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On MLK Day: Remembering Former Richmond Mayor George Livingston

The few hours Livingston spent with Martin Luther King Jr. were a turning point in his life

George Livingston liked looking back. His hindsight wasn’t marred by what-ifs or dubious intentions. He gave it all he had, and there’s no shame in that.

“What I am proud of is I was able to help integrate the city,” Livingston said during a lengthy chat in his Richmond home in February, 2011. “I gave people a chance that didn’t have a chance.”

Livingston made history in many ways. He was Richmond's second African American city council member and its first elected African American mayor. He died last week after a long bout with diabetes and kidney disease. He was 78. His funeral is scheduled for Tuesday at the John Missionary Baptist Church in Richmond.

On a day when we honor Martin Luther King Jr., it's worth remembering Livingston who was part of the slain Civil Rights leader's legacy. Livingston was among the first wave of local African American leaders who took the reins of power across the nation after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the 1960s. The son of a family of migrants who trekked west from Oklahoma in search of opportunity, he was an unabashed, tireless booster of the city he called home since the early 1950s.

George Livingston Martin Luther King Jr.For decades, Livingston was perhaps the Richmond's most towering, visible figure, representing Richmond in talks with the likes of Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy and a host of others.

“Everyone has been so amazing, so gracious with the outpouring of well-wishing,” said Livingston’s son, George Jr. “He loved the city, and the city loves him back.”

Livingston trekked with his family from Oklahoma to Richmond in 1952, and spent his late teenaged years toiling in the dusty shipyards of the California delta. His biological father was imprisoned for a murder in Oklahoma, and Livingston was raised by his mother and a stepfather whom he praised for instilling discipline in him.

Livingston had the makings of a leader.

“I remember out in the shipyards, blue-collar type environments, that was actually the first time I was getting treated a certain way because I was black,” Livingston said in February, adding that he often endured crude epithets on the rough-and-tumble job sites. “At the time, it was thought that if you were black, you couldn’t be a leader, but I was thinking even back then that I wanted to do more than just be told what to do.”

But while he toiled in the yards, Livingston was also taking courses at Contra Costa College. The more he learned, he said, the larger his ambitions grew.

In the early 1960s, Livinston got involved in student government. As a campus leader, he had the opportunity to play host to Martin Luther King Jr., who had by then become a figure of national prominence. The few hours he spent with King were a turning point in his life, Livingston said.

Livingston was elected to the Richmond City Council in 1965, joining George Carroll as the second African American elected in Richmond, and held his seat for most of the next 20 years.

In 1985, Mayor Tom Corcoran died in office, and Livingston was tapped by his fellow council members to serve out Corcoran’s term.

It was no accident, according to Councilman Nat Bates, who got his start in local elected office just after Livingston in the 1960s. Bates has called Livingston the city’s greatest “bridge builder” between disparate groups and interests, a politician gifted in the art of compromise.

“He was that rare leader of vision,” Bates said in an interview last year. “The type who could unify different groups.”

From the outset, Livingston saw his city as one of the Bay Area’s big boys, relishing the role of outsized leader and unabashed booster. Livingston made headlines in 1988 when he teamed with Chevron Corp. to make a spirited bid to lure the San Francisco Giants franchise across the bay to Richmond.

In terms of local government, Livingston’s consistent themes were unity and prosperity, working to bring neighborhoods together and enlarge the city’s sphere. Livingston is credited, along with his council cohorts and community activists, with bringing Parchester Village into Richmond. The village was an African American community isolated north of the city, and Livingston pushed hard to annex the area and improve services.

Convinced that the slumping downtown was moribund in the 1970s, Livingston pushed for and helped secure annexation of some land north of the city owned by Chevron Corp. and other interests. He envisioned a new shopping center that would draw people from surrounding cities and bolster tax revenues. The land became Hilltop Mall.

During several conversations with Richmond Confidential since 2010, Livingston noted that securing the land and paving the way for Hilltop Mall was one his proudest achievements.

