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Eyes on the Prize
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People, Acting Together, Are Power, 1967

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In his autobiography, the first black mayor of Cleveland, Carl Stokes, explains how he built his base of support in the black community.


In the summer of 1957, thirty years old, still poor, but with my law degree, I began to move into Cleveland's political arena. Ten years later I was elected the first black mayor of a major American city with a predominantly white population. I did things other men could or would not do. It came to me not because I had a new politics but because the old politicians had forgotten the most basic lesson: people, acting together, are power. They don't just have power. They are power.

... the most effective political work I did on my own behalf in those first years didn't look like political work at all. [Judge Perry B.] Jackson and [Lawrence] Payne had advised me to get involved with civic groups the Boy Scouts, the charity drives, and NAACP and the Urban League. And the churches, always the churches. There is no more effective political force in the black community than the church. When you need good zeal, when you need people out there working for you, having a hundred black preachers out there rallying them up for you is invaluable, unbeatable. So, during the years after I started the practice of law, I did anything I was asked to do in the community.

Judge Jackson would call me and tell me that some small church group needed a speaker and I would accept always and without question. There were plenty of times that I would end up talking to only two or three people, but I would talk and give them my whole load. For the civic and civil-rights groups. I would agree to be a chairman or co-chairman of particular drives, always volunteer work, never elected office. Long before I ran for anything, politics was for me a twenty-four-hour-a-day job. The party regulars never saw me coming. I had never worked through the ward leaders or precinct committeemen, the heelers. I worked through the civic workers, the dedicated volunteer women and men who believe a community can be helped, but never think, or at least never thought in those days, of politics at all. They didn't think of me as a politician either. Later, when I called on them to help, they thought of my candidacy as different from that of a "regular" politician. I was the one who had worked alongside them on that charity drive back in 1959, or in the NAACP membership campaign of another year. Whatever our experience had been together, it was much more solidifying than the typical political relationship. Through this process, I developed a depth of relationship with neighborhood people whose existence was ignored by politicians other than Jackson and Holly...

Source: Stokes, Carl B. Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973.

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