Interviewer: Louis Massiah
Production Team: X
Interview Date: October 28, 1988
Camera Rolls: 3045-3048
Sound Rolls: 321-322
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Carl Stokes, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 28, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
We're going to begin with one question. In 1965 what made you decide to run in '65, how did you know then that the time was right for a Black person to run as mayor of Cleveland?
Well I don't know that the time was right, uh, as much as it was that I felt that it could be done, and it was a kind of natural aspiration of mine since I had been elected county-wide to the Ohio Legislature and, and, uh, in a county that had only a 8 percent Black population. It obviously, uh, indicated my ability to put together the White vote that would be needed in a majority White city. And, uh, and it's a, a natural evolution of one who is in a profession to look toward the, the, uh, next echelon. In addition to which, uh, the City of Cleveland was rapidly distinguishing itself as one of the worst examples of the urban crisis that was sweeping the nation and, uh, uh, Black people here were undergoing perhaps, certainly by degrees greater deprivations than in other northern cities in the United States. And consistent with my own historical understanding about the, uh, uh, evolution of minority groups into the mainstream of America, that the next place for us to be was to be at the helm of, of the, uh, one of the major cities. And I saw all of these factors coming together and decided that I would run.
Can you talk to me a little bit about Geraldine Williams and Jean Capers approaching you to run, uh, to run? Can you just recount that incident again?
While I was in the legislature Geraldine Williams, or I should say really, Jean Capers, who was a, uh, controversial, uh, politicians here, council person who had served some three terms in Council and then been defeated, had converted her party and had, uh, been active in pursuing political goals of her own. The, uh, she, with Geraldine Williams and a group of other people, began circulating petitions to draft me to run for mayor. Ah, I had told them that if they got a certain number of signatures, that the, I would consid--
Okay, once again, could you tell the story of Jean Capers and Geraldine Williams approaching you to run for mayor of Cleveland.
The administration of Ralph Locher had been particularly, uh, punitive toward the Black community in the City of Cleveland. We were faced at that particular time with a thrust from those of us who had been in the civil rights and in politics of where to go and there was great deal of speculation as to the next step. In the process of all of this, uh, former councilwoman Jean Murrell Capers and a small group of people began circulating petitions, uh, calculated to draft me to run for mayor. Ah, I was not willing to respond to the particular draft by the Capers group, but this, uh, had been one of the things I had been considering and talking with people about and people had been talking about my doing. Ah, t--that however served as an impetus from the number of signatures that were gathered to make it something for me to seriously consider and, uh, uh, it had that purpose and effect.
Okay, when, when did you know, when did you really feel that a successful run in '67 would be possible? What, what, what--
In, in '67.
Right, we're jumping to 1967.
Well, in 1965 out of, out of about 320,000 votes cast, I had, uh, lost the election by less than 6/10th of one percent, so it was obvious that, uh, the, it was a doable thing. And so in 1967 it wasn't a question of whether I would win but by what margin or who I would have to ultimately defeat in the general election. That confidence was borne out by the fact that in running, uh, head to head with the mayor, incumbent mayor in the primaries. I defeated him by 20,000 votes which, uh, was a clear victory and it, and it justified the optimism we had had.
Okay, how, how did you pull together the different elements of the Black community as well as, as the White community in, in, in putting together a campaign? How did, how did you, 'cause there're all sorts of different folks, there're Black nationalists, there're political leaders. How did you pull people together to support, to, to support your candidacy?
Well the 1965, or in 1967 elections, both you must remember were merely focuses of the political and civic, uh, and civil rights activity I had been involved in for 15 years. And, uh, the groups that had been of assistance to me--Americans for Democratic Action, organized labor, uh, uh, NAACP, Urban League, the, the, uh, different civic and community street clubs--all had been part of my elections to the Ohio legislature. And then in '65 I refined the process and then, then in 1967, it was refined even more. Black nationalists as well as liberal Whites and, uh, blue collar, White labor class people always had been part of, of, uh, of my campaigns which were at-large campaigns, and it was just a, in my own case, it was just a question of, of sharpening and focusing them upon the mayoralty election.
