June 25th, the Progressive Community Church, 56 East 48th Street. It is hot in here, and all of us are waving our complimentary Golden Gate Funeral Home fans, which feature bright photographs of mortician E. Edwards and his secretary, Vera. All of them fluttering together make it look as though a flock of butterflies had landed.
The Reverend B. Herbert Martin steps up to the pulpit and spreads his arms wide. Some 20 men stand below him in crimson ties and navy blazers: the B. Herbert Martin Male Chorus. “The epitome,” Martin says, “of masculinity!” The congregation rumbles in assent and the chorus launches a cappella into “Ride On, King Jesus.” It opens in thick harmony, then breaks into a contrapuntal, joyful clamoring of voices that soon has fingers snapping through the room. Even the oldest, most staid parishioner grips the pew in front of her and sways softly.
Martin is seated-leaving the limelight to the chorus-but it’s hard to take your eyes from him. He’s swaying, too, and smiling, his eyebrows lifted as if by melody. You don’t expect him to look so happy. After all, this is a man who has just severed his ties with the city government, and traded harsh words with the Mayor.
Martin resigned as head of the city Commission on Human Relations, complaining that the Mayor would not return his phone calls. He said, “If I could describe the anger and despair in the community, it is frightening.” He said, “We are sitting on a race relations time bomb and it is ticking towards midnight.”
But he looks so relaxed. Here, in the midst of all this song, with the sun piling through the church’s eastern windows, laying radiant light on its whitewashed walls and high, wooden ceiling, Martin looks like a sailor who has cast off his moorings and sent his vessel gliding to open sea. He looks released.
And he is only the first of many. One by one, throughout the summer, other black leaders cut themselves loose from the Daley administration, seceding from the city, as it were. This past spring, Alderman Danny Davis told me that he looked forward to throwing accolades to the new Mayor, but by midsummer Davis was railing angrily at “this administration’s secrecy,” and saying that Daley shut blacks out of key decisions. Daley turned to the task of naming a replacement for Martin on the human relations commission, and an excruciating month went by with no action. When it had been a question of finding a new head for the development office, Daley had flown city planner Joseph James in on a moment’s notice. He had whisked Daniel Weil from his tony law offices into the building department. But with human relations, the Mayor had a tougher time. By late July, press secretary Avis LaVelle was saying that Daley’s top choices “informed the Mayor that they had other commitments.” That’s not surprising. As one Democratic consultant put it, the job of speaking for the Mayor on racial issues “would put a black leader in the position where he has to say who he’s with, his boss or his community. And who in their right mind would want to deal with that?”
Finally, in August, Daley appointed Clarence Wood, a veteran foundations executive, to do a yearlong study of the human relations commission, and even Danny Davis gave a sigh of relief.
Racism is the urban issue of the decade. Yes, it matters how our parks are kept, whether we have a third airport, what we do with the lakefront, that we clear a space for factories. But racism is the overarching thing. “This is the most important issue in town, says Wood. “It is a part of every decision people make about this city-whether to take a job here, where to move the family, what school they choose.”
Daley is well equipped to deal with the other issues. But his public statements on the subject of racism have been clouded by denials and frustrated exclamations. He has blamed the whole question on “the foreign press.” He has treated inquiries about it like attacks on his personal integrity. He says with great pride and no little accuracy that he has begun to clean up some of the political pigsties that have plagued black Chicagoans for decades-such as the health department, the way minority purchasing contracts are let, the middle management glut in the public school system. He won more affordable-housing victories in his first six weeks than Harold Washington won in six years. But he has given the impression, as Alderman Larry Bloom puts it, that “he is doing things for, but not with, black Chicago.” He has been spotted at few of the important social events and identified himself with none of the churches, civic organizations, and enterprising individuals who are uplifting and upholding life on the South and West sides.
There may not be a time bomb here, but we have seen this curious pattern repeat itself again and again across the city: of black leaders cutting loose from the city administration, sometimes throwing stormy words behind them. Important issues get lost in the rhetoric of race. The most exasperating example was the flap that grew out of the long-standing animosity of school superintendent Manford Byrd, Jr., and school board member Bill Singer (which we’ll get to in a moment). Before it all blew over, Jesse Jackson was calling upon angry parents to form “a shadow school board of our own.” It was racial secessionism at its worst. The debate was over pure power. The only question that mattered was, who will run it, black or white?
At times like that, Chicago stops being one city and becomes something out of a bad science-fiction novel: two cities superimposed on each other, coexisting without contact, their citizens waking by the same clocks, working side by side, but maintaining separate governments-one black, one white. In a perverse twist on the reformers’ dream, we finally have a two-party system, but allegiance to one or the other isn’t a matter of choice.
