Interviewer: Louis Massiah
Production Team: X
Interview Date: October 27, 1988
Camera Rolls: 3039-3041
Sound Rolls: 318-319
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Geraldine Williams, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 27, 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.
Okay, in 1965, what made you think that the time was right to, to elect a Black mayor in Cleveland? What, what, what was the sign? What, what was going on that made you think that the--
Well, at that particular time we had a little political club called the Non-Partisan Voters League. And Jean Murrell Capers was head of it and she had studied the statistics of the Black vote in Cleveland. And she knew that there were enough registered Blacks at that particular time to elect a mayor or a public official if it were a three way vote. And in order for it to be a three man vo--that is, if the candidate did not have to qualify in the primary. And if you, you can qualify by going out, getting an extra amount of signatures and run as an independent. And you'll be assured of a place on the ballot.
Okay, but what in terms of the mood of the community, the mood of Cleveland, what would suggest that a Black man could get elected? I mean, because in a lot of other cities it was difficult to elect a Black person.
Well, in the first place, we had to find a politician that had appealed to--well, we had had Black people uh, elected in Cleveland. Not for, not for the city office, but for state offices, state legislature, state senate. So why couldn't we elect a, uh, and we had Black councilmen. There were plenty of Black councilmen. There were about nine or ten Black councilmen at that particular time.
Could you say that once again, there was a little bit of noise outside.
Oh. Ah, we had Black councilmen, about nine or ten Black councilmen. So if there were enough Black voters uh, to put these councilmen in these wards we could almost depend on those wards to go for a Black mayor. At least we thought we could.
We're in '67 now. What did you think a Black mayor could do in Cleveland that a White mayor couldn't, couldn't do? Why was it important to, to elect a Black mayor?
Well, we thought we'd get a fair shake when it came to police relations and, uh, maybe housing and, uh--
Let's stop. We have to change--
Cut. Is that going to bother--
Okay. What did you think a Black mayor could do? We're in 1967. What did you think a Black mayor could do? Why was it important in Cleveland to elect a Black mayor?
Well, we thought a Black mayor could do as well as some of the White mayors had done. And we certainly thought it would be an improvement in police/citizen relations because at that time they weren't too good. And we thought maybe he could do something about housing. We thought he would have the interests of the Blacks more at heart which the White mayors didn't seem to have particularly**.
Did you have to sell Carl Stokes to the Black community? Did you have to convince people to vote for, for Carl?
Well, a certain section. We couldn't sell the politicians in '65 but we had no, no, not much of a problem of selling him to the, uh, uh, Black community. They were used to the name of Stokes. Stokes had run for state legislator on a bed sheet ballot. You know, like seventeen names all in one. And he didn't come in number seventeen. He came in something like, uh, ten or eleven. They were used to the name of Stokes. So, uh, they thought it would be nice to have a Black mayor. We all thought so. We'd had one of every other ethnic, uh, persuasion. Why not a Black?
What, what were, what were, what were your instructions to the campaign workers when they would, in the different districts when they went out? What would you tell them to try to influence people to, to come, to come out and support Stokes?
Well, you're registered and you're voting. He's, he's been a good legislator and he'd make an excellent mayor. And don't you think it's about time a metropolitan city, uh, should have a Black mayor?
Just once again, and, and could you make sure you reframe the question because my, my, my question is going to be knocked out, so just say that the campaign workers would go out and say whatever. Right, so once again. What, what would you tell your campaign workers to do?
Well, the campaign workers, uh, would go out and ask the people wasn't it about time we had a Black mayor? We had Black councilmen. We had Black policemen. We had Black pol--uh, lieutenants in the police departments. And we had other Black elected officials. So why shouldn't we have a Black mayor?
Okay, now you talked about the polit--politicians in '65. In '67, alright, l--let's talk about first '65 and then '67. How did they, how did they feel about Stokes? What, what was their--
Well, they were afraid to come out against Stokes. I mean, come out for Stokes because they were all pledged to Locher and they, and they wanted to keep their job safe.
