C Clarence Lightner
Clarence E. Lightner
30th Mayor of Raleigh, North Carolina
October 1973 – October 1975
Preceded by Thomas W. Bradshaw
Succeeded by Jyles Coggins
Born August 15, 1921
Raleigh, North Carolina
Died July 8, 2002 (aged 80)
Raleigh, North Carolina
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Marguerite Massey Lightner
Clarence Everett Lightner (August 15, 1921 – July 8, 2002) was the first popularly elected Mayor of Raleigh, North Carolina, and the first African American elected mayor of a metropolitan (defined as having a population of 50,000 or more) Southern city. Lightner, a Democrat, was also the first and to date only black mayor of Raleigh, serving in office from 1973 to 1975.
His mayoral election gained national attention since only 16% of registered voters in Raleigh were black, and it was unique for a white-majority city to elect a black candidate for mayor. Even more surprising to some[who?] was that his race was rarely mentioned in the campaign. Lightner came of age in an era when most blacks in the South were still disfranchised, was elected to the City Council two years after passage of the Voting Rights Act, and was elected mayor six years later. Lightner was a man of "dignity and perseverance", who brought people together when he entered public political life, as he had for years in his community work.
In a 1976 book on Southern politics, authors Jack Bass and Walter DeVries wrote "Perhaps no political campaign better reflected changing attitudes on race than the 1973 mayor's race in Raleigh, in which black City Councilman Clarence Lightner won support from a coalition of white suburbanites concerned about urban and suburban sprawl."
Lightner was born in Raleigh to Mammie Blackmon and Calvin E. Lightner, founder of the Lightner Funeral Home and a local leader who ran for office as a nonpartisan with Dr. Manassa T. Pope. Calvin Lightner graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh. Both parents encouraged Clarence to attend college, an ambitious goal in an era when only 1.7% of contemporary black men in the South earned a college degree, and only 5.9% of white men nationwide did so.
Lightner graduated from North Carolina Central University, a historically black college in Durham, North Carolina. Lightner also graduated from Echols College of Mortuary Science in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to prepare for working with his father as a licensed mortician. While attending North Carolina Central University, Lightner was a star athlete and inducted into the CIAA Hall of Fame. He became a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, one of the first founded by African Americans. In which he was awarded several honors, including Lifetime Membership. It was a connection that would provide a lifelong social network.
Lightner served three years in the United States Army during World War II, then returned to Raleigh. Growing up in the state capital, Lightner had the advantages of a city with an educated and politically sophisticated black middle class, of which his parents were part. Despite official discouragement of black voter registration, for instance, with efforts by the Negro Voters League starting in 1931, by 1946 there were 7,000 black voters registered in the city, which was rare in the segregated South. Political activism increased in the postwar years, but most black voters in the South were disfranchised until the passage of the national Voting Rights Act.
After returning home, Lightner became an independent businessman, working with his father to manage the Lightner Funeral Home and Hillside Cemetery. In 1946, he married Marguerite Massey. They had four children: Claire, Debra, Lawrence (who died before his father), and Bruce. Lightner and Marguerite were active members of Davie Street Presbyterian Church, where he served as an elder.
Lightner managed the funeral home for 45 years, succeeding his father as owner of the business. The work made him a cornerstone of the community. 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.
Lightner was among the first African Americans elected to political office following passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. He was already well-established as a business and community leader in the city. His leadership stature won him election to Raleigh City Council, where he served from 1967 until 1973, until he was elected as mayor. He defeated G. Wesley Williams in the mayoral campaign. Lightner served as a charter member of the Southern Conference of Black Mayors, the parent organization of the National Conference of Black Mayors.
After serving as mayor, Lightner was appointed by Governor Jim Hunt in 1977 to replace State Senator John Winters, who had resigned. Lightner served the remainder of Winters' term until 1978.
In his next role in public life, Lightner was appointed chairman of the Southeast Raleigh Improvement Commission from 1993 to 2001, where he created groundwork for business development, implemented the Small Business Success Program, and created an incubation program for small businesses. He had long been a member of the National Business League. As a member of the Democratic National Committee, Lightner was a delegate to the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
Honors and legacy
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.
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."
In 2003, the state legislature passed a joint resolution honoring Lightner's life and achievements, noting his belief that "[W]hat is essential is not the things we do separately, but what we hold in common and what we get done together".
That same year Raleigh announced it would name the new 17-story Raleigh Law Enforcement Center in honor of Lightner. The 305,000 sq ft (28,300 m2) building would be located next to the City Hall and contain offices for the Raleigh Police Department, Raleigh Fire Department, and Wake County Emergency Operations Center and 911 dispatch. However, for reasons not related to Lightner, the project was canceled.
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 Lightner.