By Brandon M. Stickney
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
For a time, human rights activist Malcolm X meant trouble for young Carlton “Carl” Cain. Malcolm’s autobiography, co-authored by Alex Haley, was nearly 500 nonfiction pages long, weighing in at nearly two confounding pounds.
Two pounds of abuse, sadness, anger, philosophy, uprising, fighting, peace, religion, enlightenment, and a quest for human rights for a Niagara Catholic high schooler?
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays seemed a little easier, but history teacher Ms. Fields had assigned both dead writers to Carl. Both.
The rest of the class was not required to read Malcolm X or show up an hour or so earlier in the morning. Only young Mr. Cain.
Why? He wondered.
Today, he knows.
But back then, at 15-years-old, he didn’t know. What he knew was fear. Ms. Fields was a fair but strict teacher, yet at his age he thought of her as “mean.” As far back as some families of the generation recall, corporal punishment by parent(s) was not only the culture but also a kind of unwritten law.
All mother or father, or the selected grandparent, aunt or uncle had to hear was “that school had called” them about Carl or any other young student and it really didn’t matter what the teacher or administrator called about—the call itself meant swift punishment, “the switch” for the child or teen.
For the purposes of today’s biographical look at 2023 Niagara Falls Mayoral candidate Carl Cain, a Republican, we’ll just say Carl did not want to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X but, at Ms. Fields’ directive, yet he did anyway, for fear of … well, you know.
It’s not surprising that Carl Cain read Malcom’s book, cover to cover. He read and loved Emerson too, and, college bound, sought a degree in philosophy, and a career in law enforcement. He became a police officer in the military at the New York State Air Base. He received a master’s in criminal justice administration from Niagara University, and a paralegal degree from the US Air Force.
Cain also received a master’s in business management and doctorate in education from Liberty University. He is a graduate of the FBI’s national academy, class #259. During his career in the Niagara Falls Police Department, he was assigned as co-director of the Niagara County Law Enforcement Academy at NCCC. He served for more than 15 years in internal affairs as a professional standards detective.
Cain is a surprising, remarkably cool, and subtly fascinating individual. A deep thinker who tells a story of love, achievement, glory so life-shaking that he works hard to outlive the losses most people face, yet never face down—outliving their parents. He does so by setting an example.
“Over a year ago,” said Cain, “I found myself in a hospital room, witnessing my mother Mary’s suffering and eventual passing. In that moment, I discovered a wellspring of resilience within me.
“The experience was heart-wrenching, yet it ignited a determination to honor her legacy. My mother’s unwavering pride in me during her lifetime became my guiding light, propelling me to strive for a life she would still be proud of even in death.
“I carry her spirit with me. The strength she exhibited in the face of adversity fuels my commitment to live a full and happy life. Her belief in my potential pushes me to advocate for others, as that was her spirit.”
Malcom. Martin Luther King, Jr. Emerson. Mom. Brother. And Dad. They may no longer live among us, but they’re still major influences, Carl said. “In my life, the threads of faith, family, and love have woven an unbreakable bond that transcends time and circumstance. With God as my cornerstone and my late mother, father, and brother as guardian angels, their unwavering presence remains a guiding force.
“Their memory is a constant reminder that their support, even from beyond, propels me to move forward. In moments of doubt, it’s their collective legacy that bolsters my spirit. Their values and teachings have shaped my character, providing a sturdy foundation upon which I build my aspirations.
“Just as they stood by me in life, their ethereal presence continues to stand by my side, inspiring me to weather challenges and pursue greatness.”
Cain was born November 19, 1964, in Niagara Falls. Growing up, he was close with his cousins who lived in the same neighborhood, near the 10th Street Park, the East Falls Street Boys Club, Falls Street community center, and the Niagara Street Salvation Army.
His father, LeMar Cain, was a career Falls policeman, fondly remembered today by older locals impressed by his friendliness, fairness, and for being community minded.
