But all along, out of the public eye, George K. Arthur was also refining a talent for photography that helped deepen his understanding of the city he loves.
Now, Arthur, 70, is sharing his perspectives-through-a-lens with the community in "Three Views of One Side," a collection of pictures on exhibit in the Buffalo Museum of Science.
Many of the 60 photos, both color and black and white, were shot at the Pine Grill Reunion, which brings together local and national jazz artists for an annual festival in Martin Luther King Jr. Park celebrating one of the city's legendary clubs.
Others are black and white portraits of the African-American churches of the East Side. Together, the images "document the people and structures that make up a community that celebrates itself while trying to survive," Lenore Bethel, who organized the show, wrote in her introduction. They also demonstrate how art "documents and preserves culture, tradition and history," added Bethel, associate curator of El Museo Gallery. In at least one picture, which Arthur considers among his best, documentation takes a back seat to pure creativity. It is a color panorama of Times Beach framed by the city skyline, made from a series of 12 photographs snapped late last year. A copy recently fetched $600 at CEPA Gallery's fund-raising auction.
"Times Beach" could be viewed as a metaphor for the photographer's breadth of experience in politics and community life.
Arthur graduated in 1951 from Seneca Vocational High School, where he took his first photography course. Seneca has turned out several notable photographers over the years, including The Buffalo News' Robert Smith, commercial filmmaker Sherwin Greenberg and fashion photographer Douglas Kirkland.
After a stint as an Army photographer, Arthur was Los Angeles-bound when a friend persuaded him to run for Buffalo Democratic committeeman in 1957. His ties to Buffalo were cemented when he married Frances Bivens in 1960.
Arthur was elected to the Erie County Board of Supervisors in 1964, but lost his seat when the board was replaced by the smaller County Legislature. He lost his 1967 bid for the Ellicott District seat on the Common Council, but he won on his second try two years later. He served several terms as a district and at-large councilman before he was elected Council president in 1983. He held the post until he retired in 1995.
The early years of Arthur's political life were also a time of upheaval and great progress in the civil rights movement, and Arthur became an outspoken activist and lead plaintiff in Arthur v. Nyquist, the 1972 federal lawsuit that led to the desegregation of Buffalo's public schools.
All the while, away from the din of public life, he anonymously photographed performers like KoKo Taylor, Spider Martin, Al Tinney, Jimmy McGriff and Junior Wells at the annual Pine Grill Reunion, and houses of worship ranging from the stately St. Luke AME Zion Church on East Ferry Street to the storefront churches that dot the East Side's business sections.
Since leaving government Arthur has continued his role as a community activist. He currently heads an effort to convert the home of the late Rev. J. Edward Nash Sr., pastor of Michigan Avenue Baptist Church from 1892 to 1953, into the Nash House Museum.
And he plans to continue shooting photographs that attest to the strong social fabric that holds this troubled city together - pictures that "tell a story about Buffalo and the variety we have here."
"I want to finish the series on buildings and churches in the next year or so, then do something on people," he said.
"Three Views of One Side," which is located in the Science Museum entry hall, will run through Sept. 4. The presenters are El Museo, the museum and the Juneteenth Festival.