In 1990, the National Conference of Black Mayors held its 16th annual convention in New Orleans. The organization had only incorporated 16 years earlier. Its founding members were the 13 Black mayors elected in cities across the nation after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights of 1965.
At its height, the organization had more than 650 mayors and another 32,000 global political leaders as members.
To highlight the significance of the organization’s convening in the city, The New Orleans Tribune published an article titled Black Mayors: A New Decade, A New Vision.
The writer Dionne T. Powe talked with Black mayors from across the country, including New Orleans’ own Mayor Sidney Barthelemy about what it meant then to be a Black mayor of an American city.
by Dionne T. Powe
Twenty-five years ago, African Americans faced a bloody Civil Right Battle, marching from the red hills of Mississippi to Capitol Hill, declaring freedom and equality. From that movement came the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Right to Vote Act and a conglomerate of 500 elected officials.
Today the United States has more than 6,000 Black public officials. Nearly 330 of those offices, including 73 held by women, are held by black mayors who run many of America’s major cities–from New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Washington D.C., to Gary, Atlantic City, Philadelphia, and Atlanta.
The leaders of these cities and others recently spent several days in New Orleans at the 16th Annual National Conference of Black Mayors: “A New Decade; A New Vision for the 90’s.”
The conference objective is to bring Black Mayors together to exchange ideas for improving their cities and to provide them with a unified support system.
NBMC president and mayor of Atlantic City James Ursy contends that the “power structure” does not understand the agenda of cities administered by Black mayors.
“As Black mayors, we experience the same type of problems. So, we have to come together–it is with this unity that we are able to discuss concerns openly and give each other a support level that we don’t find anywhere else.”
NBMC represents the tangible impact of Black Renaissance in America– those African-American leaders who direct the destiny of Blacks and other constituencies and manage the economic and social climate of their communities.
The mayors enjoyed an exciting week filled with workshops, luncheons and seminars, addressing pertinent topics from solid waste management to the escalating drug dilemma.
Some of the presentations included: “Bridging the gap between campaign promises…which focused on the officials’ credibility in making and keeping campaign promises to the voters. “Municipal Waste- Garbage or Gold Mine” examined how solid waste disposal is creating problems for more and more cities.
High on the NBMC’s agenda is the Black mayors’ challenge to the economic condition of most African Americans. Instead of sailing up the new mainstream, many Blacks in urban America continue to roll downstream into an economic cesspool.
Along with the unprecedented growth of Black political officials comes an unacceptable rate of unemployment and underemployment , the results of racial inequalities, whose by-products include an overwhelming drug epidemic and lack of economic empowerment.
But there can be no political power without economic power.
Dr. James Forman, the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom Award recipient asks, “Is the end of the road for African Americans, Black mayorship?”
Host Mayor Sidney Barthelemy says Black mayors are often excluded from the political process when federal money is funneled to the state. “Give us direct funding,” he declares. “No one is asking city officials where to allocate funds and, yet, crime is on our streets and drugs are in our backyards.”
Take Atlantic City, where 33 million people flock year-round to gamble and to play the casinos. “The luxury tax that used to come to Atlantic city now goes to the Atlantic County Improvement Authorities. The revenues generated for our buses now go to the Atlantic transportation Authority,” explains Ursy.
Mayor Thomas Barnes of Gary, Indiana, maintains that Blacks will remain a powerless people unless they recognize where the real power lies.
“Power is the ability to control economic interests in the community with black businesses and the ability to produce goods and services that can turn the dollar around and create jobs.”
How can Black Mayors effectively and adequate operate a city with limited capital?
“America must reinvest in our city and the peace dividend is an excellent opportunity to generate funds that already exist,” says Barthelemy. The United States is sitting on a $30 billion military budget. Why not utilize one-tenth of that fund ($30 million), to administer city programs for affordable housing, education, and drug abatement?
In spite of the meager resources available, Black mayors are lifting up their communities in various ways.
Mayor Barnes’ administration empathizes the need to strengthen Gary’s ability to ensure a clean, safe city. Barnes is now promoting a telemarketing campaign to enlist neighborhood watch captains and crime stoppers. The response has been excellent.
“Most individuals were supportive and wanted to be involved,” says Barnes. “Since February, we’ve made close to 100,000 phone calls and over 80 percent expressed an active interest. We’ve recruited 2,000 neighborhood captains.”
In the “Making International Relations Work,” seminar New Orleans International Relations Director Yves LaBorde encouraged the mayors to promote economic development through international trade.