Among some people in the business community there was a feeling that electing Carl Stokes would ease racial tensions and, but in a way might buy them fire insurance in a more negative way to look at it. Did you think you could deliver, did you think that you could keep, you could alleviate some of the tension and some of the feeling of misery in the Black community? Did you think you could keep Cleveland cool?
No, I never thought that I could, uh, keep Cleveland cool. I mean after all what was happening, the social phenomenon that was expressing itself in the rioting throughout the United States, all of the, the, uh, factors that were basic to that were more than present in Cleveland and in many other places. So there was no, never any, any realistic reason for me to believe that, but from a standpoint of being able to evidence to the, to the Black and the poor people of Cleveland that I could do what they m--most wanted to do. And that is to have a concern and interest in it and to apply the resources available to doing something about them. This is what I knew that I could do. Obviously the White business community, uh, never understood the, uh, sociological factors that, uh, or socioeconomic factors that were going into the conflagration of the cities and the only thing that they wanted to do was, "Is there somebody who probably will stop Cleveland from, uh, going up in flames," uh, no matter how often I told them and others told them that electing Carl Stokes isn't going to stop riots. Nonetheless they believed that and since they were so disenchanted with the incumbent mayor and saw no other reasonable alternatives from the other candidates offering themselves, uh, they found it easy to accept me with that very primitive reason.
You, you campaigned in the White community, in the White ethnic community. What kind of response did you, did you receive there?
Well obviously having, uh, defeated the mayor by 20,000 votes in the primary I got very good response. And, and, uh, the--
Could you just reframe into ?
When I ran against the incumbent mayor in, in '67 in the primary election were the choice was between me and him and that campaign took us into the White ethnic areas, uh, I had every confidence that they were going to respond to me because of the fact that they had been as deprived in the White ethnic areas as the Black people had on the east side of Cleveland. And they did respond enthusiastically to the extent that I was able to defeat the mayor by 20,000 votes.
The night of the primary one of the television stations announced that Locher had won the election. Do you remember that night and what was your response, describe the scene to me, where were you, what was your response when you heard it and what did you do?
We were at the, uh, at our headquarters, downtown Cleveland, when, uh, uh, watching the television and I re-recall Hugh Danaceau[SIC] from Channel 5 coming on and projecting that Ralph Locher was going to be the winner. Well, that was about nine o'clock in the evening. And this was during a time that we had paper ballots. The, Hugh Danaceau and I guess the rest of the media did not understand the history of, uh, of, uh, printed ballots in relationship to the Black community because almost never do the, uh, ballots cast by the Black voters arrive at the board of elections early in the evening with the White areas. In addition to which we were carrying at that time a precinct by precinct report to us about what in fact the vote was in that precinct. And we were keeping a running summary. So when we heard Hugh Danaceau it was a source of great amusement to us because we knew that he certainly didn't have the information that we had. And, um, uh, shortly thereafter, hearing the bra- broadcast I just went out and told him that our own projections are that we would win the election by twenty thousand votes which was greeted by the, the media there as that we must, uh, have gone off our bonkers or something because the information available to them was that we were losing badly. Later that night, around one o'clock, in fact, our prediction came true.
We're now moving into the general election. Were you surprised by the amount of, I don't know if I can correctly call it backlash, but the amount of White cross-over vote for Taft once it was announced that you had won and, uh, Taft was going to be your adversary?
No. We were not surprised at the, at the White voter crossover in support of Seth Taft because he was an acceptable kind of person to, uh, to, uh, that, that a White voter who didn't want to vote for Carl Stokes could with, uh, some security be able to vote for Seth Taft. His record in the community was an excellent one. He himself was an outstanding member of a long time political, uh, dynasty. And, uh, I had no, no, uh, I was not in any kind of way surprised at the narrowness of the, uh, general election, despite the fact that the city of Cleveland is overwhelmingly democrat. The, in addition to which, of course, throughout the campaign we had been tracking voter attitudes with polls. And so we knew before the November, uh, 7 date that the election would be very close.
