Let’s remember how Ken Gibson became the right mayor for the right time, Newark’s historian says

Posted Apr 1, 2019

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist

By Junius Williams

Former Newark Mayor Ken Gibson, who died Friday, should be remembered for his accomplishments, but also for how he was elected, Newark historian Junius Williams says.


The Star Ledger called Mayor Ken Gibson a “trailblazer,” and that he was.

By the unwritten law of “ethnic succession,” when the ethnic group with the largest population matures politically, it will use the ballot to take control of city hall. But the rules were changed when African Americans became the majority in Newark in the 1960s, and history was delayed. Therefore, the journey to elect the first black mayor in Newark in 1970 was indeed a difficult one, and Ken Gibson was the right man to win the support of the majority of all the people.

As we mourn the death of this American icon, let us remember how he achieved his rightful place in history almost 50 years ago. Ken Gibson was elected because of the work of a coalition of civil rights and black power organizations.

He was not selected to run by traditional politicians in smoked-filled backrooms, but from those of us who were well versed in the art and science of confrontation politics, having won citywide resistance movements against a 150-acre medical school, an unnecessary highway (Route 75), and Mayor Hugh Joseph Addonizio’s attempt to place a high school graduate as the business administrator at the Newark School District, instead of a college-educated black CPA.

We converted street protests into electoral politics, first, through the organization called the United Brothers (later, Committee for Unified Newark) headed by Amiri Baraka, the father of current Mayor Ras Baraka; and then through the 1969 Black and Puerto Rican Convention that galvanized the support for Ken Gibson to become the first black mayor.

As a result of this truly grass-roots campaign, run without major financial support from conventional sources or support from the Democratic Party (except for Eulis “Honey” Ward, the Democratic chairman of the Central Ward), Ken Gibson became the mayor of all the people, and executed this commitment accordingly. It was an election that saw a voter turnout of more that 70 percent, a feat that has never been repeated.

The platform of Newark’s black political convention in 1969 provides invaluable insights into black political thought at the advent of Gibson’s election and offers a useful means for evaluating the Gibson administrations’ effectiveness in bringing real change for black and brown people in this urban environment.

The Ad Hoc Committee for Newark’s History, in conjunction with the Newark Public Library, is currently planning a series of events beginning this year in which the public will be invited to participate in exploring this rich and complex history as a means to evaluate the present and future of Newark. The Center for Education and Juvenile Justice, Inc. is adding Chapter 4, entitled “The Ken Gibson Years (1970-1974),” to its website, located at RiseUpNewark.com. We had hoped to have the active participation of Mayor Gibson, culminating with a major event in

May 2020 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of his administration. We shall do so in his name, understanding that this legacy should be shared with generations to come.

Junius Williams, Esq. is the Official Newark historian, and author of the book “Unfinished Agenda, Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power.” He was Mayor Gibson’s first campaign manager and became the mayor’s first director of Community Development and Model Cities.

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