One avenue is to organize foreign trade missions involving that segment of the private sector, which is interested in import and export ventures.
There is also the sister city program that links an American city with a compatible foreign city to exchange cultural, economic development ideas. The U.S. Commerce Department is available to provide assistance to people interested in International Trade.
During Mayor Barthelemy’s administration, several trade missions have been made to Latin America, Asia and Europe, resulting in an increase in foreign tourism dollars to the city.
A mission to Brazil led by Mayor Barthelemy resulted in several front-paged articles about New Orleans in major Brazilian newspapers. And the administration is actively pursuing sister city relationships with many other large cities in the world.
But clouding these efforts is the growing plague of drugs in our community. Recognizing the impact of drug and substance abuse on society, the NCBM held an all-day seminar: ‘Building Drug- Free Cities and Towns.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson, who kicked off the “Impact of the National Drug Strategy,” said that President Bush’s announcement that the “War on Drugs” in Washington, D.C. had failed, came as no surprise because the plan must correspond with the problem–and to declare a war without sufficient resources is Voodoo economics.
Rev. Jackson said that it’s okay for the administration to use phrases like “kinder and gentler” and “mainstream.” But real muscle has to put to a fight if the outcome is to be victory. A war on drugs cannot be declared without declaring a war on poverty and crime.
Jackson cited statistics. “There are roughly 500,000 homeless children, in America. Four out of five children never get to headstart prior to attending elementary school.
“Seventy percent of all crimes committed in the United States are drug-related. A large number of those brutal crimes result in homicide. Six of every ten people arrested on drug-related charges are not indicted. Roughly 5000 Americans try cocaine for the first time, daily. Since 1982 the import of cocaine, the deadly killer, has tripled.”
New Orleans Police Department Chief Warren Woodfork said there are more delinquent juveniles than there are jails to hold them. The system needs a more effective law enforcement program to combat the war on drugs.
“Mainstream,” exclaimed Jackson, “for too long, African Americans have been on the banks and in the fields. The time has come for blacks to create a new channel for the waters because it was the blood and sweat of Blacks that created the mighty waters, anyway.”
Jackson challenged Blacks to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. “Throughout history, change never occurs top down– that is from the elitist to poorest. Change will not start at the White House door and trickle down to the oppressed.”
Jackson then proposed his American Investment Bank plan as the economic answer to rebuilding the current infrastructure.
Jackson’s plan includes using a small percentage of workers’ pension funds to invest in drug abatement, education, job training, business development and housing. By borrowing 10 percent of the workers’ money (more than $800 billion in the public sector; $1.4 trillion in the private sector), African Americans can rebuild neighborhoods and uplift the underclass.
There are Black mayors who are committed to making change. Ursy’s administration has organized neighborhood centers in the community with doctors, counselors, and psychologists on the premises. Students are given the opportunity to release pressure after school in a positive and refreshing atmosphere. There are activities ranging from tutorial aides to recreational projects.
“Many of the youngsters know that if they have a problem the center is there with trained counselors who they can discuss concerns within a confidential setting,” said Ursy.
“Individual commitment (to improving the quality of life for our children) is the key. African Americans suffer from low self-esteem and when Blacks see people all around them making money at the Casino, they become despondent and depressed. Then, there’s the motivation to seek for a false sense of personal grandeur in substance abuse,” adds Ursy.
“We should understand who we are, understand from whence we’ve come, and that we do not have to take drugs to be somebody.”
In Sunset, Arkansas, Mayor James Wilburn has initiated a unique concept to instill Black pride. Mayor Wilburn wore African garb throughout the entire conference; his usual attire in Arkansas.
The African heritage is a rich one, he said. We often refer to ourselves as Black, which describes our color, instead of referring to ourselves by descent and culture, African American.
Wilburn is conducting several feasibility studies into an African village of businesses, restaurants, and shops. He urges African-Americans to stop imitating European culture and be proud of who they are. Contrary to popular belief, he said, if we don’t emulate Europeans, we are not ignorant.
“Fostering a sense of self-worth and empowering Black economically require an individual commitment and as Black leaders, we have to make the commitment as individuals,” said Mayor Barnes. “As Black leaders, we are in the spotlight and all eyes are on us.”
“There are Black things that we as Black leaders have to deal with and we need to recognize those areas,” said Mayor Barnes.
“There is a price you pay for leadership and we have to live what we preach. Leadership requires sacrifice– I can’t be Casanova, taking advantage of every woman I meet because I’m a mayor. I’m not judging public officials, but that’s the kind of commitment we have to make.