The recent profusion of Black mayors in the South is striking when you consider that, not so long ago, there weren’t any at all. In 1969, when Howard N. Lee took over as the mayor of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he was the first Black person elected mayor of any predominantly white city in the South since Reconstruction.
“The real revolution taking place in the South must occur in the political arena,” Lee said in 1971. “The black elected official is a real symbol of black power.”
But winning elections only gets you so far. Simply putting Black faces in leadership positions doesn’t change the underlying systems. When Lee took office, the experience of cities with recently elected Black mayors in the Midwest had already begun to illustrate this. In 1967, Carl B. Stokes was elected the first Black mayor of Cleveland, where racism and segregation had kept Black communities poor and overpoliced. Businesses were closing. Black people were losing jobs. Resentment festered among Black residents, and despite Stokes’s election, it boiled over into a rebellion in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood. At first, Stokes took bold steps that previous mayors would not have, pulling all white police officers from Glenville, in hopes that Black officers from the Cleveland police department could negotiate a peace with the rioters. But when that failed, Stokes sent white officers back to Glenville, and resorted to the same tactics previous mayors had used to quash the uprising. He asked for the National Guard, and tanks rolled through the neighborhood. His political support cratered. While “his method was less repressive” than that of previous, white mayors, the political scientists William E. Nelson Jr. and Philip J. Meranto observed in their classic 1977 book, Electing Black Mayors, “he did not support the rebellion of his people; he opposed it by using his position as mayor to restore law and order in Cleveland’s black ghetto.” Surveying the broader generation of Black mayors from the late ’60s and ’70s, Nelson and Meranto came away jaded by the mayors’ inability to address structural inequities.
In a sense, that generation of leaders found themselves between two sources of power. They were, effectively, political outsiders, who faced all the handicaps of outsiders as they tried to work the political system from the inside. And yet, as newly elected officials, they were reluctant to aggressively use the bully pulpit to stoke the energy bubbling up from the streets. A study by Edmond J. Keller, a political scientist at UCLA, found that while policy preferences of the ’70s-era Black mayors differed from those of their white counterparts, the Black mayors were more “constrained” than white mayors in acting upon those preferences by governors, city councils, and reticent local coalitions. If broad support for effecting change was not already present, Black politicians would shy away from trying to catalyze it.
The new generation of mayors, by contrast, impatient with historical constraints, have been more willing to supplement the tools they can use from inside government with the energy from the political movements outside of it. In the summer of 2019, drawing heavily on the advocacy work of political activists, Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, signed an ordinance to “ban the box,” disallowing questions about previous felony convictions on job applications, which had made it hard for many constituents to gain employment. The year before that in Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, bolstered by support from criminal-justice reformers and advocates for the poor, signed an ordinance ending the cash-bail requirement for misdemeanors, a policy that had left low-level offenders languishing pointlessly in jail because they couldn’t afford to pay their way out.