You know it, but I’ll say it anyway. When you use any of the usual measurements—when you look at home ownership, income, spiritual inclination, taste in music, what have you—it’s obvious that Chicago has not one but a thousand African-American communities, a living weave of people and ideas that stretches to every border of the city. The universe called black politics is no less motley—no less filled with visionaries, sly talkers, coat carriers, bagmen, and exemplary souls—than the universe of politics as a whole. Talking about it, like talking about the white community, is an exercise in absurdity.
But the voting booth wipes these distinctions away. Polls taken last year indicate that more than 80 percent of all Chicagoans, given a choice, vote for the candidate with the matching exterior. In the last mayoral election, fewer than one in ten of us crossed racial lines. When you’re talking votes, you have to talk about the black and the white, the city’s twin electoral majorities, marooned together like two quarrelsome men on a park bench.
Those who make it their business to gauge the black electoral mass say it is feeling rather prickly these days-still stunned by Harold Washington’s death, resentful of the way white ethnic aldermen threw Gene Sawyer into the mayor’s office and divided the black vote. Resentful especially of their success.
So it’s no surprise if the city’s blacks read political events with entirely different eyes than whites.
Take an obvious example: Ask a black alderman to tell you what kind of feedback he or she has been receiving about Daley’s administration. Chances are good that you’ll get approximately the same response I got from Alderman Robert Shaw: “Complaints about unwarranted stops and verbal mistreatment by the police are on the increase,” Shaw said. “Certain white police officers seem to feel that they have this city back. They are totally disregarding the rights of blacks.”
The available statistics don’t necessarily support what Shaw has been hearing. Some 461 citizens filed excessive force complaints with the police Office of Professional Standards this June and July. That’s up from 387 in June and July 1988 (a year in which violent crime statistics generally dropped), but just a jostle above the 437 of June and July 1987. There were 30 shootings by police officers in the first six months of 1989; if the trend holds all year, it will work out to a 16 percent drop from the 1988 total of 71.
Maybe Shaw, Dorothy Tillman, and other aldermen who complain about police misconduct are making things up. Maybe they are newly sensitive to the ordinary abrasions of interchanges between citizens and police. Maybe there has simply been “an escalation of verbal abuse by police officers,” as Davis says. That’s a thing too subtle for OPS statistics to measure.
There’s another possibility: Maybe what matters is not the statistics, but simply the fact that Daley says one thing and black Chicagoans say another.
Take another example: Black aldermen routinely complain about something that white citizens rarely hear about: the waves of firings that went unabated and unreported through the third month of Daley’s administration. “The latest wave was last week,” said Alderman Tim Evans in June. “I understand that it was about 75 people, and a disproportionate number were black.”
Evans was basing those numbers on alarmed phone calls to his ward office. The city’s personnel department, by contrast, provides statistics showing improved racial balance in City Hall: Between November 1987, Washington’s last full month as mayor, and this August, when Daley had filled more than 600 positions, the city work 33.8 to 35 percent black and from 5.8 to 6.9 percent Hispanic, while whites dwindled from 58.5 to 55.2 percent of the total. Eleven of Daley’s first 22 top cabinet appointments were nonwhites. He had at this writing named 37 department heads and commissioners. As with all Shakman-exempt positions, whites did a little better here: Of the appointees, 21 were white, nine black, six Hispanic, and one Asian.
Except in the highest-ranking positions, Daley was apparently adding more than one black for every one who was fired or resigned, but somehow the numbers made no difference. Alderman Bobby Rush calls Daley’s black appointees “window-dressing.” Political consultant Jacky Grimshaw calls them “politically safe technocrats” who cannot command any following in the black community. Former school superintendent Byrd, a holdover from Washington’s administration, says, “There’s some truth to that. Those of us who have any kind of base or protection in the community have found ourselves embattled.”
The battle over Byrd, who was replaced this past August by veteran school administrator Charles Almo, is a most instructive lesson in how, when race walks in the door, even the strongest leaders can come unglued.
If you could get them to sit still for a moment, Chicago’s public school children would be 60 percent black, 25 percent Hispanic, and 12 percent white, so standard political etiquette dictates that you put four blacks on the seven-member school board. Daley appointed only three, and one of those, Janis Sharpe, launched her career as a secretary to former Democratic ward boss Ed Quigley. “That is the kind of tokenism folks can see through,” Grimshaw says. As president of the board, Daley backed James Compton, who is African-American. To serve, however, Compton had to leave the library board, where he’d been president—“another signal that only a handful of blacks will be given responsibility in this administration,” according to activist and columnist Lu Palmer. Davis called Compton the designated “flak catcher for the black community.”
Things might have gone swimmingly, had Compton visibly taken the lead in explaining school board policy to the press. But the media focused on board member Bill Singer, who is white. And Singer championed an issue that Compton would not touch publicly: the firing of Manford Byrd.
