Lori Lightfoot takes the reins of the City of Chicago today as she is inaugurated Mayor. Lightfoot stands out as the first Black woman and openly gay mayor of America’s third largest (and arguably greatest) city. The idea of a Black mayor running a major American city is exciting but ultimately, does it matter? The answer is, it depends. There are a great many things that Mayors cannot control — the overall mood of the national economy and federal policies on policing and law enforcement, off top. There are other things that Mayors can do to create opportunities for Black businesses, in particular, and we should evaluate Lightfoot and others based on those.
The first Black heads of municipalities were during the Reconstruction era, when towns like Donaldsonville, LA, Maryville, TN and Natchez, MS saw Black men take the reins of power. Once federal troops left the deep south, however, it would be almost 100 years before Blacks would lead cities again. In 1967 Richard Hatcher (Gary, IN) and Carl Stokes (Cleveland) became the first Black mayors of major US cities. The first Black mayors were trailblazers, pioneers who ignited the imaginations of Black America and dared us to conceive of new possibilities. 1973 and 1979, however, brought the country two Black mayors who still, to this day, are widely viewed as the ultimate fulfillment of Black mayoral strength.
Maynard Jackson was elected as the first Black mayor of a major southern city in 1973. At that time less than 1% of Atlanta’s contracts were going to minority firms. In just five years the percentage had jumped up to roughly 39%. Jackson insisted that minority firms (read Black, in Atlanta) get a chunk of the pie and he did not back down. In doing so, he created scores of Black millionaires. Marion Barry was elected in 1979 to take the reins in Washington, DC. As real estate mogul Don Peebles pointed out at Barry’s funeral, Barry created the black middle class in Washington. When Barry was elected mayor in 1979, minority businesses received 3% of city’s contracts. When Barry started his third term as mayor, minority businesses were receiving nearly fifty percent of the city’s contracts.
Representation is good and necessary, in any democracy. The quality of that representation, however, matters. Black faces in high places don’t necessarily lead to progress for Black people. Ultimately, Black mayors are valuable to the Black community to the extent that they use their platform to advance our community’s economic interests. In a 1986 interview with Black Enterprise Barry said, “For blacks, it is much easier to get political power than it is to get economic power.” He also added that “Blacks in politics should see to it that more economic power is distributed to the black community. As one of those with political power, I feel that my job is to see to it that this power is achieved.” We congratulate Lori Lightfoot and look to see how she furthers the legacy of Richard Hatcher, Harold Washington, Carl Stokes, Maynard Jackson and Marion Barry.