Clarence Lightner

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Clarence E. Lightner
Clarence Lightner.jpg
30th Mayor of Raleigh, North Carolina
In office
1973 – December 1975
Preceded byThomas W. Bradshaw
Succeeded byJyles Coggins
Member of the Raleigh City Council
In office
Member of the North Carolina Senate
from the 14th district
In office
August 9, 1977 – 1978
Preceded byJohn W. Winters
Personal details
Born(1921-08-15)August 15, 1921
Raleigh, North Carolina, United States
DiedJuly 8, 2002(2002-07-08) (aged 80)
Raleigh, North Carolina
Resting placeMt. Hope Cemetery, Raleigh, North Carolina
Political partyDemocratic Party
Spouse(s)Marguerite Massey Lightner
Alma materNorth Carolina Central College
Echols College of Mortuary Science

Clarence Everett Lightner (August 15, 1921 – July 8, 2002) was an American politician and mortician. He was the first popularly elected Mayor of Raleigh, North Carolina, and the first African American elected mayor of a major Southern city. Lightner, a Democrat, was also the first and to date only black mayor of Raleigh, serving in office from 1973 to 1975.

Early life[edit]

Clarence Lightner was born on August 15, 1921 in Raleigh, North Carolina to Mammie Blackmon and Calvin E. Lightner. The elder Lightner founded the Lightner Funeral Home in 1911 and made an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Raleigh City Council in 1919.[1] Calrence spent much of his free time in high school assisting his father in the funeral home.[2] In 1938 he enrolled in North Carolina Central College. While there, Lightner played on the football team as a quarterback and joined the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. He graduated in 1941.[1] In 1942 he enlisted in the United States Army, serving for a total of four years,[2] including a tour of duty during World War II.[3] He subsequently enrolled in the Echols College of Mortuary Science in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Lightner aspired to become a physician and did not intend on assuming control over his father's business. However, in 1959, following his brother's death, his father gave him charge of the funeral home.[2]

Lightner married Marguerite Massey in 1946.[1] They had two sons and two daughters: Bruce, Lawrence, Debra and Claire.[4] Lightner was a parishioner at Davie Street Presbyterian Church, and served on its Men's Council.[5]

Lightner managed the funeral home for 45 years. He was an active member of professional associations for learning, and served as president of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association. Maintaining his fraternal ties, Lightner was chair of the Life Membership Foundation of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.[6] He also served as an official for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA).[7]

Political career[edit]

Lightner was elected to the Raleigh City Council in 1967.[4] He was the second black elected to the council.[8] As he became increasingly involved in politics, he handed over the responsibilities of his funeral home to a manager.[9] During his tenure he chaired a committee tasked with studying mass transit.[10] In his third term (1971–1973) he served as Mayor pro tempore.[4]

Mayor of Raleigh[edit]

In 1973 Lightner announced his candidacy for Mayor of Raleigh. The 1973 election was the first contest in which the mayor was to be directly elected, instead of being selected by the city council.[8] The change had been made via referendum the previous year at the behest of community organizations, collectively dubbed the "Community Coalition".[11] They felt that municipal offices were being too heavily influenced by business interests at a time when Raleigh's population was rapidly growing and various development projects were being proposed. Lightner faced G. Wesley Williams in the election, the executive director of the Raleigh Merchants Bureau who was popular among local businessmen. Though Lightner was a black candidate in a Southern city, the topic of race did not play a significant role in the campaign.[8][a] Lightner received the endorsement of the incumbent mayor, Thomas W. Bradshaw, and Raleigh's two daily newspapers, the Raleigh Times and The News & Observer.[10]

Though he trailed his opponent in the primary contest by 700 votes,[12] Lightner won the November election with 17,348 votes, or 52.9 percent of the ballots cast in his favor.[13] His support came from a coalition of blacks—who comprised less than 16% of all registered voters—and white suburban residents who were growing increasingly concerned about urban sprawl.[14] His victory was given national media attention, as he was the first black mayor of a major, mostly-white city in the South (Chapel Hill had a black mayor in 1969).[8] Most observers were surprised by his win.[15]

