Richmond icon recounts a past of trials and triumphs

former mayor george livingston

George Livingston in his living room, in front of a portrait of him as mayor.

One of Richmond’s greatest leaders is thumbing through a history book, looking for his picture.

Page after page flips slowly from right to left. The book, its hard corners blunted by the years, was published in the 1970s, and celebrates the surge of African Americans in elected positions since the Voting Rights act of 1965.

One page glows with a young Ron Dellums. The reader chuckles.

“Oh yeah, he looks young.”

Next page. John Lewis’ solemn, pious face looks out, restoring seriousness.

Then, it is him. The old man looks down through his black-rimmed glasses and sees himself, or at least a two-dimensional image of who he was more than three decades ago.

“Oh there, there I was,” he says, his finger gently tracing the edge of the page. “That was me.”

George Livingston is 77-years-old now, and endures thrice-weekly dialysis treatments for his failing kidneys, a condition brought on by his diabetes. The lanky gait and easy smile that he fashioned as one of Richmond’s brightest political leaders from the 1960s until the 1990s still have life, albeit sapped by age and fatigue.

“I’m 77 years old,” Livingston says often, almost as if reminding himself that so many years have passed since he was a strong, rangy kid who ventured west from Oklahoma. “I just don’t have the same energy that I used to.”

But if Livingston is a bit more hunched and a shade shallower of breath, he can still beam with pride at a recollection, still jolt with animation when offering insights into the moves he made decades ago. Don’t ask him what year something happened (“All those years just run together,” he says), but he just might be able to tell you how it felt, and who he worked with or against to make it happen.

On a cool February morning, Livingston pads about the central Richmond home he has shared with his wife for more than 20 years. Dressed in dark slacks and a soft gray and black button up, he chats about his past, his triumphs, his mistakes and the city he loves.

“It can be a lonely world when you’ve got health problems,” says Livingston, reclining on an embroidered green sofa in his small, orderly living room. “But I’m thankful. I can still get around, drive, take out my garbage. Life could be much worse.”

George Livingston is a living, flesh and blood artifact of the period of tumult and evolution that changed the city during after the post-World War II population boom. He 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.

But from an early age 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 says, adding that several times he 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.”

martin luther king jr. and george livingston

Livingston, right, met with Martin Luther King Jr. when the Civil Rights leader visited Contra Costa College.

For several years, Livingston worked as a laborer and took courses at Contra Costa College. His instinct to lead, coupled with the agitations and ambitions of the early Civil Rights movement, helped Livingston begin to blossom.

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 become a national figure by leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.

Livingston says King moved and spoke with a gravitas the likes of which he had never seen. The young student was never the same.

A photo of Livingston greeting King at Contra Costa College in San Pablo hangs on his living room wall.

“I will always cherish those moments” with King, Livingston says.

Livingston made history of his own when he was elected to the Richmond City Council in 1965, becoming just the second African American elected to city office and helping pave the way for a new generation of leaders.

Livingston served for six years during that term, along the way meeting with such political luminaries as Robert F. Kennedy, whom he met during the senator’s campaign swing through Oakland.

Cal State Sacramento historian Shirley Moore, who has authored several books on Richmond’s history, said Livingston is among the city’s most important political figures of the last half-century.

George Livingston

George Livingston, as mayor, presenting an award to singer Bobby Brown in the late 1980s visit to Richmond. (photo courtesy George Livingston Jr.)

Moore, who interviewed Livingston extensively in the 1980s and 1990s while conducting historical research, said the native Midwesterner was most effective as a “true booster for Richmond and its potential,” an embodiment of the hard-working and upwardly mobile class of new black leaders.

“He was a tremendously important, transitional figure,” Moore said. “As an immigrant from Oklahoma, he was keenly aware of why people came west to Richmond and what they brought and hoped for. He came at a time, and at an age, that made him perfectly positioned to experience that full sweep of Richmond’s post World War II transition.”

It turned out that Livingston was a leading edge of a movement that was changing the nation, and shifting the power structure in Richmond in a way that is still apparent today.

By the early 1980s, a majority of the upper-echelon of elected and appointed city leaders were African American.

“At first on the council there was a turn politically in the black community when the blacks began to come into the city,” Livingston says. “When I first arrived, there were some members of the City Council who didn’t really count black votes anyway, they figured ‘If I can keep these people from voting and get my white base to the polls I’ll be fine.”

Livingston chuckles at the thought. He harbors no resentment, which is perhaps part of why he has been such a resilient, popular figure, a man whom City Councilman and longtime political contemporary Nat Bates calls “the ultimate bridge builder between everyone.”

Livingston rolls his fingers in a circle, like a fishing reel, and nods his chin upward.

“So I saw a lot of their disappointment once they saw that black votes were starting to matter and their own base was dwindling,” he says. “I can understand that.”

He was elected to City Council again in 1973 and became mayor in 1985 when then-mayor Thomas Corcoran died unexpectedly. In 1989, he was elected in his own right, becoming the first African American mayor elected by the people of Richmond.

A proclamation awarded by the City Council and mayor in 2009 said Livingston’s “… public and private life has inspired many to work harder and achieve more for themselves and the community, breaking barriers and obstacles, and opening doors of opportunity for others to follow.”

When asked what he regards as his greatest accomplishment while in office, Livingston points to his work negotiating the development of Hilltop Mall in the mid 1970s.

