When Mayor Francis Slay announced that he would not seek a fifth four-year term - ending almost two decades of his arguably racially polarizing imprint on the city - it set off a near hysteria of speculation about who would inherit his reign. With the open discussion among the media and the civic and political establishment centering on the plethora of possible candidates, the unspoken discussion was whether the next mayor would, or perhaps should, be black. I would suggest that this city has never had a black mayor. I say this knowing, of course, that two men of African descent have served as mayor, the first for four years in the mid nineties, and the second immediately following for one term to close out the twentieth century. Neither, however, quite fit my sense of a city run by a black mayor - like the black mayors who ruled in Atlanta or Washington, D.C., for example, during that era - because neither saw the key to their being in office or their power being determined primarily by the black community. Hence, neither made blacks their first and foremost priority.
The first ascended to City Hall with the campaign message and symbol that he would govern a racially divided city through playing both the black and white piano keys, metaphorically meaning that his policies and programs would target both black and white residents. To the chagrin of the black community, his fingers stayed mostly on the white keys; and to the revulsion of many whites, he played too many black keys.
That revulsion led to the white community orchestrating his ouster through plucking a person of African descent from atop his perch as chief of the white dominated police force to run against him. This tactic adroitly avoided a mayoral contest between a black and a white, which would have put to the test the voting power of the city's then majority black population, and also avoided unmasking a racially oriented electorate.
In this unusual race, which pitted an African-American political veteran supported by the black community against an African-American political novice backed by the white community, the incumbent was toppled. Four years later, the new incumbent mayor was humiliatingly tossed from the office when all the white backers who had catapulted him to the position threw their support to a white candidate, Francis Slay.
Thus, for an eight year stretch St. Louis had the appearance of having progressed like other major cities to having a black mayor preside over a predominantly black city. Yet beneath that appearance lay a black populous not exercising the political power to make and shape policy beneficial to the black community. The result of the inattention to and seemingly willful neglect of the city's black community - politely referred to as "the northside"- has been a cancer that has infected the entire city as well as the region, as the black community's impoverishment and decay has migrated to south St. Louis, Ferguson, and other parts of north County.
Crime that negatively impacts the city's national image and business growth emanates mostly from the black community. Stratospheric unemployment and underemployment that depletes the city's revenue and stagnates its economy resides mostly in the black community. Educational dysfunction that is the pipeline to incarceration is housed mostly in the black community. While conversely, the creative and entrepreneurial potential that could elevate this city lies largely in the black community. In short and frank terms, the condition of the black community is simultaneously St. Louis' top problem and its best hope.
This is why St. Louis needs a mayor who thinks black. Because eliminating the city's biggest liability and utilizing its most untapped asset requires someone, irrespective of their ethnicity, who will put the black community first.
Eric E. Vickers, Attorney and Activist.