Okay, I'm going to ask you that once again, and make it just a little bit shorter. Were you surprised by the, the White backlash or the crossover in the White community once y--it, it was a fact that you had beaten Locher and Seth Taft, err, a Republican, was going to be your adversary?
No. I was not surprised at, uh, the White backlash or the crossover of, of normally Democrat voters to support the White Republican in general election, primarily because Seth Taft was entirely a different creature from, uh, Mayor Locher. And those Whites who were reflecting their own racism found it comfortable to vote for Seth Taft because he was an outstanding civic and community figure. Ah, the member of the long time, uh, Taft political dynasty in this state--
What was it like going out into the streets of Hough and Glenville, going out onto the Black west side during your campaign. Talk about your feelings of exhilaration. What was going on in the streets?
Well, the, the, uh, maybe the most poignant little, uh, vignette was when we were in a motorcade coming down, uh, East 55th Street and, uh, my wife, Shirley, and I were sitting on the back seat of the convertible. And a little Black kid that was maybe eight years old probably, came up to us as we were stopped at a traffic signal and he said, "Are you Carl Stokes?" And I, I said, "Yes." And he just gave a little leap in the air and ran down the street, clapping his hands saying, "He's colored. He's colored. He's colored. He's colored." I thought that sort of caught the kind of thing that was coming since pride and, and the historical aspect of the moment, uh, that, uh, that I felt as I went through the Black areas of the city of Cleveland**. Also very sobering, I might say to you, because so many of the people were expressing in different kinds of ways about the confidence that they had, both that I would win and that when I won that I'd be able to correct all the wrongs and the problems that beset them. And, and, uh, when you realize that people have that sort of feeling about you, that you're s- going to be some sort of savior from their dilemma, it's very sobering because it imposes a great responsibility upon you. And I felt that quite keenly through that period.
In the night of the, the primary election, the night you won the primary, can you talk about that night, can you talk about that, and the feeling, and what you saw when you went outside, and also when you went downtown?
Well, in the downtown area, as, uh, it happens we were, we were near the, the high level bridge. And this is a very wide open business area. And I don't know. There must have been ten thousand, people down there. And as we came outside, they had heard the news. And, and, uh, people were laughing and, and literally dancing in the street and, and hugging one another. And, crying, some of them, from the emotion of the moment. And when I came out they just all closed in on me and, and it was sort of a scary moment, but you just realize that this was an outpouring of love and affection and, and happiness at the moment. It was extraordinary to have a--I often tell people the only just spontaneous demonstration like that I'd seen in my lifetime was when Joe Louis defeated Schmeling in the, the second, in the second fight, and, and the Black community just turned out. Just so happy. Everyone had identified with that struggle between the, the exponent of Hitler's Aryan supremacy and this Black American.
When we spoke on the phone you, you talked about how you resisted Dr. King and a number of Black, major, national Black political leaders when they wanted to enter the campaign. Why did you not want to portray yourself as just, or, or just a Black candidate? Why did you resist their, their involvement in the campaign?
The reality of being elected mayor of the city of Cleveland in which the population of the city was only 35 percent Black and the re-remaining 65...
Why did you resist the involvement of national Black political leaders in your campaign?
