No strangers to winter’s tempestuousness, Chicagoans were nonetheless caught unprepared for the blizzard that blanketed the city with nearly two feet of snow over two days beginning Saturday, January 13, 1979 — pelting the prairie with flakes so big and white they seemed a hallucination. Despite assurances from City Hall that the Chicago Transit Authority was fully operational, commuters on their way to work Monday morning watched with both bemusement and white-hot rage as the El trains bypassed stations on the city’s mostly black South Side, leaving thousands, literally, out in the cold.
Chicago’s Democratic machine had never been responsive to the needs of its black constituents, but the death three years earlier of the city’s pharaoh, Mayor Richard J. Daley, had only exacerbated the problem, leaving African-Americans to wonder whether, if they merely continued to show up at the polls every four years to cast a ballot, they would be buried alive by the avalanche of racial animus emanating from City Hall.
Led by a muckraking black journalist named Lutrelle “Lu” Palmer, Chicago’s black community decided to field their own candidate to take on the Democratic machine in a city that was roughly a third white, a third Black, and a third Latino.
Harold Washington and his Chicago mini-revolution
With his Motown baritone, the soaring cadence of a Baptist preacher — and a striking resemblance to Ossie Davis — a congressman representing Chicago’s 1st District, Harold Washington, had them at hello. As part of the Daley machine, Washington had dutifully complied with orders to shun Martin Luther King Jr’s 1966 visit to Chicago, but that experience — combined with the 1969 police assassination of the charismatic 21-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, Fred Hampton — had caused Washington to defect.
Still, Washington was a pragmatist and a mayoral bid struck him as a tad quixotic; he agreed to the campaign but only if the group registered at least 100,000 new voters and raised $200,000 by the fall of 1982.
Palmer, and his wife, Jorja, accepted the challenge, and began teaching political education classes — modeled on the Black Panthers’ efforts — at the nonprofit organization the couple had founded and funded, Chicago Black United Communities, on the city’s South Side. As Palmer recalled in a 1992 interview:
After every four-week period we would have a graduation, and every graduation speaker was Harold Washington. He’d come by, make a nice little speech, give out the citations. The first graduation we had was on the coldest day in Chicago history when the wind-chill factor went down to 80 something below zero. We were so poor we had no heat in the building and so the people kept their scarves on, and I mean you could see the breath coming out of their mouths.
But nobody left. I turned to Jorja and said ‘these brothas and sistas are ready’ because you know how our people are about the cold.”
By the fall of 1982 — as Chicago’s black radio station, WVON, crackled with Palmer’s clever taunt, “We shall see in 83” — the CBUC had unleashed 2,000 trained grassroots organizers on the streets, who not only met Washington’s initial demands but eclipsed them, adding 180,000 new voters to the city’s registration rolls, and delivering a war chest of nearly half-a-million dollars.
With the incumbent Jane Byrne and the late Mayor Richard J. Daley’s son Richard M. dividing white Democrats, Washington won a bitter primary, then squeezed just enough white votes from his Rainbow Coalition to win the general election against a bipartisan white electorate that was unified in its contempt for him. For black Chicago, said Robert Starks, a political science professor at Northeastern University and a key political strategist for Washington, the campaign “took on almost a religious or gospel character . . It became almost a civic religion.”
Despite stiff opposition from white aldermen and state lawmakers, Washington’s administration began to deliver the spoils to his constituents almost immediately, as he worked assiduously to cut everyone in on a sweet deal that had previously been reserved for a privileged few. He rescinded a municipal ordinance prohibiting street musicians from putting out a hat, issued an executive order forbidding municipal employees from enforcing immigration laws, computerized city departments, and extended collective bargaining rights for public trade unions whose rank-and-file members were often kept in the dark about the labor contracts struck between their corrupt leadership and the Daley machine.
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He opened up the city’s budget process by holding public hearings around the city, increased the number of women and Blacks at City Hall, capped campaign contributions for contractors doing business with the city at $1,500, and professionalized the city’s workforce by banning patronage hiring and firing — all of which would’ve been unimaginable under the old machine. He even mothballed the city’s limousine, for an Oldsmobile 98.
“We had built Chicago to a peak of Black solidarity by the time it came to elect Harold,” Palmer said in 1992. “You’d better not even think about not voting for Harold Washington. I mean it better not even come in your mind, or somebody would go upside your head.”
Short-lived as it was, Harold Washington’s City Hall was the crowning achievement of a nationwide revolution that had begun 50-years earlier at the height of the Great Depression, when organized labor integrated its ranks and its leadership, and workers of all races banded together to transform bad jobs into good ones. The essential actors in that rebellion were the descendants of chattel slaves, who not only helped imbue the economy with unprecedented buying power, but articulated a coherent, shimmering vision of what a racial democracy — a Beloved Community — might look like in practice.
