April 20 will mark the 20th anniversary of the inauguration of St. Louis’ first black mayor. We asked former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. to tell his story in his words. This is part one.
For me there was no greater honor than being elected and serving as the mayor of one of the greatest cities in America. To have the privilege of being the first African-American mayor of a city where I was born, raised and educated was a dream come true.
But none of that would have been possible without the loving support of a mother and father who not once ever told me there was something that I couldn't do.
I didn't just wake up one morning and say, “Damn, I want to be mayor.” It was after years of organizing, planning and helping others that I dared think that this was something that I could do.
I was 26 years old and a young lawyer when my friends from university and law school and I decided we should get involved in politics and challenge the old guard. I wanted to run for circuit clerk and spent a year moving throughout the city, having lunches and hitting bars and clubs, giving presentations to anyone who would listen.
The established elected officials, black and white, said that I hadn't paid my dues and told me to go sit down. They didn't realize that this would only strengthen my determination and enflame my supporters, who by this time had swelled into the hundreds.
Bill Slaten had turned me onto an organization called the Federation of Block Units which consisted of over 500 small neighborhood organizations. In the 18 months before the election I attended almost every one of their meetings. When the polls closed I received over 85 percent of the vote in North St. Louis. The South Side vote was split, and I won my first citywide election in 1982.
I always had a desire to represent all the people and knew that in order to get reelected I had to build relationships with people all over this city. Some white elected officials told me not to campaign in South St. Louis and that white people wouldn't vote for me. When I told this to some black elected officials, they agreed and said, “Don’t campaign in South St. Louis. Stay down here with us.”
Needless to say, I ignored both groups.
I made friends with state Rep. Tony Ribaudo, who was the majority floor leader of the Missouri Legislature and chairman of the St. Louis Democratic Party. He was also the committeeman of the 23rd Ward in the city of St. Louis, which included the Italian section of this city called the Hill. Young people today would call him a big baller.
When the Legislature was in session, Ribaudo would invite me to his office where all the big boys hung out. I would be the youngest person there most of the time. When he was home he would invite me to hang out with him and go to his ward meetings.
State Senator Jet Banks, state Rep. Paula Carter, state Rep. Charles Quincy Troupe and a host of others always watched out for me and made sure that I attended a majority of their activities and events.
I had key ministers on my side, like Rev. Earl Nance Sr., Rev. Samuel Hilton, Rev. Emory Washington and Rev. William Gillespie.
When Congressman Bill Clay was in town, he kept a suite at one of the major hotels downtown where he would hold court and let people pay homage. Mayors, senators, governors and anyone wanting to run for office would come seeking support. I loved these meetings and would soak up political knowledge like a sponge.
After doing this for four years I decided to run for chairman of the St. Louis Democratic Party. This undertaking was more than a notion. I was the vice chairman. Only when the chairman moves on does the vice chairman move up. Not to my surprise, white committeepeople didn't want me to have it and black committeepeople wondered why I wanted it.
I made an alliance with Marie Lammert, Sherriff Jim Murphy's committeewoman. They controlled, and still do, a lot of the politics in South St. Louis. Marie wanted to be vice chair and brought eight South Side wards to the table. With my 11 North Side wards we ran over the obstructionists like a hot knife through butter.
It was at this time that I began to think about running for mayor. I begin to raise money and convince other black elected officials to support other people running for office in the city and county. Several of us began to bring the black elected officials together. We formed an united front called the Council of Black Elected Officials, and they made me chairman.
We began to meet and take positions on key issues effecting this community. We began to support and help people get elected to statewide office like Bob Holden (state treasurer) and Becky Cook (secretary of state). I worked with Congressman Clay, Comptroller Virvus Jones, Rep. Carter and Sen. Banks to elect Mel Carnahan governor. I was actively involved in Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign and became one of his key people in Missouri.
Over 10 years I was able to build strong support among a network of neighborhood and community organizations. I had a very good relationship with the Clergy Coalition and key ministers. As chairman of the city party and of the Council of Black Elected Officials, I had developed a group of allies that I have been able to count on even to this day.
Over the years I had cultivated a working relationship with Donald M. Suggs, publisher of The St. Louis American. He has always loved to see young people present a vision and then would challenge you to pursue it. Mike Williams, publisher of the St. Louis Sentinel, was a Republican but more passionate about the interest of black people than most Democrats.
I had a great relationship with Congressman Clay, and he knew I appreciated the years of sitting at his knee learning the art of war.
On top of all of this, I had one of the best politicians and strategists in St. Louis at my side all the time: Freeman Bosley Sr., my dad. He ran for mayor in 1985 and lost. But he knew I could win before I did.
Part two will be continued in next week’s St. Louis American.