The, the realities of being elected mayor of the city of Cleveland which was 35 percent Black at that time and 65 percent White, and White eastern European ethnics, uh, was that you couldn't run a civil rights campaign here. You had to run a straight political campaign in which you blurred or eliminated the racial distinctions as much as you could**. We had come through a primary election in which the White community had managed to put aside the, uh, racial issue. And now as we came into the general election with a Seth Taft in which we knew that White people would find it much easier to vote for Seth Taft and, and, uh, and that we must, to the extent possible, not inflame their basic prejudices. It meant that you couldn't have a, uh, a civil rights campaign there and the sloganeering about Black Power, et cetera. Or otherwise you, you may well have a cause that has gotten a great deal of publicity but you wo--would not win a political election. In that regard, one morning, uh, uh, we received a telephone call, political, I'm sorry. We didn't receive. Let me start over on that. One morning we, when we were reading the morning paper there was a nationally syndicated story that the civil rights big six had met in New York the day before and decided that they would come to Cleveland to help Carl Stokes. I had not invited anyone to come to Cleveland to help me. And I knew that if we had such a group come here with Black sloganeering and whatnot, I could forget about being able to capture the needed White votes that I would have to have to win this election. As a consequence, my campaign manager, Dr. Kenneth Clement and I, contacted Dr. Kenneth Clark who served really as the advisor to the, to the major civil rights organizations. Arranged for Dr. Clement and I to go to New York City the next day. We met at the Airport Hotel with Dr. Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League uh, uh, McKissick of CORE, Stokely Carmichael from SNCC, and Bayard Rustin representing A. Phillip Randolph. At that time we explained to them the political realities, that if they came there they would certainly upset the delicate balance that we'd been able to affect. And that uh, uh, we were sure that what they wanted us to do was to win in Cleveland, not turn it into a media event for Black Power demonstrations that would result in a political defeat. Although there was some resistance from Stokely Carmichael, Bayard Rustin and Dr. King prevailed and they agreed not to come.
Now, um, we're moving into the general election and there are series of debates. The first debate you did very well at. And then the second debate, at, uh, I think it was John Marshall High School on the west side, there was a little bit of a controversy based on a statement you made explicitly bringing race into the campaign. Could you talk about that night as you remember it? Louis Seltzer is the moderator and Seth Taft, your opponent is next to you? What happened, I mean, how, how, how, how did it happen?
Few people recall from the night of the debate at John Marshall what, uh, preceding information there had been, uh, about a conversation that Seth Taft and I had had at my law office the day of the debate in which S--Seth Taft had come to me and had, uh, entered into a discussion about whether or not, uh, uh, I would either--well, wait a minute. Why don't you hold it a minute, let me recollect that.
We're at the second, there were a series of debates, we're at the second debate at John Marshall High School on the west side. Why did you bring up the subject of race at that debate?
The debate at John Marshall occurred in an area of the city which is a hotbed of, uh, hostile racial attitudes and, and, uh, uh, anti-Black uh, experiences. The audience that night was a-about 98 percent White and drawn from the John Marshall High School area. During the course of the debate, for whatever reason it is--today I can't recall--but I recall saying to Seth Taft, "Seth, you've acknowledged to me that as a Republican, uh, who doesn't live in the city of Cleveland that the primary thing you rely upon in being able to win this race is the fact that you're White and I'm Black." At that moment there was a great outpouring of protest from this audience I've described to you. And, uh, when the moderator was able to get them to subside a little bit, Seth Taft, who we subsequently learned, had been well coached that if some statement like this was made, retorted: "Well, well, well, Carl. So now we really have the real issue out on the table. It's not fair for me to talk about race, but you can talk about it." And then of course there was once again a great reaction from the White crowd there. The next day the news media focused entirely upon that reaction and, and termed that I had injected race into the campaign.
Did you lose hope? I mean, it seemed, the polls were beginning to close in and really towards the election it looked like Taft might actually be taking a little bit of a lead. Did you ever lose hope? Did you ever think that you were not going to win?
I never had any question but that we would win. Now, as a professional politician, I'm always prepared to lose because I have both won and lost, uh, races, but everything that I knew about the way in which that campaign was going and the information we were getting from our polling told me that we'd win, narrow though it might be, we would win.
Okay. Stop the camera.
After that second debate and you'd made the statement, how did, how did your staff react the next day when you came back into the campaign headquarters? What happened?