In addition to Ms. Fields, LeMar Cain was an inspiration to his family. A Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy, he loved martial arts. He was a community volunteer, and a police officer. “Things I said I would not do, and, of course, I wound up doing,” recalled Carl of his father’s military and police careers.
Ms. Fields witnessed Carl’s resistance to Malcolm’s story and knew just how to get through to the teen—to ring his folks and express her enthusiasm for his obvious potential—an “A-plus” student doing “B” work. Reading the autobiography quickly became a priority!
“She had me arrive early to the classroom or stay late every school day (except during the fall football season as I was on the team) to have Socratic discussions. After Malcom she had me read several other books including Emerson and she repeated this for the year. Depending on our discussions of what I’d just read, we’d move on to a new book.”
Then, Ms. Fields was gone from Carl’s life just as soon as she seemed to arrive. At the end of the school year, she was terminated. Carl said he knew the administration’s move was pending. “She forewarned me, saying the school seemed to have a problem with her questioning its policies.”
Still, that one year had a profound effect. Ms. Fields, a white teacher in a Catholic high school with few black students, somehow intuited that her gesture of perceived “meanness” would have a transformative effect on Cain’s trajectory.
“That year made all the difference in my life,” Carl explained. “It set me on a journey of self-education that has not ceased. It highlighted the value of educators who are willing to expose students to diverse voices and encourage them to think critically about the world around them. For whatever reason I was the only student she did this to. Why she chose me I have no idea. Then I hated it, but today I am forever grateful.”
Another important life lesson for Cain was simply to “be kind” to other people—one never knows how another person may affect your life. At 19, he wanted to started his own car transport business and created a C corporation, but eventually decided against the venture because of the threat of excessive costs from the needed insurance coverage.
About three years passed after his decision, and a letter arrived from New York state, claiming that Cain, who never officially started the business, owed about $10,000 in taxes for not filing quarterly reports. Again, there was nothing to file about.
So, Cain requested a hearing at the Buffalo office. He and another man arrived at the parking lot simultaneously on the rather windy day of the hearing.
“Me and this guy got out of our cars at the same time. He had lots of papers that were then blown around the lot. I helped him chase down these papers as other people ignored us and just walked in the building.
“He said thanks and shook my hand. About an hour later when I was called into the hearing room, low and behold the guy I helped in the wind turned out to be the hearing officer. The state had two attorneys saying a bunch of legal gobbledygook. Yet, no matter what they said, the hearing officer refused their arguments.
“Tension and frustration were building on their side. The attorneys were clearly shocked that I, this kid, seemed to be winning the case. In the end, instead of $10,000, I was asked to pay little to nothing, and was given more than ample time to do it.
“This was because I took the time to be nice, to be kind to a stranger. Be nice, not for a reward, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
Today, Carl enjoys family time, foil fencing, bike riding, martial arts, the gym, and Bruce Lee films, which may sound humorous, but isn’t. “Bruce Lee movies never get old. ‘Enter the Dragon’ is my favorite.
“In fact, I majored in philosophy because I watched Bruce Lee so much, I bought into the pithy sayings in his movies. Lee said, ‘Boards don’t hit back’ and ‘You must be like water.’ Bruce majored in philosophy, so, for me, it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to get a degree in philosophy.”
Carl Cain remains inspired by Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He said, “These three demonstrate for me how to lead with integrity, amplify unheard voices, promote unity, and foster innovation. Their legacies remind me that positive change begins at the grassroots level.”
“Malcolm inspired me because his personal transformation offered a compelling alternative to passive acceptance of racial discrimination with unapologetic advocacy.
“King’s tireless pursuit of equality of opportunity through nonviolent means guides my approach to fostering unity within our community. His dream of a society where opportunities are fair and free from discrimination fuels my dedication to creating an environment where diversity is celebrated, and everyone has equal opportunity.
“And Emerson’s philosophy of individualism and self-reliance inspires me to rely on hard work, self-initiatives, and innovation. By nurturing a spirit of self-sufficiency, we can uplift ourselves and we will even amaze ourselves at what we can accomplish.”