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Kenneth Allen Gibson was an engineer for the New Jersey Highway Department, the chief engineer for the Newark Housing Authority and the chief structural engineer for Newark before entering into politics in 1970. As the 34th mayor of Newark, he was the first African-American mayor of the largest city in the state. At that time, Newark had a large African-American population; most of them had migrated from the South in search of “greener pastures,” and was attracted to the city because of its huge industrial market. Some were second and third generation migrants in addition to the sizeable number of new and “daily” workers who commuted to the city from across the River (they crossed the Hudson River from New York to Newark via the tunnels).
Trained as a civil engineer, Gibson entered the mayor’s office just after the nation’s urban cities were undergoing a massive exodus of “White flight” to the suburbs, and were taking with them large portions of the cities’ tax base and leaving behind financial wastelands of inner city poverty. Most of the cities they left behind were densely populated with Black people and the newly elected mayors who came into power grappled to justify their newfound political power.
The Newark that Gibson inherited was no different from the rest of the cities across the nation that had Black mayors. However, there was an added ingredient in Newark; the city was plagued by racial violence that exacerbated the pre-existing urban conditions, which were already there. Gibson’s election brought a sense of calm to the city and the enormity of its problems—economic, racial and administrative—did not seem to overwhelm him. Instead his leadership brought a sense of relief like an oasis to an urban desert.
Gibson came to Newark after a stint in the U.S. Army where he worked as a civil engineer in the 65th Engineering Battalion from 1956 to 1958, having enlisted after graduating from high school. (He was born in Enterprise, Alabama, in May 1932 to Willie Foy Gibson [a butcher], and Daisy Lee Gibson [a seamstress]). When he left the army, Gibson worked as a New Jersey state trooper while attending Newark College of Engineering, where he received a bachelor’s of science degree in 1962. During his days as the city’s chief structural engineer, Gibson also headed Newark’s Business and Industry Coordinating Council where he became intimately familiar with the poverty that gripped a major portion of the city.
These conditions were a result of the civil unrest that had occurred three years before Gibson was elected mayor and the city was had just started to recover when the previous mayor was convicted of extortion and conspiracy. That the previous administration was corrupt made Gibson’s entrance into the mayor’s office appropriate as a reformer. He reportedly said, “Newark may be the most decayed and financially crippled city in the nation.” Indeed, the city had become a national symbol of urban decay; the crime rate soared, public health standards were deteriorating and the city’s infrastructure was dilapidated. Throughout the city, buildings were in disrepair and slum conditions were omnipresent.
Sources said that Gibson was beholden to Black Nationalist poet and playwright, Amiri Baraka, for helping him to get elected to his first term. Baraka, on the other hand, had desired to use Gibson to “nationalize” the city’s institutions. (Of course, that was impractical, since Newark was a city, not an independent or sovereign state).
Mayor Gibson seemed to “straddle the fence” between moving the city towards at a fast-paced economic renaissance and a slower, more measured economic growth, which would have taken the city a longer time to recover. The latter, according to critics, would have necessitated hard choices, tough decisions and sacrifices but would have been of tremendous benefit to the city in the long run. Like an astute politician, the mayor chose a compromise between the two competing ideas, and during his first term, he was able to reduce unemployment and usher in a slow but steady economic growth. Many of the middle-class residents who had fled to “suburbia” began to return. This was the standard by which Gibson’s effectiveness was measured for the most part.
By the end of his first term, Gibson had made some progress on the city’s economic front, but had alienated some of his supporters, including Baraka, who identified strongly with the nationalist community. To improve the economy of the city, Gibson had to align some of his policies towards a pro-business stance in order to keep the city revenues flowing. He was also involved with a number on civil rights organizations such as the National Urban League, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Involvement with these organizations allowed him to be supportive to the communities that were most in need and still be the mayor of all the people of Newark.
In 1976, Gibson became the first African-American president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. With a large African-American constituency, Gibson was obligated to cater to the wishes of the majority of the electorate. He challenged the city’s corporate tax structure and encouraged businesses to do more for the low-income sections of the city—where most of his constituents resided.
During Gibson’s four consecutive terms (16 years), there was only one Democrat in the White House for one term (4 years). As a Democrat, he did not have a cordial “party” relationship with Washington, D.C. during the Republican era; but while there was a Democrat in the White House, he was a voice for the needs of Urban America which shared the pains Newark was experiencing. According to Gibson, Newark returned to a low priority on the nation’s scale once the administration changed. The city’s unemployment rate reached nearly 50 percent—a so-called Third World status—there was only one remaining supermarket, and the number of school dropouts “shot through the roof.”
To his credit, Gibson aggressively implemented affirmative action programs aimed at “leveling the playing field” and ending job discrimination in city’s work force and upgrading employees who were relegated to low-paying, dead-end jobs to positions commensurate with their abilities and a merit-scale criterion.
Based on his ability to turn Newark’s economy around through a tax increase, by laying off city workers and other fiscally challenging measures, Gibson believed he had earned the right to upward mobility and in 1981, he entered the race for governor of New Jersey. He made a strong showing and told a leading newspaper, “I’m not a manager of hope, I’m a manager of resources,” referring to his balancing of Newark’s budget while maintaining necessary city services.
The following year, Gibson was indicted and charged with creating “ghost employment” for a former city colleague. The charges dragged on through his re-election campaign and despite the distraction it created, he won another term. Gibson was eventually acquitted but the stain dogged him throughout his fourth term and he lost his re-election bid for a fifth term. To his credit, a 1986 documentary titled “The Making of Black Mayors” showcased Black mayors throughout the country and it highlighted some of his accomplishments.
After leaving office, Gibson opened an engineering consulting firm named “Gibson Associates” advising building developers, investment bankers and construction managers. He also lectured on the need for privatizing government services in large urban areas. As a private citizen, Gibson was again indicted for bribery and for stealing funds from one of his construction projects. In 2002, his firm pleaded guilty and he received three years probation.
The weight of the criminal prosecution and having to undergo heart bypass surgery forced his firm out of business. In the end, Gibson reportedly said, “A public figure of note is often the target of ambitious prosecutors, but when the history books are written, Ken Gibson’s name will be there. No one will remember the names of his prosecutors.”
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.