Barack Obama and the counter-revolution
A year to the day after another son of black Chicago, Barack Obama, vacated the White House, his enigmatic legacy can only be understood as a response to this insurrection, and any serious interrogation of his record makes it painfully clear that Obama was the titular head of a counterrevolution, intended to undo the democratizing efforts of a generation of Americans who found their voice in the the transformative post war years.
You cannot, in other words, begin to make sense of the Republic’s first black president without understanding Chicago’s first black mayor, can’t get your arms around what has transpired over the last decade without examining the eight decades that preceded it, and cannot appreciate the arc of America’s political universe without some clarity on both the top-down movement that catapulted Obama into the catbird seat and the bottom-up populist movement that produced Washington.
Washington was everything that Obama was not — reversing public policies steeped in white supremacy, while Obama deepened them. Washington weakened the influence of money in politics, Obama strengthened it. Washington accommodated immigrants and helped transform Chicago into a sanctuary, while Obama deported more than any president in history. Washington rewarded organized labor for its efforts to elect him, Obama gave labor unions the cold shoulder, when he wasn’t trying to bust them altogether. Washington opened space for women, people of color, and even workers in the informal sector trying to make a living any way they could in an enervated economy; on Obama’s watch, the nation witnessed an unemployed black man lynched on a Staten Island street corner merely for selling loose cigarettes.
Washington invoked the anti-colonial theories of Fanon, exalted the messianic quality of the African’s experience in the Americas, and exhorted people of color to never give up the fight against injustice and oppression; Obama invoked Reagan, trafficked in folklore, and scolded black men for feeding their children cold Popeye’s chicken for breakfast. Washington embodied Bessie Smith’s Blues, Obama the mediocre hip-hop of Drake.
None of this was by chance. If Washington’s election is viewed in its most irreducible form — namely, the pinnacle of what the Rev. William Barber characterizes as the nation’s second Reconstruction — then Obama can only be contextualized as the plutocrats’ man in the White House, installed for the singular purpose of preventing a third.
The Empire fights back
The assassination of Martin Luther King, coupled with the twilight of American industry’s global dominance, ratcheted up both working class militancy, and the elites’ crackdown on it. Mineworkers in Appalachia and autoworkers in Detroit were fighting to reclaim their trade unions from a reactionary leadership that was in bed with management; communists were on the march in North Carolina, Black Panthers in Oakland; militant white college students protested the war in Berkeley, and black parents and teachers fought for community control of their school curriculums in Brooklyn. Fred Hampton was organizing black street gangs and black professionals, Latinos, poor alienated white youths, and college students and blue-collar workers of all races into a Rainbow Coalition intent on socialist revolution. Black voters capitalized on white flight following the season of unrest that began with the Watts riots to elect black mayors in Detroit, Newark, Cleveland, Gary, and Atlanta, and Puerto Ricans joined with Blacks and Italians to force the City University of New York to guarantee admission and free tuition for every New York city public high school graduate.
It took all of three months.
With Blacks accounting for a third of the country’s unionized workforce and taking on leadership responsibilities to boot, organized labor’s demand for a bigger share of the pie was causing wage inflation to spike and, combined with the Arab world’s demands that the West pay more for its oil, slicing into the oligarchs’ profit margins.
Something had to be done.
The Empire began fighting back. Nixon’s southern strategy, the FBI’s counterintelligence program, and an infamous memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Lewis Powell, whom Nixon would later appoint to the Supreme Court, got the ball rolling, isolating the radical black polity from polite society. New York City’s bankers and corporate executives doubled down on polarizing racial narratives in executing a takeover of New York City’s finances in 1975 — scapegoating the pensions, wages and subsidies won by public sector unions for a financial crisis triggered by an overheated real estate market. That same year, the publisher of The Washington Post, Katherine Graham, broke the pressman’s union to fatten profits for Warren Buffett and other shareholders.
The Mel Reynolds mold
The year after Washington keeled over dead from a heart attack while working at his desk on Thanksgiving Eve of 1987, a Harvard-educated black Rhodes scholar named Mel Reynolds challenged a Washington ally, Gus Savage, for Illinois’ 2nd Congressional District, which included a swath of Chicago’s South Side lakefront. It would take Reynolds three tries to finally unseat Savage but — as Frederick Harris wrote in his 2014 book, The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics — the city’s two major daily newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times endorsed Reynolds, as did conservative Washington Post columnist George Will. The main business daily, Crain’s, did not endorse him, but went out of its way to praise him for his tendency to “downplay race as a factor in politics.”
