NEWARK, NJ — Just three years out from under one of the largest civil rebellions the United States had ever seen, Newark was a city with needs befitting the trauma of such a pivotal moment in local and national history.
It was 1970, a new decade with a rapidly evolving ethos, and in the city known mostly for its unrest and subsequent economic woes, an appetite for change was about to inspire yet another turning point for the record books.
Enter Kenneth Gibson, the first black mayor elected in Newark (or in any major Northeastern city, for that matter) and the subject of a new book from Rutgers University Press. Just hours after the funeral of Newark’s first black councilman-at-large Calvin West on Monday, city luminaries of past and present marked the end of an era at the Paul Robeson Center, where Robert Holmes and Richard Roper, editors of “A Mayor for All the People: Kenneth Gibson’s Newark,” delved deep into Gibson’s tenure, legacy and persona.
Taking to the stage to deliver opening remarks to a room full of figures representing Newark’s history, Mayor Ras Baraka looked back on the challenges of yesteryear and the “democratic experiment” that was Gibson’s election and tenure.
“As a young man, it always dawned on me that we expected Mayor Gibson to come into the city of Newark with this democratic experiment, where African Americans began to seize power in the city and all these things were happening: taxpayers were leaving, financially the city was in disarray,” Baraka recalled of the issues his mentor inherited. “All of these things were going on and we expected him to come in and wave a magic wand to make all these things somehow disappear.”
Such is a defining feature of “A Mayor for All the People,” whose talk was moderated by Rev. William Howard. The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to a common criticism of Gibson’s leadership, according to Holmes, who worked closely with Gibson as the city’s director of Housing and Urban Development. Gibson, the editors note, was derided as overreaching to govern all segregated Newark’s communities rather than catering to a particular constituency.
Holmes, now the director of the Community and Transactional Lawyering Clinic at Rutgers Law School, and Roper, a New Jersey Policy expert, said their publication stemmed from a 2015 idea for an article that evolved into a full volume of 45 interviews from figures like former New York City Mayor David Dinkins and current New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver.
“Ken Gibson and those working closely with him were like people drinking from a fire hose. I think about that because of the expectations of the masses of Ken Gibson’s supporters, people marginalized by so many variables,” Howard said, echoing Baraka’s memory of the many tasks before Gibson as he entered office. “As the fable suggests, it really depended on where you touched him that defined how you saw him.”
Holmes and Roper said they strived to offer a balanced assessment from those most in tune with Newark under Gibson’s leadership from 1970 to 1986, raising the question at the volume’s center: What measures define the success of a leader who largely failed to deliver promises in the face of pervasive socioeconomic and structural crises?
To that, those who knew Gibson and the city best say today’s Newark still lives under Gibson’s influence. Holmes and Roper point to three criteria in Gibson’s famously easygoing persona, the recruitment of a diverse, young set of professionals to his administration and the innovations that he allowed, such as Newark Public Radio Inc., the Housing Redevelopment Authority and the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Development.
Audience members also credited Gibson’s tenure, which helped change the perception of black people and their ability to lead, as the stimulant for a black middle class in Newark.
“I researched how historians determine whether someone is a historic figure, and it’s those who leave traces of themselves behind,” Roper said. “Ken Gibson is clearly a historic figure because he satisfies all those tests for what a historic figure needs to be.”
But for all the consideration paid to Newark’s history in “A Mayor for All the People,” Howard said that the volume is really a book about the future that should be defined by the wisdom derived from the interviews that line its pages.
“We’ve got to deal with, constructively, the tension between people’s rightful expectations and demands of government alongside the structural limitations of what’s possible,” he said.