Lightner served as a charter member of the Southern Conference of Black Mayors.[1] He also actively participated in the National League of Cities and made personal connections with members of the federal administration and other black mayors.[16] In 1974 he devised the Downtown Housing Improvement Corporation to "help people with low incomes find housing."[17] During his tenure the city council bolstered floodplain construction regulations, rejected large road construction projects, and instituted a mass transit system. Raleigh was also bestowed with the All-America City Award during his term.[11]

Though his tenure was largely uncontroversial, members of Lightner's family were befallen by legal troubles. On November 26, 1974, his wife was arrested for conspiracy to receive stolen goods. She was later acquitted, but in July 1975 Lightner's son, Lawrence, was found in contempt of court after allegedly making obscene gestures to a judge (Lawrence was in court to face assault charges which were later withdrawn).[18] Announcing his bid for reelection the following month, Lightner appealed to the electorate to ignore his relatives' problems and evaluate his performance as mayor.[19] Scrutiny was brought against him personally for urging the city to purchase a pool from his former campaign manager, and for his backing of a planning commisioner that had run afoul of local activists for maintaining close ties with developers.[11] In early October his daughter, Debra, was indicted for credit card fraud. The mayoral primary election took place the following week.[20] Lightner faced two challengers for his position. Though they avoided discussing the Lightner Family's problems, the legal troubles damaged Lightner's reputation. Jyles Coggins won the primary, and Lightner placed last with only 5,644 votes.[18] He urged the black electorate to unify behind Coggins,[21] and his term ended in December.[4]

Later activities[edit]

In 1977 State Senator John W. Winters of the 14th district (representing portions of Wake, Lee and Harnett counties) resigned. Governor Jim Hunt appointed Lightner to fill the vacancy on August 3.[22] Beginning August 9, he served the remainder of Winters' term through 1978.[7] In November 1983 Walter Mondale appointed Lightner to the steering committee of the North Carolina branch of his 1984 presidential campaign.[23]

In 1982 Lightner served as general chairman of the Raleigh chapter of the United Negro College Fund.[24] He served as chairman of the Southeast Raleigh Improvement Commission from 1993 to 2001, where he led a study of economic development, implemented the Small Business Success Program, and created an incubation program for small businesses.[7] He had long been a member of the National Business League.[6] Lightner attended the 1992 and 2000 Democratic National Conventions as a delegate.[25][26]

Death and burial[edit]

Lightner died at about 11:30 on July 8, 2002 at WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh.[7] A funeral was held at Davie Street Presbyterian Church and he was subsequently buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Raleigh.[27] In April 2011 a large storm passed through Raleigh and damaged Lightner's tombstone.[28]

Honors and legacy[edit]

In recognition of his achievements and support for higher education, Lightner was awarded honorary doctoral degrees from Shaw University, Saint Augustine's College, and North Carolina Central University. He had served as chair of the Board of Trustees of Saint Augustine's College and as a member of the Board of Trustees of North Carolina State University for 10 years.[6] He was inducted into the CIAA Hall of Fame[7] and NCCU's Alex M. Rivera Athletics Hall of Fame in recognition of his football career.[29]

After Lightner died, his son, Bruce, founded the Clarence E. Lightner Youth Foundation. The goal of the foundation is to teach middle school students the importance of civic participation and community service. When asked about his father's legacy, Bruce said, "Helping young people to aspire to be as successful as they can in school and life. That would be his legacy."[30]

In 2003, the state legislature passed a joint resolution honoring Lightner's life and achievements.[6] That year a committee was formed in Raleigh to decide on a public space to name after Lightner. After some deliberation, it resolved to affix Lighter's name to a new planned public safety center to be built in the downtown. In 2010 over 250 people, led by a police detective, lobbied to have the center named after a public safety worker instead of "a politician".[31] High projected costs and proposed tax increases to fund the construction of the building were met with public opposition, and in 2013 the city council abandoned the project.[32]

Lightner's name was added to the list of local activists honored at the Martin Luther King Water Monument, located in the MLK Memorial Gardens in Raleigh. The garden was designed by his son, Bruce.[33] In 2009 he was inducted into the Raleigh Hall of Fame.[34]