What he didn’t mention was that, years before, he had arranged for his burial plot to be at Rolling Hills Memorial Park, just off Hilltop Drive.

“I can’t say what his mindset was exactly,” George Jr. said. “But it’s a beautiful spot. It overlooks Richmond.”

In 1991, Livingston led staunch opposition to a proposal by Contra Costa County Supervisor Tom Powers to scrap the city’s at-large electoral system. Powers wanted to divide the city into council districts, an arrangement favored in many large cities in part to ensure that elected leaders come from a diverse geographic area.

Livingston opposed the idea on two fronts: He felt districts would further segment a city long beleaguered by neighborhood rivalries, and he saw it as a direct threat to the hard-fought gains made by African Americans in winning elected office. Powers’ idea was ultimately rebuffed.

Over the years, Livingston was at the forefront of public matters in Richmond, often inserting himself aggressively into regional and even national issues.

In 1992, Livingston allied with the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland to hail the San Francisco Foundation-funded $3 million program to assist poor children. Livingston played an active role in ensuring the funds went toward after-school programs and other initiatives targeting the city’s poor children.

In 1987, Livingston took the lead in rallies and in negotiations with state prison officials to expel from the city paroled rapist Lawrence Singleton. “We won’t harm him, but we’ll give him a free ride out of town if we find him,” Livingston told a rally of angry residents, as quoted in a Contra Costa Times article at the time.

Later in 1987, Livingston turned his attention to foreign affairs, joining Lionel Wilson and Loni Hancock, then the mayors of Oakland and Berkeley, to initiate a domestic campaign opposing federal aid to the Contras in Nicaragua and demanding cessation of U.S. intervention in Central America.

Meanwhile, the city was making gains, especially in terms of economic growth and development. In 1988, a Sacramento Bee article headlined: “Richmond: A Home Buyers Dream Come True,” profiled the city as a stabilizing bastion of affordable, comfortable Bay Area housing increasingly drawing young and upwardly mobile residents. Richmond was ascent in terms of population growth, newly-constructed units and improved reputation.

Livingston, as usual, was at the forefront of pro-Richmond campaign. “Our time has come,” said the then 55-year-old mayor, according to the article, which described him as “dressed in a brown Western suit and boots, surrounded by trophies and three stuffed pheasants in his third floor mayor’s office.”

“Richmond has gone from being the Bay Area’s back door to its front door,” Livingston told the Bee.

While Livingston post public life and legacy were secure – Cal State Sacramento historian Shirley Ann Moore calls him one of the towering figures of Richmond’s post –WWII history – he knew defeat and failure as well. He left office in 1993, following a narrow defeat at the hands of Rosemary Corbin, who went on to make a legacy of her own as a popular mayor.

“It hurt, I was depressed, yeah,” Livingston remembered. “I felt like I could have done more with another term, but it didn’t go my way.”

Another issue shaded with disappointment was North Richmond. Like Parchester Village, it was a small neighborhood of predominately African Americans that was in unincorporated Contra Costa County, despite being in the city’s sphere. But it was, and is, poorer and more challenged by crime and environmental degradation.

Livingston fought several times in the 1970s and 1980s to annex North Richmond, but he and his allies were stymied.

“We were up against a lot of money and a lot of lobbying, and ultimately we couldn’t get the support to annex,” Livingston said. “It’s a shame because they people out there have never got the services they deserve.”

But Livinston was a man at peace with the life he lead. He was proud of how he helped change the city. “I am happy with what I was able to do,” Livingston said during another interview at his home, this one in April 2010. At the time, his adolescent grandson sat next to him on the couch. Livingston was fond of referring to the positive impact he had on the future facing children in Richmond.

“I remember when I became mayor of the city of Richmond,” Livingston said. “My grandfather, who was the son of a slave, came to City Hall. He cried,” Livingston looked down at his grandson, who sat quiet. “He couldn’t believe he saw it, his grandson was mayor of a large city.”

Livingston is survived by his wife, Eunice, son George Jr., daughter Grace Livingston-Nunley., and several grandchildren.

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