Most black mayors never dreamed of holding that office. Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young tells of the way he felt as he drove home to New Orleans after graduation from college 30 years ago, traveling through the South.
''I didn't want any part of Georgia because Georgia was the worst place on the face of the Earth,'' he says. ''If somebody had told me then, 'Son, you better slow down and look at this town (Atlanta) because you might be mayor one day,' my answer would have been, 'I'm scared to stop here for a drink of water - and I'm going to be mayor? Ridiculous!' ''
Thirty years ago, few figured that a black person would ever head one of the nation's major cities. That changed in 1967 when three black mayors - Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Kenneth Gibson in Newark, N.J., and Richard G. Hatcher in Gary - were elected. Since then the ranks of black mayors have grown to include Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, who seeks to be the nation's first elected black governor in California; Coleman Young of Detroit, the site of the 1980 GOP National Convention; and Marion Barry of Washington, D.C.
Today, Mayor Young, ex-congressman and former US ambassador to the United Nations, relishes his job as mayor of Atlanta. ''Better than being in Congress, '' he says. ''Better than being US ambassador to the UN.''
But underneath the enthusiasm, says John Ford, mayor of Tuskegee, Ala., and president of the National Conference of Black Mayors, black mayors face special problems: Black voters - whose ballots catapulted them into office - expect miracles; white constituents - who most likely backed an opponent - remain skeptical; and the minority community expects preferred treatment.
Michelle D. Kourouma, executive director of the National Conference of Black Mayors, says the nation's black mayors face the usual urban problems: how to balance a budget on a dwindling tax base, how to halt white flight, how to deal with increasing minority population and joblessness, how to maintain quality schools and public services, how to deal with increasing crime, and how to make municipal government more efficient.
But there is one more demand on black mayors, she says: ''how to give special help to the minority communities without being accused of reverse racism.''
''When a black becomes mayor, a new set of dynamics takes place,'' Mayor Hatcher says. ''Whites begin the process of disinvestment - moving out as residents in rapid flight, and transplanting their businesses, often leaving downtown almost bare. And the public loses its interest in schools, public services, and tax incentives.''
He offers these observations:
* Whites who move or live outside city limits may seek to ''colonize'' the city - seeking to control it while living in the suburbs. If a black mayor can involve white residents politically and economically, it becomes harder for whites to ''walk away from a city with billions of dollars invested in it.''
* Policies that work for blacks also can work for whites. ''As a black mayor, I should not fall for the guilt complex when I help minorities. I must be fair to all people in my city.''
Mayor Young says that at least 20 new black millionaires have emerged from the construction of Atlanta's new airport, for which 50 percent of the contractors were minority firms. And many of them had to deal with white suppliers. Young adds, ''The white community has profited more by the new black business community than we have in some ways.''
Mayor Everett C. Lattimore of Plainfield, N.J., who took office Jan. 1, says he is learning the difference between being mayor and serving 18 years in city and county offices.
A black mayor has to win the confidence of the police and fire departments if he is to gain any measure of success, he says. ''They are most difficult in terms of changing attitudes and bridging the gap between our antiquated structure of government and today's new technology,'' he says.
Maintaining self-esteem in an apparently decaying city ''is the greatest challenge,'' he adds. He sells Plainfield to its own citizens as well as to others on its ''major asset, culture,'' he says. ''Plainfield is the cultural center of New Jersey - with its New Jersey Theater, its arts festival which draws 60,000 downtown twice a year.''
Encouraging the local newspaper to offer more than a negative image of the city is also important, Mayor Lattimore maintains.
Three basic factors are making Plainfield move forward - maintaining ''effective leadership'' of the city's public schools, holding on ''to the top stores'' within the city limits, and developing a network with officials of his county and with three other black mayors in New Jersey, he says.
''We work on the unique needs of blacks and Hispanics (Plainfield is only 44 percent white after steadily losing this group to suburbia since 1967),'' he said. ''I am very fortunate that I get support from all elements, white and black, young and old.''
In office seven months as successor to Maynard Jackson, Mr. Young dramatizes the strength of the black mayor:
''We've seen Gary come back from the ashes; we've seen Detroit; we've seen Atlanta; we've seen Los Angeles; we've seen New Orleans; we've seen the City of Washington develop new hope because of black political leadership that emerged from the ashes of problems and despair. And black mayors have come through - with new hope!''