  1. ^ Journalist Rob Christensen attributed this to "Williams’ sense of decency, the middle-class nature of Raleigh, and Lightner's record and demeanor as a black version of the sort of respectable, not particularly exciting white businessmen who had long run the city."[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Smith, Laura. "Clarence E. Lightner Papers, 1967-2002". University of North Carolina Libraries. Retrieved December 5, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c Bunch-Lyons 2015, p. 64.
  3. ^ "The Life of One Man Who Made a Difference". The Clarence E. Lightner Leadership Endowment Fund. Archived from the original on July 27, 2011. Retrieved March 18, 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d Profiles of Black Mayors in America 1977, p. 134.
  5. ^ Cape Fear Presbytery centennial 1986, p. 45.
  6. ^ a b c d "A Joint Resolution Honoring the Life and Memory of Clarence Lightner, Prominent Civic Leader, Politician and Businessman" (PDF). North Carolina General Assembly. 2003-06-19. Retrieved 2008-03-18.
  7. ^ a b c d e "Raleigh's First Black Mayor Dies". WRAL-TV. July 9, 2002. Retrieved December 1, 2018.
  8. ^ a b c d e Christensen, Rob (November 10, 2017). "When Raleigh elected a black mayor". The News & Observer. Retrieved December 1, 2018.
  9. ^ Bunch-Lyons 2015, p. 66.
  10. ^ a b "Raleigh Elects A Black Mayor". Race Relations Reporter. 4. 1973. p. 35.
  11. ^ a b c Blythe 2012, p. 5.
  12. ^ "N.C. politicians stand by runoff primaries". Burlington Daily Times. April 30, 1984. p. 8. Retrieved December 18, 2018.
  13. ^ "John Lewis Analyzes Recent Raleigh Election". Oakland Post. December 12, 1973. p. 2. Retrieved December 1, 2018.
  14. ^ Bass 1995, p. 243.
  15. ^ "Significant Victory : Raleigh, N.C., Elects First Black Mayor". The Oracle. 57. 1974. p. 21.
  16. ^ "Raleigh: "Establishment" Man". U.S. News & World Report. 78. 1975.
  17. ^ "New Look Reflects New Area". DHIC Newsletter. April 23, 2015. Retrieved December 2, 2018.
  18. ^ a b "Raleigh's Mayor Defeated; Family Had Legal Woes". The New York Times. October 8, 1975. p. 44. Retrieved December 1, 2018.
  19. ^ "Lightner To Run Once More". The High Point Enterprise. August 16, 1975. p. 3.
  20. ^ "Clarence Lightner, Raleigh's First Black Mayor, Defeated". The High Point Enterprise. October 8, 1975. p. 9.
  21. ^ Blythe 2012, p. 10.
  22. ^ Cheney 1977, pp. 334, 336.
  23. ^ "Mondale denies Jackson impact in Demo race". Kannapolis Daily Independent. November 23, 1983. p. 2. Retrieved December 5, 2018.
  24. ^ "UNCF Telethon Volunteers Honored". The Carolina Times. May 16, 1982. p. 2. Retrieved December 5, 2018.
  25. ^ Conway, John (June 20, 1992). "N.C. Democrats Launch First Volley". News & Record. Retrieved December 5, 2018.
  26. ^ Goetzel, Aron (2000). "Democratic Delegation: North Carolina". The Washington Post Company. Retrieved December 2, 2018.
  27. ^ "Clarence Lightner". The Robesonian. January 15, 2009. Retrieved February 21, 2019.
  28. ^ Shaffer, Josh (April 25, 2011). "Sacred ground was gnawed". The News & Observer.
  29. ^ "Clarence Lightner". North Carolina Central University Athletics. Retrieved December 7, 2018.
  30. ^ "Clarence Lightner Honored". News 14 Carolina. November 15, 2007. Retrieved March 18, 2008.
  31. ^ "Call to rename Lightner Center". WTVD-TV Raleigh-Durham. April 29, 2010. Retrieved December 7, 2018.
  32. ^ Knopf, Taylor (March 11, 2016). "Raleigh leaders consider building new government campus". The News & Observer. Retrieved December 7, 2018.
  33. ^ "The Martin Luther King Water Monument". The Raleigh/Wake Martin Luther King Celebration Committee. Archived from the original on March 4, 2008. Retrieved March 18, 2008.
  34. ^ "Local leaders inducted into Raleigh Hall of Fame". WRAL-TV. September 24, 2009. Retrieved December 2, 2018.