Ah, Dr. C--Clement, who was the campaign manager, and I had discussed, this was not a spontaneous statement. This was, because of several things too extensive to go into here, I had decided I was going to say that that night. Dr. Clement had been opposed to it from the outset. The campaign press secretary, a fellow by the name of Ostro, had believed that it should be said and so Ostro and I, uh, uh, outvoted Clement's decision. It turned out that Clement was right of course, uh, insofar as what the reaction was, not to the, to the, to the accuracy of the statement, but the subsequent media reaction to it vindicated Clement's belief that we should not have, uh, have made the statement.
When you went back to your office with all your campaign workers, and you, you had brought up the subject of race the night before, what, how did they treat you? Did they make any comments? Do you remember, you know, going in that morning and talking to the people in the office?
Of course. We didn't go in that, that morning and talk to people. We went back to the headquarters that night and discussed it. And, uh, uh, we had to agree with Dr. Clement that it was a, uh, an untimely remark and that, uh, the reaction that we had received was one that we should have avoided by not addressing the issue, even though the reasons for it were plausible. Just wasn't politically sound.
Okay, do you, do you remember election night? This was the night of the general election, November 7th. Where were you? What, what happened? How, how long did it take before you found out about the victory and then what was the feeling afterwards? Just talk us through that night.
Well, we were at uh, at our suite in the, uh, Cleveland Sheraton Hotel on Public Square and I guess there were probably about, uh, thirty-five people there, uh, some business people, uh, others who, whose work had been done and did, were not in the street to work that day. And, and we watched the evening go by, getting reports not just on television but also reports that were being phoned into us from the precincts. And as we came down through the evening hours after the polls closed at 7:30 and ten o'clock came and he was quite far ahead. And, and eleven o'clock came and Taft was still ahead. And then around midnight we began closing the gap. And, at about 1:30 in the morning was when our information came to us that we were, all of our reports were in and we were just a little bit ahead. And about a half hour later the board of elections announced that all of the precincts were in, had been counted, and I had won by a small margin. It was about two o'clock in the morning. Of course we were all exhilarated and we were, uh, uh, all congratulating Clement and all the different people who had participated in the campaign. And then we went downstairs to an obviously hysterical crowd. And, and, uh, thanked them for their help and, and, uh, inviting them to the inauguration which would be only a week away. Then we were pleasantly surprised by Seth Taft and his wife, Frannie, who arrived at the celebration. Ah, Frannie had a box of roses for Shirley which, uh, uh, I guess that they had had just in the event that the thing went that way. We had a very cordial few moments with them and appreciating Seth for the kind of positive campaign he had run. And, and then I don't just remember the rest of the night just goes into, to a, a blank because we, we were just euphonious[SIC] and I don't know what all we did.
What do you think your election symbolized? What do you think your election meant for Cleveland on that day, November 7, or really the morning of November 8, 1967?
My election on November the seventh, 1967 had a great deal of meaning to America because this was a city, first, that was, in which the Black population was, was a distinct minority of the city. At a time in which cities were a hotbed of racial animosity and hostility and literal conflagration with, uh, there'd been over 300 cities there within a three year period of time all had gone up in flames, including part of the city of Cleveland. It illustrated, uh, the ability of White people to vote for a Black candidate for mayor. To Black people it introduced a whole new echelon of political power. That now, instead of having to go and ask the White mayor for a job they could go to the Black mayor and expect a job. That in looking at a police department now they would know that they were, the police departments were no longer without someone who would have some say over what they did in the Black neighborhoods that now they'd have a Black mayor there. To Black civil rights people who had, uh, uh, arrived at the summit, uh, by achieving the, the, uh, '64 Civil Rights Act and the '65 Voters Rights Act, this represented, now, the next plateau for them to arrive at. And that is the involvement in the political process which then would enable, enable in a system in, to going into the, the true economics o--o--of the country. So there were a lot of, uh, reasons like that, and the historical significance that Black people in this election had indicated that their involvement in climbing the ladder of, uh, and, uh, toward ultimate participation in the mainstream of American society, was following the same process that had been gone through by the European immigrants that came here beginning in 1850s. And, and that we too, uh, would ultimately be involved in every level of political and economic power.