We had one--
Stop one second.
The Black politicians. How did they react to Stokes in '65 and what change did you see in '67?
Well in '65 they thought the whole thing was a joke. They didn't think Carl had a chance. And only one elected official came out for Carl. And that was James Bell in Ward 11. Ah, and, but when the campaign was over with and Carl only lost by two thousand votes, it convinced the rest of the Black politicians that, yes, he could win. So we had no trouble whatsoever in getting their support in '67.
Who was the, what, what people made up the, the Stokes campaign in '67? Where, where was the support coming from?
Well in '67 it came from all over. Came from labor. Since Carl had demonstrated that he could win, uh, it came from labor. It came from, uh, White elected officials, Black elected officials. Oh, oh, and it also came from all over the country. We, we sent out, uh, uh, letters and flyers and things to other politicians in other cities and so forth and so on. And we got a lot of money in for the '67 campaign from people all over the United States. Since this was really something different, something new, something momentous I guess they wanted to get in on the action and then, we were all idealistic. We appealed to all the people that had ideals that politics could really be better. So they sent us money.
Do you remember the primary night in '67 when Stokes beat Locher? What, what were you doing? What, what, where were you that night?
Well, I was at headquarters.
Okay. And just--
--we had a bank of phones going because we had people at every polling place. And as soon as the vote was counted at the polling place, rather than wait for them to come down to the, uh, board of elections we'd have them call in the vote, because you see, after the vote is counted, tallied at the polling place, they paste, put it on the door. And our people would go up and get the tallies off the door and they would call it into headquarters. So we were a few minutes ahead of, uh, the count that was going in to the board of elections.
And I was down there on, on the phones, helping man the phones.
Okay. So when, when did you know that Stokes had won? Do you remember?
Ah, well there was a SNAFU and, uh, uh, in the counting of the vote and, uh, the fellow that worked with me, big Kenneth McGee says, "Well I'm going to the board of elections because I don't know whether our returns are right or not." And he went to the board of elections and sat down there and sweated the whole thing through. And I think we knew about eleven-thirty that Stokes had won.
Were you surprised by the White backlash in the ethnic community? Like, once Stokes had won the primary, the number of people that suddenly, uh, came out to, to, to vi--vi--vigorously oppose Stokes, people that thought Locher might've wo--win before. Were you surprised by that?
No, and I don't think it was that much of a backlash. They just, uh, they weren't used to the idea of a Black mayor and they didn't want one but it wasn't too bad. We had friends on the west side. Ah, and people that worked on the west side for us. They were White.
Okay. Can you talk a little bit about Stokes campaigning on the west side? What kind of reception would he receive when he was campaigning on the west side?
Well, I only remember distinctly once he went over there for a debate with Seth Taft at a high school on the west side. And, uh, uh, you could feel the tension when you walked in there. I mean, that was a sort of a hostile crowd and there weren't too many Blacks. Blacks don't go on the west side too much. Or didn't in those days. And, uh, Stokes got up and made his little speech and, uh, he introduced racism into the speech. And, uh, I'll never forget Taft saying, "Well, well, well. Look who has brought racism into the thing. And if you don't elect Carl Stokes I guess you're a racist." And we were scared to death. I mean, we wanted to get out of there because you could, uh, you could just feel the hostility of the people. And, and we wanted to kill Carl for you know, making that re--making the remarks that would bring on this remark from Seth, because that was his ve--shining hour. That was his best speech he'd ever made.
Did you think then maybe that the election had been lost?
Well, we thought it had been shook up. I mean, no, we really didn't think it had been lost, but we thought that that was an error, that he shouldn't have done it. And then when he showed up at headquarters the next day trying to explain why he had done it, nobody spoke to him. We just looked at him. You know. We were disgusted. Everything had been going along so smoothly, so beautifully and everything else, and he's going to get up here and throw a monkey wrench in the machinery. Uggh.
