NEWARK, NJ - Ken Gibson, the first black mayor of Newark who was elected in the tulmultous period following 1967 race riots, has died. He was 86.
Gibson was the first black elected to serve as mayor of a major northeastern city when he won a six-man race in 1970, unseating Mayor Hugh Addonizio, who had been indicted by a federal grand jury for taking kickbacks from contractors.
"Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first," Gibson said famously about Newark in the early 1970s.
Mayor Ras Baraka said Gibson paved the way for every major African-American elected official in this state and many places around the country.
"He understood our place in history," Mayor Ras Baraka wrote on Facebook this evening. "And still decades later as many of us still try to figure out the origin of our problems and wallow in self hatred blaming each other, Ken started believing in us years ago. His sacrifice was great. He made himself a target so that we have the right to see this city in our own image."
Gibson had first run for mayor of Newark in 1966, garnering more than 15,000 votes in an unsuccessful bid to oust Addonizio. His showing surprised many and made him a front runner for the next election. By the time the 1970 election rolled around, Newark was a very different place, having endured a several days of rioting in the summer of 1967 that scarred the city for a generation and hastened the white flight that had begun earlier in the decade.
Gibson was selected by the Black and Puerto Rican Convention in 1969 as the "community choice" candidate, according to the riseupnewark. The convention was created by Committee for Unified Newark (CFUN), an organization run by the late poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, the current mayor's father.
Addonizio’s campaign attempted to portray Gibson as a radical Black Nationalist based on his association with Baraka.
One piece of campaign literature from the Addonizio campaign highlighted Gibson's qualifications as a delegate to the 1967 Black Power Conference and the choice of the Black Convention of 1970. "Vote Qualification Not Color, Democracy Not Domination," the flyer reads.
Doug Eldridge, a former reporter from the Newark Evening News who covered the 1970 race, said there was a feeling of inevitability that Gibson would win the election.
"Addonizio really lost virtually all of the black support he ever had and at one time he had a great deal of it," Eldridge told the late author Robert Curvin in an interview. "It just seemed like the moment was here. Ken wasn't an exciting guy, but he had stirred so much excitement in the community."
Gov. Phil Murphy said in the aftermath of the riot, Gibson restored stability, promise, and pride to a city that needed all three.
"Mayor Gibson focused on issues of economic equality, fair housing, and public health," Murphy said, noting that Lieutenant Gov. Sheila Oliver started her career in public service, as director of the Office of Youth Services and Special Projects in the Gibson administration.
"The striving Newark of today first began to take shape under Mayor Gibson, and the city’s future successes will, in no small part, find their foundations in his work," Murphy said.
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., who called Gibson a friend, said the former mayor influenced him as a public servant.
"Ken Gibson is part of Newark's history," DiVincenzo said. "He led the city during a difficult time, worked hard to find common ground among the city's diverse population and his contributions laid the foundation for Newark's recovery."
Gibson served for four terms until he was unseated by Sharpe James in 1986.
“Mayor Gibson cared deeply for the people in our city and he was dedicated to putting Newark at the forefront of great American cities," said state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat who represents Newark. "He worked tirelessly for Newark residents while building a foundation for what Newark is today.”
Gibson also ran for New Jersey govenror twice in 1981 and 1985, but failed to secure the Democratic nomination. A Democrat, Gibson also ran for Essex County executive in 1998, losing to incumbent Jim Treffinger.
After leaving public life, Gibson, an engineer by training, ran an engineering firm. It was through that work that he was indicted on federal charges of bribery involving a school construction project in Irvington in 2000. As part of an agreement that spared him jail, he pleaded guilty to tax evasion two years later.
Chris Christie, who was U.S. Attorney at the time, said securing Gibson's guilty plea was a "major accomplishment."
'When someone of the stature of Mr. Gibson -- an icon and the first African-American mayor of a major city -- stands in a courtroom and admits that he committed a felony, it is a major accomplishment,'' Christie told the New York Times in 2002.
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