Okay, could you talk about some of the coalitions that you put together nationally as well as locally? Some of the local leaders, some of the--
In the campaign?
In, in the campaign, uh, this is prior to election night. The coalition that came together, and just some of the support that you received that, that helped.
In, in the 1965 and 1967 election there was no involvement of national groups in the Cleveland election. We were very careful to keep it that way and, and the, uh, process was done here through leadership from the NAACP, the Urban League, uh, the Plain Dealer that--I'm sorry. Not the Plain Dealer. The Call And Post which was a, was a Black uh, uh, weekly that was run by a man by the name of William O. Walker.
Let, let's just start that once again. I was wondering about any national leaders like Hubert Humphrey, I mean, people who, who really were supporting your candidacy, as well as local groups, Call And Post--
There was none, I just told you, that there weren't any national groups.
What was the national and local support that you received or offers that you received for your campaign in 1967?
In 1967, the election which had caught the attention of, uh, people around the country because of the close race in 1965, uh, resulted in offers of aid and assistance anywhere from--
Just stop for a second.
Could you talk about the offers that you received, nationally and locally, to support your campaign. The coalitions that were forming, or that tried to form around your campaign, uh, in 1967.
Well, in 1967, there were many people and groups around the country who wanted to be part of the Cleveland election, uh, most of which we had to refuse because of the fact we could not see that it would fit in with the way that we had organized and charted the course of the campaign here, balancing the White and Black factors. So where persons, for instance, such as Hubert Humphrey, who was the vice-president of United States at that time, and a long-time friend of mine, had wanted very much to, to come here, we felt that it would not be in our interest to have him here. The national civil rights leaders who wanted to come, we did not, what, who is that?
...offered support in this campaign. Could you talk about that, could you talk about the coalition that came together and people that, that wanted to be part of your campaign and how you, how you looked at them?
Because of our very close race in 1965, the eyes of the nation were focused on Cleveland in '67 with what seemed to be now to them a probable win here. And there were many people who wanted to be part of it, and they ranged anywhere from vice-president Hubert Humphrey who volunteered to come here or very charitably also said that, uh, he would understand, uh, if we didn't want him to come. He would either endorse me or oppose me, whichever one would help me. And we told him to do neither, but we did not let him come. Similarly, uh, the national civil rights leaders who recognized the great importance of this election to the, to the whole fight for freedom and equality had wanted to come here. We necessarily rejected them also because in the delicate Black/White balance we knew that, uh, anything representing the Black Power Movement would cause a detrimental political effort. There were a number of, of people who otherwise were involved in, in civil rights activities other than the, the organized groups as such who we di- who, uh, uh, volunteered help and whom we did we go out of the city and, and receive their financial aid and, and assistance. Ah, here in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, but we organized the campaign utilizing the local components of the persons that we did not use on the national level, first as organized labor members, NAACP or Urban League, uh, the, those who were within the Black Power Movement, uh, we didn't have a Black Panther organization here but we did have a Black Afroset. They were very much an integral part of the, uh, of the campaign, worked very closely with us. Most important I think of all of the components of the winning campaign here was the Black clergy. Ah, they, they came down out of their pulpit, made each of their churches a veritable political organization of itself, and provided the real winning thrust, I believe, to the whole campaign effort of 1967.
Okay, just, very briefly, could you just talk about those local organizations, uh, Afroset, you began with organized labor, Afroset, and the Black clergy. Could you talk about the, the local groups that came together in coalition to support the, um, campaign in '67?
The combination of forces here that, uh, were most responsible for my election in 1967 was first the Black clergy who had felt affronted by the way in which they had been treated by Mayor Locher and who almost unanimously, Baptist, Protestant and otherwise, um, combined to lead the campaign and virtually made each of their churches a, a political campaign committee of themselves. But they were joined by such liberal labor organizations such as the United Auto Wor...