Could, could you talk about the voter edu--voter education, what you had to do after the primary, because you were saying before--
Well, you see, a lot of people had just registered. And they knew nothing whatsoever about voting. And af--we had stressed so much that you must vote for Carl in the primary and you won't get a second chance. Now, if you don't put him on the ballot you can forget the whole deal. So they went out and voted for him. I think that was October the third. Okay. We said now, we've got to get them back to the polls again November seventh. So we had telephone banks going and we would call them and we would visit them. We'd have the block captains go see 'em, the block supervisors. And they'd tell us, "Already voted for him." We said, "Oh my God. We got to do a voter education campaign." They said, "Yes, but you just put him on the ticket. You've got to go back again and vote to be sure that he's the mayor." And that was a job**. Because we had all these new registered voters that had never voted before and we had a job on our hands. Of course, we had no trouble in, uh, with the republicans. They all crossed over. Most of the Black ones. You know. Because you don't have to declare your politics in the, uh, in the general. Just go in and mark your ballot for Stokes.
Could you talk about the strategy of the block supervisors? How did they work?
Well, at first we gave a, a large tea for Stokes and we took the names, A--any time that we give a gathering we'd take the names of all the people that were there. Then we'd break them down as to precincts and where they lived, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And if they were interested enough to come out to a meeting to Stokes we figured they were interested enough to vote for him. Then we contacted all of the precinct committeemen from ou--you know, our wards. We got the ward books and contacted all the precinct committeemen, especially in the Black wards to see if they wouldn't vote for Stokes. And then we decided that, we took a crisscross directory el--uh, along with our ward books to find out who was registered and who was not. We'd run their names simultaneously. Then we'd find th--those that were not registered, we'd send somebody out to register them. So we said we better get this done block by block. So, uh, that was the only way that we were going to be assured that there would be sufficient turnout at the polls. We knew we had the votes but we had to get 'em out. It's one thing to have 'em, but to have 'em just sit there. So we organized block by block**. Each block had a supervisor or a block captain. Or two or three blocks would have a supervisor and then there would be a block captain on each block. And those block captains reported directly in to the Stokes' headquarters that was in their district. We had headquarters in the central area for about Wards 11, 12. We had, uh, headquarters in the Glenville area for 24, 25, 27. We had, uh, uh, Kinsman area, which was Ward 10--
Okay, let's just move forward a little. Towards the end of the election, and Taft is rising in the polls. Did you ever lose hope? Did you ever think that Stokes would not win? That, that somehow, the White vote that you were counting on would all defect to Taft at this...?
No. I never did. Ah, uh, I never really did, although election night, when we won, it sort of dawned on me and I think I broke out crying. We have beat the machine. You know. We really beat the machine. It happened.
Let's stop for a second.
Okay, as the election drew nearer and Taft was rising in the polls, did you ever lose faith, did you ever believe that, that Stokes might not win?
No, never did. They have complete confiden--we had worked so hard uh, we didn't see how he could lose. And if, if we had, if we could turn out 70 percent of our registered voters, we knew he'd win because we didn't think that the other side would turn out over 50 percent. Our mission then was to get as many registered voters as we could to the polls, and we did too, we got 78 percent of 'em out.
You might just say about who you beat.
And, uh, well of course we beat Seth Taft and I think it only dawned on me election night.
Once again, you beat the machine.
Beat the machine.
Alright, once again. So who was it you beat?
Well we beat the machine. That dawned on me election night and I think I broke down in tears and cried because I said, you don't beat machines very often. And I had read about all the machines, Daley machine, the Tammany machine, etc.
Once again, the second debate. You were at John Marshall High School--
On the west side.
...on the west side. Talk us through that again. What did, what did Stokes say?
Well there were very few Blacks over there to start out with, I think just a handful of us from the campaign. And Blacks didn't go on the west side too much. I mean did--never did feel too welcome. And Stokes introduced the matter of race into the campaign**. And I, I guess it took Seth quite by surprise, and he said, "Well, well, well, I guess if you don't vote for Carl Stokes, you're a racist." And our hearts just sank because that was his very best remark of the whole night. And I'm sure that by Carl introducing this into the campaign caught him by surprise, but he certainly rose to the occasion, you can believe that. And it scared us** to death and, and then you could just sort of feel the hostility. And we were very glad to get back to get back to the east side and get out of that high school.
