NEWARK, NJ — Newark, New Jersey remains an enigma, straddling the dual worlds of hardscrabble, inner-city living to the west and gentrification driven development to the east in a now transformed downtown district, but what hasn't changed over the years is Black leadership: there have been four Black elected mayors in the Garden State’s largest city over the last four decades.
It all started with the historic 1970 election of Kenneth A. Gibson. He passed away last year, but his brother, Harold Gibson, still remembers the tumultuous events of the late 1960s: namely the Newark Rebellion of 1967, which occurred under the controversial, divisive leadership of then Mayor Hugh Addonizio.
"There were a lot of things going on in the city at the time that enhanced his ability to be elected," Harold Gibson said.
After running and losing to Addonizio in 1966, Kenneth Gibson’s knack for bringing people together allowed him to capture the attention of a city desperately in need of healing, beating Addonizio in 1970.
"His legacy was his friendship with people," Harold Gibson said. "He really got along with everybody."
Newark is currently headed up by Mayor Ras Baraka. Baraka succeeded then mayor, and now US Senator, Cory Booker, who in turn succeeded Sharp James.
James was part of the coalition that initially fueled Gibson’s rise to power and it was also James who, in 1986, ran and won against Gibson, who was then seeking a fifth term in office.
"He made dreams become a reality and we loved him for that," James said. "Ken Gibson gave the idea that minorities could win."
But victory for Newark’s Black mayors has not always translated to progress in several of the city’s neighborhoods.
Critics of Newark’s various administrations point to persistent crime and poverty that has plagued the city for decades.
Newark Official Historian Junius Williams weighed in.
"People don't understand history. They don't understand economics. They don't understand racism," Williams said. "There was federal policy that redlined cities like Newark. You couldn't get loans in the City of Newark."
Everything Newark is today, the good and the bad, is the byproduct, of a potent combination of injustice, perseverance and enlightenment, Williams said.
“Now you have more white people, fortunately , since the death of George Floyd who understand just how deep and endemic racism is in America," Williams said. "Along with racism, comes class discrimination. So you’ve got classism, and racism, combined to form institutions that have been designed to keep black people in a certain place."