Newark's Living Mayors: Ken Gibson

Jan 27, 2017

Programming Note: Ken Gibson will join us this Friday, February 3rd at 8pm as Newark Today Presents "The Four Living Mayors".  He will be joined by fellow former mayors Sharpe James, US Senator Cory Booker and current mayor Ras Baraka for what will be a historic night.

Mayor Ken Gibson broke barriers nationally as the first African American president of the US Conference of Mayors.
Credit NJ Advance Media / Courtesy of Newark Public Library

Ken Gibson was elected as Newark’s first African American mayor in 1970.  A transitional period for Newark; the city was in recovery from the 67’ rebellion.

“Everybody thought that everything was racial and it wasn’t.  Everybody said that we had snipers in the streets and we didn’t.  They said black people could not achieve, and they still say that today and that’s not true.  They told me that I could never become mayor, and I became mayor,” Gibson told WBGO in a 2015 interview.

Gibson earned respect and popularity on a national scale.  In 1976, he became president of the US Conference of Mayors.  It was then Gibson made famous the phrase ‘Wherever the central cities of America are going, Newark will get there first.’

“I went all over the country using that same statement.  And I didn’t create that phrase.  We always say there’s no limit to how much you can achieve if you don’t worry about who gets the credit,” Gibson said.

Gibson was one of the nation's most respected mayors, with President Jimmy Carter.
Credit Newark Public Library

Gibson made two unsuccessful runs for New Jersey governor in 1981 and 1985.  Gibson placed 3rd in democratic primary voting for both elections.  The nod went to Jim Florio in 81’ and Peter Shapiro in 85’. Democrats lost the general election to two-term republican Tom Kean.

As unemployment rates dipped across the country in the early 80’s, they remained high in Newark.  It was likely those circumstances coupled with the popularity of city south ward Councilman Sharpe James that led to Gibson’s defeat in 1986.  In his post-political life, Gibson was indicted on federal bribery charges that were later dismissed.  He pled guilty to tax evasion in 2002. 

Still, almost 47 years since his first day in office, many Newarkers say Mayor Kenneth Gibson laid the foundation for the re-birth of New Jersey’s largest city.