The 2023 ESSENCE Festival of Culture features fashion, beauty, food, music and loads of fun. However, the Festival is also a place for poignant conversation. A deep conversation was held at the Mayor’s Forum which was part of the larger Global Black Economic Forum inside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. America’s leading Black mayors from top cities participated as they discussed the biggest issues in each city and the political effects from their decisions.  

The participants were Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, Cleveland (Ohio) Mayor Justin M. Bibb, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, The Reverend Al Sharpton and Chair of the National Urban League, Marc H. Morial participated on the panel. Mayor Cantrell served as the moderator. 

“We have just raised $250 million in the city of Atlanta to be able to do more affordable housing,” said Mayor Dickens. “We have a goal of 20,000 units. So we’re well on our way we’re building as fast as we can. We’ve got Black developers, we’ve got nonprofit developers, we’ve got churches.”

Dickens also added that inequity is the issue that keeps him up at night. The median home price in Atlanta was $350,000 in January 2023, according to the U.S. News Housing Market Index, which is based on Redfin data. That’s a 1.5% increase from one year ago. By comparison, the national median existing-home sale price in January, which was $359,000, according to the National Association of Realtors. That’s a 1.3% uptick year over year.

“I see a train that’s steadily coming where people are, again, being priced out,” Mayor Dickens said. “Yes, we have upward mobility that’s happening and all this great new development in our city. We also have individuals who have been living on the margins and now I’m trying to make sure we have balanced growth. So every day I think about how I can make sure Miss Jones has been living in that house for 40 years, to make sure that she can stay in that house and still be able to benefit from this growth. The challenge is to have balanced growth all across the city and still be able to have legacy residents benefit from this great growth.”

The Mayor’s Forum looked ahead at the potential obstacles coming down the road for each city’s top leader. Each leader expects attacks from those saying they didn’t do enough to combat any particular issue: like homelessness, the asylum seeker crisis, education, various forms of inequality, or being in favor of defunding the police (for the record, none of the mayors on stage are in favor of defunding the police). Former Mayor of New Orleans and current leader of the National Urban League, Marc H. Morial, says there will be what he describes as a “pernicious effort to undermine our electoral success by using legislatures and federal policies and rhetoric from newspapers and pencil pushers and so-called good government groups to undermine power.” 

“What we are going to witness in the next 18 months is an orchestrated effort to point the finger at American cities and their challenges and their problems to try to undermine the credibility of Black leadership of American cities,” Morial said. “We need to be aware, and we need to say what did you do when you were in power?”

Morial, the son of Ernest Nathan (who was New Orleans’s first Black mayor and whom the city’s Convention Center bears his name), discussed the ways state legislatures sought to cripple the power that these Black mayors soon amassed, even though their cities are their state’s primary economic engine. 

“You did not do a damn thing about homelessness,” exclaimed Morial, directing his ire at the panel’s collective political opponents. “You didn’t do a damn thing about education. You didn’t do a damn thing to try to sustain American cities. So we need to be aware that behind a curtain somewhere in this country, there are people plotting to undermine the leadership of these mayors and of American cities. First thing for us to do is to be aware, and I’ll say yes, woke, be woke. Because if you’re not ‘woke’, you’re asleep. And we can’t [fall] asleep.”

Mayor Adams and Mayor Bass each said homelessness and the asylum crisis are two of the biggest issues threatening not only their cities but all of America.

“And all mayors must come up with a clear urban agenda on how we ensure that the resources that are coming to the states find their way into the cities. That’s so important, this migrant asylum seeker issue. Every mayor should lift their voice,” said Mayor Adams.

“I loved being in Congress, but the reason why I wanted to be mayor is because I am very worried about us repeating something that happened in the 90s, and that is the criminalization of Black folk. In the 90s, folks were criminalized because of crack, my worry now is that people will be criminalized because they’re living on the streets,” added Mayor Bass.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bibb of Cleveland, Ohio discussed the challenges and opportunities facing Cleveland and marginalized communities in urban spaces across the nation. He spoke especially to the increasing problems with violence prevention and gun control in the city. 

“We have to change the culture of how we think about guns in this country. And we need to make sure we do everything to vote in 2024 to make sure we put people in DC and in our legislatures to pass common sense gun reform. I get those calls on a weekly basis about people dying in my city. I pray that we find a way to change how we think about guns and gun violence in our country. We all have a role to play to make that change happen in this nation.” said Bibb. 

Reverend Al Sharpton emphasized the importance of gathering Black leaders together in conversation. 

“One of the reasons it is so important that we hear from these mayors is that never in a time in American history have we seen the mayors of every major city, just about, Black and from our community,” said Sharpton. 

As the ESSENCE Festival of Culture drew to a close, it was clear for these five mayors that in the midst of fun, there remains a lot of work to be done. Just like Dave Dinkins passed it to Eric Adams, Maynard Jackson ultimately to Andre Dickens, Tom Bradley ultimately to Karen Bass and so on, there is a standard these Black mayors must continue to uphold, which is ensuring they leave their city better than they found it when they arrived. The good thing is, the concerned public and the voters are watching every step they take. 

Itoro Umontuen currently serves as Managing Editor of The Atlanta Voice. Upon his arrival to the historic publication, he served as their Director of Photography. As a mixed-media journalist, Umontuen...