By LaKeshia N. Myers
When reflecting on the historic nature of his election as the first African American Mayor of the City of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson said, “Being the first Black mayor is what you wish on your enemy; I say that with ‘tongue in cheek’—great pride in being the Mayor of Atlanta…but it truly is part of hell…first of all dealing with exaggerated Black expectations: that overnight, Valhalla will be found and heaven will come on earth, because a Black mayor has been elected.” I was reminded of this often when President Barack Obama was in office and folks would ask, “What has Obama done for Black people”?
I find myself asking that question again after last week’s historic election of Mayor Cavalier Johnson and the confirmation of Associate Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson. While it means so much to be first, it also comes with a layered sense of responsibility. Like Obama, Jackson had to be politically flawless—she was a Harvard graduate, clerk of retiring justice Stephen Breyer, and a well-trained and studied layer and jurist with diverse experience on both sides of the bench. Her presence on the court will now open wide the American imagination of what a Supreme Court justice looks like. It can look like any and all Americans—people who come in varying hues, ethnicities, socio-economic statuses and political affiliations.
But also comes the microscope—the understanding that like those first Black mayors that came before him, Johnson will have to be able to justify every decision he makes at City Hall and be able to effectively connect the dots to the Black community. Two years is not a long time in the political scheme of things—he realistically has 18 months to begin to outline and implement his plans for the city of Milwaukee. It is also not lost on me that like his “first” predecessors Johnson is the recipient of a city in turmoil—the City of Milwaukee is facing bankruptcy, mainly due to the pension agreements of fire and police officers. The mayor and Common Council will have to make sweeping decisions to stop the bleeding and to help the city raise revenue. This is not an ideal situation at all for an incoming mayor.
But like his fellow “firsts:” Maynard Jackson (Atlanta), Coleman Young (Detroit), J.O. Patterson (Memphis), Carl Stokes (Cleveland), Walter Washington (Washington, D.C.), Clarence Lightener (Raleigh) and Harold Washington (Chicago), there is an extremely rare opportunity to ensure city policies are equitable and inclusive for all. And at the end of day, that’s what being first is about— opening up the door wide enough for more people to follow you.