Newarkers mourn Ken Gibson, first black mayor to govern any major northeast city

NEWARK -- When lifelong Newarkers look at the casket of the late Mayor Ken Gibson, they remember the summer of 1969.

Back then, the city was still recovering from the race riots of 1967. A white mayor was in office, but more than half the city's population was black. Unemployment and crime were at a high.

"I remember when he first came into office, I was a little girl living on 18th Avenue and Bergen in the central ward of Newark," said Ardelie McElroy, "They used to round the kids up and he used to always take us up to Suntan Lake."

It was a one-day trip of swimming, playing a picnic to get out of the city.

"I was limited in Newark," recalled Alif Muhammad, who was a teenager at the time. "I couldn’t go to the north ward, to the east ward, as a black man."

Racial tensions and poverty propelled Gibson's campaign. Adults visiting the late-mayor's casket today recalled campaigning for him as children.

"He would gather us kids up and give us fliers and we would go slide them under the doors in the projects," said Eric Adams.

When Gibson was elected in 1970, he defeated a white incumbent to become the city's first black mayor and the first black leader of any major city in the northeastern United States.

"A minority could not grow. You were down, you should have stayed down. He changed that, he kicked that door in," said Tony Agosto, a local business owner and hispanic commissioner for the city.

Gibson laid in state at Newark City Hall this afternoon so dozens could pay their final respects.

He was elected to serve as mayor a total of four times. He ran unsuccessfully twice for governor and once for county executive.

His policies as mayor did not eradicate poverty, crime and inequality from Newark, but those who visited him in city hall today lauded his legacy as a trailblazer.

"You know before that, very few blacks had any kind of political power in the state of New Jersey or throughout the country, so it was like a Barack Obama moment," said Adams.

Gibson was 86 years old.

A funeral open to the public will be held Thursday night at Symphony Hall.

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