Kenneth A. Gibson

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Kenneth Gibson
Gibson in 1985
36th Mayor of Newark
In office
July 1, 1970 – July 1, 1986
Preceded byHugh Addonizio
Succeeded bySharpe James
34th President of the United States Conference of Mayors
In office
Preceded byMoon Landrieu
Succeeded byLee Alexander
Personal details
Kenneth Allen Gibson

(1932-05-15)May 15, 1932
Enterprise, Alabama, U.S.
DiedMarch 29, 2019(2019-03-29) (aged 86)
West Orange, New Jersey, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
EducationNewark College of Engineering

Kenneth Allen Gibson (May 15, 1932 – March 29, 2019) was an American politician of the Democratic Party who was the 36th mayor of Newark, New Jersey from 1970 to 1986. He was the first African American mayor of a major city in the Northeastern United States.

Early life and education[edit]

Gibson grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and attended Central High School, where he played with a dance band after school to bring in income needed for his family. Gibson studied civil engineering at Newark College of Engineering (now New Jersey Institute of Technology), but financial challenges forced him to drop out of school after a few months in school to work in a factory, serve in the military and later work for the New Jersey Highway Department, completing his engineering degree in 1963 by taking night classes.[1]

Early career[edit]

Gibson worked as an engineer for the New Jersey Highway Department from 1950 to 1960. From 1960 to 1966, he was chief engineer for the Newark Housing Authority, and chief structural engineer for the city from 1966 to 1970.[citation needed]

Mayoral career[edit]

Emerging from a crowded six-candidate field, Gibson was elected in a runoff election in 1970, defeating incumbent mayor Hugh Addonizio.[2][3] At the time Gibson noted that "Newark may be the most decayed and financially crippled city in the nation." He entered office as a reformer, alleging that the prior administration was corrupt. Later that same year, Mayor Addonizio was convicted of extortion and conspiracy.[citation needed]

Gibson was also a representative of the city's large African-American population, many of whom were migrants or whose parents or grandparents had come North in the Great Migration. The city's industrial power had diminished sharply. Deindustrialization since the 1950s cost tens of thousands of jobs when African Americans were still arriving from the South looking for better opportunities than in their former communities.[citation needed]

Combined with forces of suburbanization and racial tensions, the city encountered problems similar to those of other major industrial cities of the North and Midwest in the 1960s - increasing poverty and dysfunction for families left without employment. The city was scarred by race riots in 1967, three years before Gibson took office. Many businesses and residents left the city after the riots.[citation needed]

Gibson's election was seen by some in almost prophetic terms. Poet and playwright Amiri Baraka wrote, "We will nationalize the city's institutions, as if it were liberated territory in Zimbabwe or Angola."[4] Gibson himself said, "Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first".[5] Gibson entered and with his new city council "challenged the corporate sector's tax arrangements and pushed business interests to take a more active and responsible role in the community."[6]

By 1974, Gibson had alienated some of his supporters in his efforts to keep businesses from leaving the city. Amiri Baraka then labeled him a "neo-colonialist" and complained that Gibson was "for the profit of Prudential, Public (private) Service, Port Authority, and other huge corporations that run in and around and through and out of Newark paying little or no taxes" while the residents were ignored.[6] Corporate and state interests had major influence in the city. He was reelected in 1974.[7]

In 1976, Gibson became the first African-American president of the United States Conference of Mayors.[citation needed] He served as president from 1976 until the next year.[8]

In 1979, Gibson received the U.S. Senator John Heinz Award for Greatest Public Service by an Elected or Appointed Official, an award given out annually by the Jefferson Awards.[9]

After 16 years under Gibson, the city’s unemployment rate had risen nearly 50 percent, its population had continued dropping, it had no movie theaters, only one supermarket remained, and only two-thirds of its high school students were graduating. In 1986, fellow Democratic challenger, Sharpe James, defeated Gibson in his attempt to be reelected for a fifth term.[10]

Later life[edit]

After unsuccessful runs in 1981 and 1985 for the Democratic nomination for New Jersey governor, he was defeated as well in his bid for a fifth consecutive term as mayor by Councilman Sharpe James.[citation needed] Gibson then ran an engineering consulting business until 1998, when he said that the timing was right to return to politics. He ran for Essex County executive but lost in a close vote to incumbent James Treffinger.[11]

Statue of Gibson at Newark City Hall

On July 24, 2000, Gibson was indicted for bribery and for stealing funds from a school construction project in nearby Irvington, New Jersey.[12][13][14] Gibson went to trial the following year, but a jury failed to reach a unanimous decision, and thus a mistrial was declared.[15] In November 2002, Gibson agreed to plead guilty to tax evasion as long as the other charges were dropped.[16]

