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Trading Activism for City Hall: A Short History

Baltimore's DeRay Mckesson joins a long line of African-American organizers wanting to become mayors.

Activist DeRay Mckesson is arrested at a protest in Ferguson, Missouri in 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

DeRay Mckesson, the one of the leading activists known for helping propel the “Black Lives Matter” ethos into the mainstream consciousness, is running to be mayor of Baltimore. To say that his campaign is a long shot is an understatement: There are at least a dozen strong potential candidates, including former mayor Sheila Dixon, who currently leads the polls. But Mckesson’s much-publicized activism, from Ferguson to his native city of Baltimore, places him rather outside the usual political network.

Mckesson understands and embraces his odds. As he wrote in his declaration: “I have come to realize that the traditional pathway to politics, and the traditional politicians who follow these well-worn paths, will not lead us to the transformational change our city needs.”

He’s not the first activist to come to this realization. In fact, Mckesson’s bid springs from a solid history of African Americans who sought to grab City Hall in order to shepherd their streets. In the years directly after Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, a number of activists rode “Black Power” platforms to city council and mayoral runs—and a few wild-card activists even won.

In 1973, Coleman Young went from speaking out about police violence in Detroit—much like Mckesson’s Campaign Zero—to becoming the city’s first black mayor. In the 1970s, after years of civil rights organizing, Marion Barry politicked his way into the city council and then to becoming mayor of Washington, D.C. Black Panther Party for Self Defense co-founder Bobby Seale also ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973 after a career of agitating police departments, and came close to winning.

The conditions that birthed this wave of black activists-turned-politicians somewhat mirror the conditions that have thrust Mckesson into the political arena. It’s not just police violence in Baltimore: It’s also the violence of racial segregation, toxic air and water conditions (as found in other industry-heavy cities like Cleveland), and the same high level of black unemployment that turned Chicago into a powder keg. And all of these same problems were the root causes behind the urban riots that proliferated after King was assassinated.

Mckesson’s mayoral run also springs from continued segregation, still alive and well in Baltimore and many cities beyond. Then there’s the continued legacy of polluted waters in black neighborhoods, as also seen in Flint, and the continued economic marginalization of African Americans in virtually any major metro in America.

Mckesson comes from a nationwide network of organizations affiliated somewhat loosely under the “Black Lives Matter” banner. A similar fabric existed in the ‘70s: Newark poet-playwright Amiri Baraka corralled hundreds of black activists and politicians together in 1972 for the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, which itself had just elected its first black mayor, Richard Hatcher. The convention was an exclusively black gathering with very selective credentialing for trusted media, not unlike the National Convening of the Movement for Black Lives held recently in Cleveland.  

While some have been quick to point to in-fighting among some BLM activists as a weakness, it was no different at the 1972 gathering in Gary. As the Institute of the Black World 21st Century President Ron Daniels wrote of the Gary convention:

The Convention was not without its tensions and controversies. … Controversies notwithstanding, thousands of Black people left Gary energized and committed to making electoral politics a more relevant/meaningful exercise to promote Black interests. And, by the end of the decade the number of Black elected officials had quadrupled. Some activists translated the experience of Gary into the creation of Black oriented organizations like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, National Caucus of Black State Legislators and National Conference of Black Local Elected Officials.

Some people broke away from the ‘72 Convention for various reasons. But it is still credited with significantly widening the influence of African Americans in U.S. politics. Amiri Baraka never himself claimed an office, but 40-plus years later his son Ras Baraka—also once a street activist—is now mayor of Newark.

Many of the tensions Daniels references still exist in terms of whether the American political system is a losing game for black people. Mckesson’s foray into politics will certainly not settle this; it may only vindicate the views of his critics that he’s too cozy with politics, or that he craves limelight. Many black activists who became mayors in the 1970s faced the same criticism.

But one thing Mckesson’s decision reinforces is the notion that all politics are local. Many activists have targeted presidential candidates for direct actions and other disruptions. The problems covered by those protests, however, are mostly the products of decisions made at the local level, not the national one: police accountability, the opening and closing of schools and jails, the delivery of clean water.

There’s room for the kind of advocacy that comes from both the streets and from inside City Hall. Mckesson has decided to take it to the house. Hopefully other activists will follow, once again.

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