Last week in Denver, the Democratic Party chose Barack Obama as its presidential nominee. No matter what happens at the end of a bruising campaign season, he has achieved what no other African American politician has achieved.
Harvey Gantt is one of many who paved the way.
When a visiting city leader from Mobile, Ala., asked Gantt about his time as mayor of Charlotte, even Gantt didn't remember how long ago it was. “About 20 years?” he thought.
More like 25. It was in November 1983 that Gantt was elected the city's first – and so far only – African American mayor. He went on to serve two two-year terms
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“People talk about it as if it were yesterday,” he said over lunch recently. He supposes that tag will always be there, at least “until the next African American mayor is elected.”
“It's history, and people will remember it.”
Then, why, in the last quarter century, has Charlotte not elected another person of color? Was Gantt a special case, was Charlotte different then or is the answer a little of both?
As someone who's been here only about half of that time, I had my suspicions. I turned to others who remember that time well.
Twenty-five years ago, Charlotte was a proud, New South city, a leader in thriving businesses and banks and in successfully integrating its school when northern cities erupted. Partisan politics took a back seat to compromise that would keep people and money coming. Charlotte's image would make it attractive to arts groups, as well as the NBA and NFL.
Gantt, an architect who integrated Clemson University, had served on the City Council. He was a visionary and the right man at the right time in the right place – a city that wanted to be big, but not too big to care.
Now, Charlotte has grown, in ways Gantt had predicted – with light rail only beginning to connect its sprawl and an arena in a downtown that's alive on weekday nights.
But that growth has brought new people in neighborhoods with competing interests, isolated pockets of people who may not want to know one another and political figures who play on that polarization. Many schools have resegregated. Citizens in every segment of the community worry about crime in a way they didn't use to.
Gantt said that other candidates of color who have the right set of issues will put themselves before the community and be elected.
In the past, he said, the city has had strong African American candidates, such as Ella Scarborough, and others, like Patrick Cannon, who have considered running for mayor. One day one of them will put it all together and win.
“It's not impossible; it will happen,” he said, citing City Council member Anthony Foxx and State Sen. Malcolm Graham as prospective candidates.
As a boy, he helped his politically involved grandfather, James Foxx Sr., put together yard signs during Gantt's mayoral run. “We had big dreams,” he said during a recent conversation.
If you look at the things that were being talked about then, he said, “transit, an arena in the center city,” the efforts to make Charlotte a thriving region, “Harvey saw all that before the rest of us caught up.”
Someone like Harvey Gantt, “just an extraordinary person on a lot of different levels,” said Foxx, stepped up, and “then 12-year-old people like me could dream about being on the city council one day.”
But “cities have seasons just like the earth does,” Foxx said. “Local government was far more civil than it is today.” The city is bigger and problems are more complex.
“The concept of community is one that we need to reconsider; that's what I spend a lot of my time trying to do.”
“Harvey won because he was Harvey. He was African American and brought a perspective to the role of mayor that had not been there before. I think it will happen not because the person is black but because people felt that person has the qualities to lead.”
Has he thought about being that person? “Yes, I have,” said Foxx.
The 65-year-old Gantt said he never thought he would see a presidential race as diverse as this year's. So he is optimistic that he will see Charlotte choose another African American as “the best person to lead.”
“What's more important is that people still believe it's possible.”