“We had to jockey against Pinole, and San Pablo was trying to get it,” Livingston remembers.

Livingston says the land for the mall was owned by Chevron, and other area cities were looking to annex it in order to get the tax benefits of a vibrant new retail center. But there was resistance from business leaders in the fading downtown district who saw the mall as a threat to siphon away their customer base.

“We had to make a political decision, and I thought the best decision was to get the shopping center,” Livingston says.

That was Livingston’s style in office, as it has generally been in life: To enlarge the opportunities, to let more people into the process. But Livingston sees the achievement of expanding the city and its tax base with some ambivalence. Hilltop Mall opened in 1976, and the city’s old downtown was decimated. The major downtown retailers either moved to the new mall or closed outright soon after.

But while securing Hilltop Mall for Richmond was a great coup, it will always be marred by the piece of land slipped through his fingers, that all of his adroit politicking couldn’t secure.

It was North Richmond. The anti-Hilltop. The rural, unwanted, neglected patch of poverty and pollution near just northwest of the Iron Triangle and southwest of Hilltop. About 2,500 people, virtually all African Americans, lived there.

“I said we need to bring those individuals in that were not getting what they deserve,” Livingston says.

By any logic, it should be part of Richmond, not unincorporated county jurisdiction. Instead, a pencil-thin line runs through North Richmond, the space between two railroad tracks. It serves to connect the central city to Hilltop Mall, and thus satisfy state law that city lands must be contiguous.

“There was some feeling on the council to annex North Richmond, but there was a split group on the council,” Livingston says. “At the time we had nine members and there were some industrial interests out there who didn’t want to be annexed to Richmond because they thought they would have a better political system to be just the county.”

Better political system? Livingston shrugs. He says sometimes he still can’t shake the habit that to which long time politicians tend to succumb — sugarcoating things.

“They saw themselves as paying more taxes and having more scrutiny as far as regulations, and they didn’t want that,” he says. “So they worked hard to lobby the council and to build support at the community level.”

What followed was a tough, tricky battle that has been waged several times before and since, Livingston recalls. Major manufacturers, chemical processing companies, waste collectors and absentee landlords lobby to remain subjects of the county, and they always win.

Did business interests in the area grease the process in favor of annexation? Did bribery occur, as activists in North Richmond have alleged over the years?

“All I can say is I never received anything,” Livingston says.

He mulls the question further. To this day, North Richmond doesn’t have a single traffic signal. Homicide rates there have, over the years, been some of the highest in the nation. Maybe it could have all been different.

Was the political process corrupted?

“I don’t know. It was so many years ago. There are some questions that you pass on, you know, I’m going to pass on that one,” he says.

But, as in most things, Livingston says he’s optimistic for the future. In the current council, he sees a group of eclectic but solidly progressive leaders who seem as likely as any to take on the task of annexing North Richmond, Livingston says. Even the old guard, Councilman Bates, has long favored annexation.

Bates, who hasn’t always seen eye to eye with Livingston, is effusive in his praise.

“George is a great, great man and was one of our greatest mayors,” Bates said. “He was a leader of vision and the type who could unify different groups.”

Bates had particular praise for Livingston’s business and development instincts, which he said were on display in the annexation of Hilltop.

“It turned into a gold mine for our city,” Bates said.

Back in his living room, Livingston says he is still bothered that he left office in defeat, having been ousted as mayor in a close vote in 1993. He thinks he could have made a difference with another term.

“We were attracting business, and I wanted that to continue,” Livingston says.

Instead, in many respects, Richmond slid back a bit in the late 1980s and 1990s, as drugs and gangs rode roughshod on the city, businesses closed shop and Richmond’s reputation turned darker. Whether that was anything that Livingston or any mayor could have eased cannot be known, but he maintains that he could have made a difference.

“There were so many young people at that time who wound up getting involved in drugs and such, instead of getting on to something positive,” Livingston says. “I had learned a lot, I knew how to get things done.”

But guilt goes nowhere, Livingston says, waving away the bad vibes with a smile and slow wave of his right hand. He still stays abreast of issues and has an ear for local politics.

“At first it hurt, but then you figure out, that’s life. You win some, you lose some,” he says.

At one point, Livingston breaks off mid-sentence to pick up a ringing phone, and chats briefly with friend Lonnie Washington, another lifelong African American leader in Richmond who is widely seen as a kingmaker in local politics.

Livingston hangs up, and looks at the wall for several seconds.

“You know, I have met so many great leaders and picked up so much over the years,” Livingston says, easing back into his couch.

“But I learned something that I’ll never forget from Mayor Daley in Chicago.”

Daley? The notoriously crooked and brutal master of Windy City machine politics at the height of its ill-repute?

Livingston says he went to Chicago during a conference in the 1970s, and attended a Cubs baseball game with the “boss.”

“We were all, as guests, supposed to get five tickets,” he says. “Daley looks at them and says he wants 20, and the ticket person says he only is supposed to give out five. Well, Daley just looks, and he says ‘I am Mayor Daley and I want 20,’ and that was it.”

Livingston laughs, then gets hit with a fit of coughs. He reaches for a plastic cup and takes a sip of ice water.

“He ruled with a double-up fist, he didn’t take any prisoners,” Livingston says. “I never wanted to be that kind of leader.”

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