In a 2005 interview with The New York Times, Gibson said his "most gratifying" mayoral accomplishment had been improving Newark's health services, leading to a reduction in the city's high rates of tuberculosis, infant mortality and the deaths of mothers during childbirth. He also said he regretted not having been able to "attract major job-producing industries to the city." Regarding the criminal cases, Gibson observed that "a public figure of note" is often a target of prosecutors seeking advancement, "whether or not we should be." But "when the history books are written, Ken Gibson's name will be there," he said, adding that he did not think "anyone will remember" the names of his prosecutors.[17][18][19]

Death and legacy[edit]

Gibson died in West Orange, New Jersey, on March 29, 2019, at the age of 86.[20][21] Funeral services were held at Newark Symphony Hall on April 4, 2019.[22]

In May 2019, Broad Street in Newark was designated Mayor Kenneth A. Gibson Boulevard.[23]


  1. ^ Staff. "No. 1 in Newark Vote; Kenneth Allen Gibson", The New York Times, May 14, 1970. Accessed March 27, 2018. "While attending Central High School, Mr. Gibson played the saxophone in a dance band to help support the family."
  2. ^ The Associated Press (May 13, 1970). "Negro Leads Newark Vote". The Evening Independent. Retrieved September 27, 2013.
  3. ^ "Newark Elects Kenneth Gibson, Negro, Mayor". St. Petersburg Times. June 17, 1970. Retrieved September 27, 2013 – via New York Times Wire Services.
  4. ^ Johnson, Cedric. Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics. U of Minnesota Press. p. 92. ISBN 9781452913452.
  5. ^ Anyon, Jean (1997). Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform. Teachers College Press. pp. xvi. ISBN 9780807736630.
  6. ^ a b Dolan, Thomas. "Newark and Its Gateway Complex". The Newark Metro. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved April 2, 2019 – via Rutgers Newark Online.
  7. ^ "Gibson Wins Re-election Over Imperiale in Newark". New York Times. May 15, 1974.
  8. ^ "Leadership". The United States Conference of Mayors. November 23, 2016. Retrieved July 24, 2020.
  9. ^ "National - Jefferson Awards Foundation". Jefferson Awards Foundation. Archived from the original on November 24, 2010. Retrieved September 20, 2018.
  10. ^ "Cory Booker's Battle for Newark". City Journal. December 23, 2015.
  11. ^ Smothers, Ronald (November 29, 2001). "Mistrial For Ex-Mayor Of Newark - The New York Times". The New York Times. Retrieved September 20, 2018.
  12. ^ "Ex-Newark mayor is indicted". Asbury Park Press. July 25, 2000. Retrieved September 25, 2023.
  13. ^ "Former Newark mayor charged in school fraud". Daily Record. July 25, 2000. Retrieved September 25, 2023.
  14. ^ "Ex-mayor accused of cheating Essex County school". Atlantic City Press. July 25, 2000. Retrieved September 25, 2023.
  15. ^ "Mistrial declared in ex-mayor's case". The Jersey Journal. Associated Press. November 29, 2001. Retrieved September 29, 2023.
  16. ^ Strunsky, Steve (November 9, 2002). "New Jersey voters deal with politics touched by turmoil". The Day. Retrieved September 25, 2023.
  17. ^ Fried, Joseph (January 30, 2005). "Four-Term Newark Leader Won't Second-Guess Mayor - The New York Times". The New York Times. Retrieved September 20, 2018.
  18. ^ Smothers, Ronald (November 1, 2002). "Newark's Ex-Mayor Admits Tax Evasion And Avoids Prison - The New York Times". The New York Times. Retrieved September 20, 2018.
  19. ^ Smothers, Ronald (September 26, 2001). "Prosecutors Outline Fraud Case Against Ex-Mayor of Newark - The New York Times". The New York Times. Retrieved September 20, 2018.
  20. ^ Fried, Joseph P. (March 31, 2019). "Kenneth Gibson, 86, Dies; Newark Mayor Broke Race Barrier in Northeast". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 3, 2019.
  21. ^ Staff (March 29, 2019). "Ken Gibson, Newark's trailblazing mayor and the first black mayor of a major Northeast city, dies at 86". Retrieved April 3, 2019.
  22. ^, Barry Carter | NJ Advance Media for (April 5, 2019). "Trailblazing African-American mayor laid to rest. He 'smashed that ceiling' for all of us, Booker says". nj.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  23. ^, Karen Yi | NJ Advance Media for (May 18, 2019). "Late mayor, 1st black leader in N.J., gets a permanent honor from city he loved". nj.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)

Further reading[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by Mayor of Newark
Succeeded by