal.
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