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Kenneth Gibson, 86, Dies; Newark Mayor Broke Race Barrier

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Kenneth Gibson, 86, Dies; Newark Mayor Broke Race Barrier
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Kenneth Gibson, 86, Dies; Newark Mayor Broke Race Barrier in Northeast

By Joseph P. Fried

March 31, 2019

Kenneth A. Gibson, who became the first black mayor of a major Northeastern city when Newark voters, still recovering from racial rioting three years earlier, elected him in 1970 to the first of four terms, died on Friday in West Orange, N.J. He was 86.

His death, at a rehabilitation facility, was confirmed on Sunday by his wife, Camille Gibson, who said that he had been ill for some time and that she could not single out a specific cause.

In taking City Hall in that historic 1970 election, Mr. Gibson won a bitterly fought, racially divisive contest inflamed by the memory of nearly a week of rioting by black people three years earlier that took 26 lives and left extensive destruction.

As he campaigned to oust a two-term white incumbent and fellow Democrat in that nonpartisan election, Mr. Gibson, a structural engineer for the city who had been active with civil rights groups, outlined his vision of a Gibson administration.

“We’re going to make this a model city,” he told Jet magazine. “If you talk about the urban problem in America, it’s here. If we solve the urban problem here, we can export our solution to other areas. I’ve always maintained that wherever American cities are going, Newark is going to get there first.”

Decisively defeating the incumbent, Hugh J. Addonizio — who was on trial on corruption charges during the last weeks of the campaign and later convicted — Mr. Gibson drew national attention, and he quickly became a spokesman for struggling cities.

Mr. Gibson walking with supporters, including the singer Harry Belafonte, during his successful campaign for mayor of Newark in 1970.

Low-key and unflappable, he faced daunting problems in Newark, New Jersey’s largest city. Poverty was widespread and housing was deteriorating. Unemployment and crime rates were high. Schools were failing and health services were wanting. The downtown was badly in need of revitalization. And all of this was set against a backdrop of continuing racial tensions and white flight, contributing to a declining population that had become more than half black.

Mr. Gibson would ultimately be defeated in his bid for a fifth term in 1986, judged by voters to have fallen short of his goals. Assessments of his tenure were indeed mixed.

He acquired federal funds and built or rehabilitated “thousands of housing units,” the New Jersey Historical Society said. But the city’s population “continued to drop while crime and unemployment remained high,” it said.

Martin A. Bierbaum, then on the public administration faculty at Rutgers University, said after Mr. Gibson’s defeat in 1986 that Mr. Gibson had “had a very difficult job to do,” but that “the city has bottomed out now and there are some signs of improvement.”

Other analysts differed over his hiring practices. Some saw cronyism and political loyalty tests at work; others saw him simply engaging in the traditional patronage that is necessary to get legislation through the City Council.

Cronyism was at the center of a 1982 state criminal trial in which Mr. Gibson was charged with conspiring to create a no-show job for a former city councilman. Mr. Gibson admitted that he had given the man the job, but said that nobody had told him that the employee was not showing up for work. Mr. Gibson was acquitted.

After leaving office, Mr. Gibson himself offered mixed reviews of his performance.

In a 1997 interview with The New York Times, he cited his successes in obtaining federal and state funds for needs like urban renewal and hiring police officers and sanitation workers for his revenue-starved city. But he acknowledged that most of the aid had relieved the city’s problems only for a time.

Mr. Gibson in 1982 after he was acquitted of conspiring to create a no-show job for a former city councilman. Mr. Gibson admitted giving the man the job, but said that nobody had told him that the employee was not showing up for work.

And in a 2005 interview with The Times, he spoke of gratifying accomplishments, like improving the city’s health services, leading to reductions in its high rates of tuberculosis, infant mortality and the deaths of mothers during childbirth. But he also voiced regret at having been unable to “attract major job-producing industries to the city.”

Kenneth Allen Gibson was born in Enterprise, Ala., on May 15, 1932, the elder of two sons of Willie and Daisy Gibson. His father was a butcher who worked in the Swift packing plant in Kearny, N.J.; his mother, Daisy, was a seamstress. The family moved to Newark when Ken was a boy. While attending Central High School in the city, he worked as a hotel porter and played saxophone in dance bands.

After graduating in 1950, Mr. Gibson enrolled in the Newark College of Engineering (which later became part of the New Jersey Institute of Technology), but soon dropped out because of financial problems.

Over the next decade he worked in a factory and with the state’s highway department, spent two years in the Army — serving in Hawaii with the 65th Engineer Battalion — and re-enrolled in the New Jersey engineering college. Attending classes in the evenings while working days, he graduated in 1962.

Mr. Gibson first ran for mayor in 1966, finishing third. In the 1970 campaign, Mr. Addonizio contended that Mr. Gibson, who had a reputation as a racial moderate, was a “puppet” in the hands of black extremists seeking to gain control of the city. He repeatedly noted that one of Mr. Gibson’s major supporters was LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), the poet, playwright and black nationalist who was a native of Newark. (Mr. Baraka’s son Ras J. Baraka is the current mayor of Newark.)

Mr. Gibson argued that it was time to end dominance by machine politicians and sought to supplement his overwhelming support among black residents by successfully courting votes among liberal and moderate white people, who widened his victory margin.

(Mr. Baraka publicly split with the mayor in 1973, saying Mr. Gibson had become a “puppet” of the city’s business community.)

Mr. Gibson at City Hall in 1986 at ceremonies where he presented the key to the city to Whitney Houston, a native of Newark.

Mr. Gibson’s prominent early challenges included a rancorous 11-week teachers’ strike in 1971 that pitted the militants in the black community against militants among whites.

These forces also clashed over a project, sponsored by Mr. Baraka and supported by Mr. Gibson, to build high-rise apartments for low- and moderate-income families in a predominantly white neighborhood. Demonstrations at the site by white opponents forced construction to be suspended, and it never resumed.

In his first re-election race, in 1974, Mr. Gibson handily defeated Anthony Imperiale, who was the leader of the housing project’s opponents and a spokesman for the city’s embittered whites generally.

Mr. Gibson won two more terms before facing Sharpe James, a city councilman, in 1986.

In that election, Mr. Gibson boasted of his gains in health care and housing. He pointed to new office buildings, built under his watch, that were reinvigorating the city’s downtown. Where there were deficits in the past, he could show a budget surplus.

But Mr. James prevailed, criticizing Mr. Gibson as having not done enough for the city’s most impoverished residents, pointing to continuing high joblessness, crime and blight. Mr. James would go on to serve as mayor for 20 years.

While mayor, Mr. Gibson twice ran unsuccessfully in Democratic primaries for governor. In 1998 he lost a race for Essex County Executive.

In 2001, he was tried on federal charges of bribery and of defrauding the Board of Education of Irvington, N.J., of up to $1 million while his consulting firm was supervising school construction and renovation there. The jury deadlocked, and the case ended with Mr. Gibson’s pleading guilty to tax evasion and receiving probation.

Mr. Gibson married Camille Savoca 15 years ago. In addition to her, he is survived by three daughters from his first marriage, Cheryl Gibson Fuller, Joanne Gibson Banks and Kennon Hunter; a stepdaughter, Joyce Byron, from his second marriage, to Muriel Cook Gibson; his brother, Harold; seven grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

Jack Kadden contributed reporting.
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