What happened the next day?
Oh, the next day when Carl showed up in the office, nobody spoke to him because they thought he'd really torn his custom-made britches, you know, I mean he shouldn't have done that! And he was trying to explain to us why he did and he always has a reason for everything that he does. Nobody bought it. So we sort of boycotted him that day, we wouldn't speak to him. And it was alright after that.
After the election was over and Stokes had won, what, what do you think that you had achieved? What did, what did you think you had achieved with the election of Carl Stokes?
Good government. And everybody led us to believe it, and we could have achieved good government. At that particular time people were pouring money into here, uh, let's get, what Cleveland NOW funds and we thought that possibly he'd be able to attract a lot of federal gan--grants that would do well in housing, and improve the, uh, police department. We just thought everything would be better.
But was it particularly significant that this Black man had won the mayoral race? Did that seem like an important...?
Oh yes, it was a first! I mean it was quite important. We had done something that hadn't been done anyplace in the country before and since folks laughed at us in '65 and we pulled it off in '67, I guess we felt pretty smug about it. And, uh, yeah, we, we, we were very happy about it. And we said, if it can be done here, it can be done other places**. And I've always felt that we started the trend, and I've always been very happy about that.
'Cause after then, Black mayors jumped up all over: Bradley, in the large cities.
Stop, uh, camera. Uh--
Did you see a specific connection with this, with this campaign with the Civil Rights Movement and, yeah?
Yes, definitely there was a connection with the Civil Rights Movement. We got Blacks to register, to vote, to take a part in government, we convinced them that if you don't speak out and ask the things, you're never going to get 'em. You can't just sit there. Well I think we, we taught them that their vote does mean something, that it counts, and the fact proof of it, you put a Stokes name on the ballot 20 years later, you don't have to do a thing but put the name out there, and they will go out and vote Stokes. That's one lesson we taught 'em.
And other Black candidates too.
Okay, stop camera.
Just remember to say "first Black mayor" in your response. Was it significant that the first Black mayor was elected in this election?
Yes, uh, Cleveland was the first city that had, metropolitan city that had a Black mayor. I think it's very significant. We started the whole trend.
Okay, and, uh, alright, let's stop, stop camera one second.
Was it enjoyable, was it fun?
Oh it was a lot of fun. Ah, we had never had the opportunity to really run a major campaign before. We'd always been campaign workers and everything, but to map out the strategy for it and so forth and so on, lot of fun! And in 1965 of course we didn't have any money whatsoever so every time a newsman would come, especially from CBS, and want a bit of news, what's happening in the campaign today, this, that, and the other, we would beg buttons off of him, we'd get CBS. And I think Carl Rowan was coming out here at that particular time. "He said, "What are you doing with all those buttons?" We said, "Well your buttons are, are our candidate's initial, Carl B. Stokes." He said, "You wouldn't!" We said, "But we are, we're using 'em."
Could you just hold that up a second.
That little one. Then of course we had money enough to buy buttons and things for the rest of the campaign, for '67.
What is the card that you're, that you have?
Oh, the card is our, uh, official block supervisor. We issued these to all the people that took of all the people on their blocks. Ah, they, they, their job was to contact every voter on their block and see that they got to the polls election day, the 3rd, and again on the 7th of November. October the 3rd, and again on the 7th. They had to educate 'em too that they had to go back.
Okay, once again, why don't you point out the buttons. What are the buttons?
Well this is CBS, these are the buttons that we begged from CBS when we were broke, and of course when we got money we could, uh, buy buttons. "Stokes Believes", "Let's Do Cleveland Proud", "Carl Stokes Cares", uh, "Stick with Stokes". And, uh, Hatcher came over to visit us during the campaign and we exchanged buttons, so I got one of his little buttons too. He was running at the same time Carl was.