Feted by foundations, bankrolled by wealthy campaign contributors, and championed widely by the media and the affluent Hyde Park neighborhood that is home to the University of Chicago, Reynolds’ meteoric rise led one political rival to wonder aloud how an unknown who’d never held public office could amass such campaign cash and name-recognition:
White politicians have bought and paid for a novice who wasn’t even a block captain, or community leader, or even a member of a recognized church. There’s something wrong. His whole staff comes from City Hall, which tells you they’re being supplied to get rid of Gus Savage.”
Reynold’s career would ultimately be derailed by a sex scandal involving a teenage girl, but in his three years on Capitol Hill he amassed a voting record that was solidly neoliberal, voting for the Clinton Administration’s North American Free Trade Act and the omnibus crime bill, both of which were catastrophic for Chicago’s working class and communities of color.
The same year that Reynolds won his Congressional seat, a young, 31-year-old community organizer named Barack Obama approached Lu Palmer asking for his support for a voter registration effort. As Palmer told the story, he thought the Harvard-trained lawyer both arrogant and unoriginal, and sent him on his way. But three years later, he would encounter Obama again. An old ally in the Washington campaign, Alice Palmer (no relation) had finished third in the special election to succeed the now-disgraced Reynolds, and she wanted to return to Springfield. Palmer asked Obama to withdraw his name from the state senate race out of respect for the widely-respected Alice Palmer, but Obama refused. Palmer couldn’t recall Obama’s exact words but something about the way he spoke sounded oddly familiar. That’s when it clicked.
“Man, you sound like Mel Reynolds!” Palmer told Obama.
Obama and the new breed of foundation-hatched black voices
The political scientist Adolph Reed met Obama shortly after his election to the Illinois Senate and he was no more impressed than was Lu Palmer. He wrote in a 1996 article:
In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds.
His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.
I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway. So far the black activist response hasn’t been up to the challenge. We have to do better.”
Three years later, Obama challenged Bobby Rush for his congressional seat, and the battle lines were sharply drawn much as they were in Reynolds’ congressional campaigns.
“A dozen years after the death of Harold Washington, there is a generational shift in the leadership of the black community, ”Chicago Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal wrote in late 1999, as the campaign season was just gearing up in Chicago.
Chicago’s black community was less impressed, however.
“Barack is viewed in part to be the white man in Black face in our community,” said Donne Trotter, an Illinois state legislator who was also challenging Rush for the 1st Congressional District. “Who pushed him to get where he is so fast? It’s these individuals in Hyde Park who don’t always have the best interests of our community in mind.”
And while Washington auditioned for his job with Palmer and a ragtag group of grassroots organizers in a southside Chicago community center, Obama’s close-up moment was at a 2003 fundraiser at the home of Democratic fixer and Bill Clinton BFF Vernon Jordan — getting face-time with such Democratic establishment fixtures as former White House Counsel Greg Craig; Mike Williams, a lobbyist for a Bondholders’ Association; and Tom Quinn and Robert Harmala, partners at one of DC’s most connected firms, Venable LLP.
A “reasonableness” about him
In a 2006 article for Harper’s Magazine, Ken Silverstein noted that Craig “liked the fact that Obama was not a racial polarizer on the model of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton,” and Williams was “soothed by Obama’s reassurances that he was not anti-business.”
“There’s a reasonableness about him,” Harmala told Silverstein. “I don’t see him being on the liberal fringe.”
In the year since he’s left office, Obama has spent his leisure time “yachting with Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen in Tahiti, kitesurfing with Richard Branson in the Virgin Islands, rafting in Indonesia, golfing on the Scottish coast, and biking under the Tuscan sun,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote recently, all of which stands in sharp contrast to the spartan lifestyles of the previous generation of black political actors.
In a 1992 interview, 12 years before his death at the age of 82, Palmer spoke of how he purchased most of his clothes on consignment: ”I can buy a suit for $10 [rather than $200 and] see, the way I look at it that leaves me with $190 I can put back into the struggle.” Palmer recounted how his father was fired from his job as an administrator at an all-black high school in Virginia, for no reason other than that he protested the vastly different pay scales for black and white teachers.
“I have given my life, as did my father, to this movement and that’s why it hurts so much to see our people give this city back to white folks,” he said. “Bad enough to give it to white folks but to give it to a Daley.”
“I’m actually depressed now because everything we fought for between 1981 and 1989 has been wiped away, destroyed, stepped on, stomped on.” Palmer said. He sighed heavily, and said almost prophetically:
I don’t know what’ it’s going to take to bring our people back together.”
Top Photo | President Barack Obama walks along the colonnade of the White House in Washington, Jan. 12, 2016, to the residence from the Oval Office, hours before giving his State Of The Union address. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”