Born May 15, 1932 in Enterprise, Alabama, Kenneth Gibson’s career in engineering would see him settle in New Jersey in 1950. It was here that he took a number of engineering positions. First, he worked with the state’s highway department until 1960 before taking over the position of Chief Engineer for Newark’s housing authority until 1966.
During his role as Chief Structural Engineer, he would witness the Newark Riots in 1967 and most likely similar incidents that caused the city to bubble. This came about following the beating of a Black man by police.
Prior to the riots, Newark was the stage for similar scenes throughout America’s Black neighborhoods and cities: disinvestment by the city or state, White flight, redlining and corrupt police forces. Also familiar was that the city had a rapidly growing non-White population but was heavily governed by a White city council and mayor.
This all proved to be fertile ground for Democrat Kenneth Gibson to launch his campaign for mayor. The road to the 1970 election saw Gibson best five others. He would go on to defeat Mayor Hugh Addonizio whose term in the position was mired with corruption and controversy.
The Newark that Gibson was now mayor of had a non-White, mostly Black majority as more Blacks families left the South. It had also lost many of its job opportunities in the previous decades. Not only that, but the city lost its financial base as the middle class headed elsewhere.
Gibson sought to revitalize Newark by bringing business back to the area and having companies invest in the city. This approach would draw some disdain by the end of his first term. Of course, he managed to keep some businesses in Newark via incentives and push the city towards financial stability.
Post-Mayoral Political Career
As the late 1980s rolled around, Newark was steeped in rampant unemployment and education concerns. Business appeal was down as there was little in the way local entertainment, commerce, and tourism. As a result, Gibson would be unsuccessful in his run for a fifth term as mayor. Succeeding him in 1986 was losing to Sharpe James. During his term as mayor, he would fail to pick up the Democratic nomination for governor in 1981 and 1985.
Away from the political arena, Kenneth Gibson returned to engineering. He wouldn’t make his return for thirteen years when he ran for the executive position in Essex County. It was reported that the election was close, but he came up short in this attempt.
In 2002, Gibson ran into legal trouble due to bribery charges and stealing funds from a construction project. He would plead guilty to tax fraud and received three years probation.
In 2005 he talked with the New York Times about his time as mayor and his legal troubles. Gibson said that history would remember the good he did and not the prosecutors. Since 2010, one of his prosecutors has been governor of New Jersey and a 2016 GOP candidate, Chris Christie.