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Lionel Wilson




Lionel Wilson

three time Mayor of Oakland California and Creole


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Lionel Wilson, who presided over a racial, cultural, economic and political revolution during three terms as the first black mayor of Oakland, Calif., then suffered shattering defeat when he sought another four-year term in 1990, died on Jan. 23 at his home in Oakland. He was 82.

His family said the cause was cancer.

When he stepped down as a judge in Alameda County Superior Court in 1977 to run for the part-time office of mayor, Oakland seemed to be a city ready for the revolution the 62-year-old Mr. Wilson had spent a lifetime preparing himself to lead.

As it had been even when his parents took him to Oakland from his native New Orleans when he was 3, the dingy city of some 350,000 across the bay from the gleaming spires of San Francisco was ruled by a tight-knit clique of moderate white Republicans and their downtown business allies.

But after a decade of white flight, declining population and urban decay, black leaders, emboldened by gun-toting militants in the radical Black Panther Party, had begun clamoring for change.

The Online Archive of California

Four years earlier, the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale had shown such surprising strength in finishing second in the 1973 mayor's race that the three-term incumbent, John Reading, decided not to seek a fourth term in 1977, throwing his support to the Oakland school board president, Dave Tucker.

With the almost unanimous support of labor, the Black Panthers, other minorities, liberal Democrats and visiting celebrities, including Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., Reggie Jackson and Jane Fonda, Mr. Wilson won a narrow victory in a run-off election.

For Mr. Wilson, who had become the first black judge in Alameda County when he was named to a municipal court in 1960, becoming Oakland's first black mayor was not the only noteworthy distinction of his election. As he liked to recall it, he was also the first person to win a mayor's election without the endorsement of The Oakland Tribune.

But then Mr. Wilson had been bucking trends all his life. At 5-foot-5 and 130 pounds, for example, he was small for competitive sports, but he had such drive, determination and natural ability that he became a fine basketball player and so accomplished at baseball that he played high-level semiprofessional ball before turning to a law career.

After graduating with honors from a predominantly white vocational high school, Mr. Wilson worked his way through the University of California at Berkeley as an economics major, then spent four years with the Army in Europe in World War II before earning a degree at the Hastings School of Law in San Francisco in 1949.

With only a handful of other black lawyers in Oakland, Mr. Wilson specialized in civil rights cases, provided free legal services to the poor and won a reputation for compassion and even-handedness that continued during his years as a judge.

If the city's white leadership had been alarmed by Mr. Wilson's election as mayor, he soon put it at ease. A fiscal conservative who made economic development a priority, over the next decade he stimulated a $1 billion downtown building boom that changed the face of Oakland's skyline even as he was changing the complexion of the city government, filling top posts with black, Hispanic and Asian officials, many of them women.

In a weak-mayor system, where the mayor has only one of nine City Council votes, Mr. Wilson was a master mediator who proved quietly persuasive in one-on-one meetings and was able to put together a working majority that enhanced his power.

Mr. Wilson became something of a folk hero to Oakland's poor black population, but as an epidemic of drugs and violence plagued Oakland's poor neighborhoods, his emphasis on downtown economic development became a political liability and he was criticized for neglecting impoverished neighborhoods.

By the time he ran for re-election in 1990, Mr. Wilson, whose third term had been extended 18 months by a charter change in the election cycle, was seen as an increasingly remote figure.

When he gave his reluctant endorsement to an abortive $500 million plan to lure the National Football League Raiders back to Oakland from Los Angeles, the issue became a symbol of his support of business. Mr. Wilson argued in vain that bolstering neighborhoods would be the next item on his agenda.

He finished third in the 1990 election, polling only 17 percent of the vote.

Mr. Wilson is survived by his second wife, Dorothy, three sons from his first marriage, Lionel and Steven, of Oakland, and Robin, of Sacramento; four brothers, Harold, Kermit and Warren, of Oakland, and Julius, of Castro Valley, Calif.; a sister, Marie Anderson of San Leandro, Calif., and several grandchildren.

Photo: Lionel Wilson (Terrence McCarthy, 1989)

Source New York Times 1998


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