Former Newark Mayor Ken Gibson remembered as trailblazer

In death, Ken Gibson’s final approach to city hall was much as it was in life: quiet and dignified. An honor guard carried his flag-draped casket into the city hall rotunda where he was to lay in state, as a way for Newarkers to pay their respects to the former city engineer who lifted Newark from out of its days of darkness following the unrest of 1967 and stitched it back together. Inside the rotunda, generations of political leaders gathered to recall how much Ken Gibson meant to them and to the city.

“I love Ken Gibson. I love him for what he did for me and more importantly, for what he did for the city of Newark,” recalled former Mayor Sharpe James.

Before he unseated  Gibson in 1986, James and Gibson ran together as part of the Community’s Choice ticket in 1970, a coalition born of a sense that Newark needed to move past its racial divide and come together.

“The right man at the right time. We were in a racial divide. Highest rate of infant mortality. Police brutality. No housing being built,” he added, “and he just changed the whole city around. He changed the image, the mentality, the hope and aspirations. He was truthfully a man for all seasons, for all people. Ken Gibson was our hero.”

The city’s first black mayor, he famously said, “Wherever America’s cities are going, Newark will get there first,” but he was saddled with a tough national economy and lingering unemployment. He was criticized by some of his own supporters for catering to the city’s corporate interests and not doing enough to attract new development to the city. Newark’s population shrank by almost 100,000 during his tenure. But, it was a period of political transition. Ken Gibson laid the foundation for what was to come.

“It was a time when there was white flight and the black middle class, everybody ran from the city after the riots, and the governor had made his kind up that since ‘black folk’ burned down the city, we’re not gonna help them,” remembered state Sen. Ron Rice, a former city councilman and mayoral candidate. “We’re just getting out of here, so Mayor Gibson had to really have strong leadership capabilities and got involved with the national [Council of Mayors] and organizing mayors around the country to fight back just to get the kind of resources needed to lay a foundation to even survive in this city.”

“As a kid – I wasn’t even a teenager – he was kind of larger than life, said former Councilman Darrin Sharif, whose father, Carl, himself a boldfaced Newark political name, was an early Gibson aide. The younger Sharif said Gibson was a role model for him and for another generation to come.

“Somebody said to me early, ‘he was like a boring engineer,’ and I said you know, when you look at almost the celebritization of politics now, it’s about how many people you can tweet, how much you’re on social media, I think there’s a yearning for a person who is a critical thinker because when you look at the underlying skills to be an engineer, you have to be a critical thinker and a problem solver and then work the problem to a solution, and I would like to think that he brought all those skill sets to bear,” he noted.

A thoughtful mayor, who led his city through tough times, making today’s real renaissance part of his legacy.

There will be a public funeral at Symphony Hall Thursday night where, if the day’s viewing is any indication, seemingly all of Newark will be on hand to say a final farewell to one of its most iconic figures.