Rob Christensen

When Raleigh elected a black mayor

By Rob Christensen

Clarence Lightner
Clarence Lightner

This week’s mayor’s race got me thinking of the first political campaign I covered – the election of Raleigh’s first African-American mayor in 1973.

Clarence Lightner’s election made national news because only 16 percent of Raleigh’s registered voters were black, proving that white Southerners would cross racial lines to cast their ballot. Lightner was either the first or the second black mayor of white-majority Southern city, depending on whether you considered Chapel Hill a city. Howard Lee, who is black, was elected mayor of the college town in 1969.

There were major differences between Lightner’s election and the defeat of Charles Francis, a black Raleigh attorney, who failed to unseat incumbent Mayor Nancy McFarlane.

The 1973 elections were the first modern municipal election in Raleigh. It was the first direct election of the mayor; previously the mayor had been chosen by the city council from among its members. It was also the first election in which most council members were elected by district; previously all had been elected at-large.

The changes in Raleigh’s city charter were driven largely by the city’s rapid growth. The city had grown to 131,000 people in 1973, and there were concerns about uncontrolled growth, about a north-south freeway proposed to be built through the Oakwood-Mordecai neighborhoods, of scattered site public housing projects proposed off Kent Road in Southwest Raleigh, and Crabtree Valley Mall built in a floodplain zone among other issues.

(The growth issue may seem quaint now that Raleigh has since grown three and half times to 458,000 people.)

Push for change

Concerned that power in city hall was being overly influenced by downtown business interests and by real estate developers, neighborhood and civic associations had pushed a change in the structure of city politics.

The mayor’s race was for an open seat. Lightner, the mayor pro tem, had served six years on the City Council. He was a member of one of the city’s most prominent black families, which owned the Lightner Funeral Home.

His father Calvin Lightner was a leading figure, having started the funeral home and also built an office building (1925) and a hotel (1921) on East Hargett Street, Raleigh’s Black Main Street in the Jim Crow era. The Lightner Arcade Hotel, was the only Raleigh hotel that served black travelers and its guests included legendary musicians Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.

In 1919, Calvin Lightner, who had a degree from Shaw University, was part of an African-American ticket that ran for Raleigh city offices. He lost in a time when most blacks could not register to vote, but just running was a major statement in the Jim Crow era.

Clarence Lightner was a star quarterback at N.C. Central University in Durham and a World War II veteran, before joining his father in the funeral home business.

In 1967, Clarence Lightner was elected to the Raleigh Council, the second black to serve following John Winters.

With an open seat for mayor, Lightner announce his candidacy. His major opponent was G. Wesley Williams, the executive director of the Raleigh Merchants Bureau, and a well-liked figure in the business community.

The fact that the race issue rarely surfaced in the mayor’s contest was in part attributable to Williams’ sense of decency, the middle-class nature of Raleigh, and Lightner’s record and demeanor as a black version of the sort of respectable, not particularly exciting white businessmen who had long run the city.

Lightner’s coalition

Lightner won, in part, because of a coalition between the white neighborhood groups looking for change and the black community. Lightner carried Southeast Raleigh and many of the newer suburban areas of the city, while Williams ran strong in the white areas inside the Beltline. On a map, Lightner’s pattern of victory looked like a donut.

This week’s Raleigh mayoral race looked entirely different from the race 44 years ago.

Instead of an open race for mayor, McFarlane was a three-term incumbent of a city that is seemingly on everybody’s list as among the best places to live and do business in the country. When a city is on a roll, it difficult to argue that the mayor should be fired.

McFarlane, registered as unaffiliated, also has followed the successful model of her mentor – former Mayor Charles Meeker – of presiding in a quiet, dignified manner where behind-the scenes results matter more than rhetoric.

Francis, a Raleigh native educated at Princeton and Duke, was the candidate who correctly identified Raleigh’s major problem – that many of the poor are not sharing in the city’s growing prosperity.

A national study in 2015 found that Wake County ranked 88th among the nation’s 100 most populous counties in upward mobility among the poor. A poor kid in Queens or Oakland has a better chance of getting ahead than one in Raleigh.

That may be the result of the sprawling suburban nature of the city, its lack of public transportation, its lack of blue collar manufacturing jobs, and declining stock of affordable housing as gentrification continues apace.

Francis had the endorsement of the local Democratic Party in what is officially a non-partisan race. But the party endorsement had little force because McFarlane has been a progressive mayor who had run with Democratic support in the past.

While Francis highlighted a very important issue in his campaign, Lightner put together a much broader coalition – one that included the concerns of predominately black Southeast Raleigh as well as the traffic, zoning and other growth-related issues in the fast-growing suburbs.

That broader coalition, as well as Lightner’s experience and stature in the community, and an open mayor’s seat, enabled him to make history.

Rob Christensen can be reached at robs@newsobserver.com or at 919-829-4532.

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