It was no surprise to find Singer and Byrd at odds; they’d been on a collision course for more than a decade. As a mayoral candidate in 1975, Singer had slammed the school administration for its bloated bureaucracy and stale ideas. Byrd was in charge of day-today school operations at the time. Attacking Byrd wasn’t seen as a racial issue that year: Singer had previously won black support when he joined with Jesse Jackson to unseat Richard J. Daley’s delegates at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, and in 1975, many blacks backed him for mayor rather than waste their votes on black candidate Richard Newhouse, Jr.
In the years since, as he rose through the ranks of the Chicago public schools, Byrd consolidated his black support. Singer’s image among blacks, meanwhile, plummeted. He endorsed jane Byrne for mayor over Harold Washington in 1983. He hitched up with Ed Vrdolyak, the champion of entrenched white ethnics. Columnist Vernon Jarrett singled him out for his “betrayal” of blacks.
Granted that Singer and Byrd have a history of conflict, the catfight that broke out between them this summer was especially disturbing. Singer was quoted as accusing Leon Finney, Jr., a black former member of the school board (and a former business associate of Singer’s), of “pimping” for Byrd. Finney said Singer would “eat those words,” and added that if Singer “wants a fight with the black community, he’s got it.” By the time Jesse Jackson and Mike Royko got involved (“You lost,” Royko told Jackson in his column. “There’s no getting around it"), the dispute had been drained of whatever nonracial issues it might ever have contained.
Singer insisted that he had been misquoted-he had nothing nice to say about Finney and Byrd, did not use the “P” word. Finney made a telling comment. “We may never know what was really said,” he said. “What matters is what was heard. I cannot overstress this: Fairness is in the eyes of the beholder. The intent to be fair is one thing, but to be perceived as being fair is another. The Mayor must make sure that the perception is one of fairness.”
When things get to that point, when perception matters as much as fact, what is heard as much as what is said, when fights explode every time some poor schmuck drops his hat, what can even the best-intentioned mayor do?
Daley campaign strategist David Axelrod: “Obviously, there needs to be a lessening of voices. I think Singer made a mistake by engaging in a shouting match or whatever it was over there. I don’t think that was helpful.”
Aside from that, the Mayor can only press ahead: “Whatever the short-term fallout, ultimately the Mayor is going to be judged by whether he did anything for the schoolchildren in Chicago, and I think that requires toughing it out,” Axelrod says. “The sponsors of the people who were hired there are going to be upset when the bureaucracy is cut down. Some of them unfortunately are going to cry race. But that’s the price, I think, of school reform.”
He says, “This is a sensitive situation. Things that shouldn’t be read negatively sometimes are, and molehills quickly become mountains. Daley is sensitive to the fact that perpetual mistrust and misunderstanding are a prescription for disaster. When they’re at their worst-and we’ve lived through these periods-the city stalls. Daley and the people around him are very sensitive to that.
“The problem I have, and that he has, is that there are politicians in the black community—just as there are in the white community, and I name Ed Vrdolyak chief among those—who have fomented suspicion and division because it rallies their constituencies. If there was a sense of cooperation and progress, and they ratified that, there would be no real campaign in 1991.”
Having grown up in the broad, lumpy shadow of the regular Democratic Organization, black voters tend to make one main distinction—between candidates who have been assimilated into the organization and those who have stood up to it. Given a choice between the two, in elections since 1983, the tide has been with the latter. In last year’s ward committeeman elections, for instance, insurgents Jesse Miller, Dane Tucker, Alice Palmer, and Rickey Hendon trounced Sawyer supporters Bill Henry, Marlene Carter, William Beavers, and Sheneather Butler, respectively. This year, newcomer John Steele edged out regular Ron Robinson for the Sixth Ward’s aldermanic seat. An angry Tim Evans and a conciliatory Gene Sawyer each got one shot at Richie Daley. Evans outperformed Sawyer by some 45,000 votes-nearly an eighth of Sawyer’s total.
The distinction is important, but not as important as the distinction between black and white. Daley outdrew Evans by 149,000 votes.
Whites are still the voting majority. Take the most fine-grained picture of Chicago’s racial voting patterns, a 1987 Chicago Urban League study that took 1980 census data and made precinct-by-precinct adjustments for aging, death, and migration. The league’s report shows that the city’s raw black and white populations are about even, but its eligible voters are currently 52 percent white, 42 percent black, and six percent Hispanic. Chicago lost some 239,000 eligible white voters between 1980 and 1987, while gaining 56,000 blacks. If you assume, conservatively, that the number of white eligible voters is dropping about 10,000 a year, while eligible blacks are growing 2,800 a year, white voters will have a 40,000-voter edge in 1991, and an 8,000voter disadvantage in 1995.
That’s eligible voters. But the percentage of eligible blacks who register to vote has dropped on the whole since raw number still hasn’t topped the 667,000 who registered for Harold Washington’s first victory—and no one sees a reversal coming. Lu Palmer says his political organization, Chicago Black United Communities, is having trouble getting volunteer deputy registrars for the upcoming elections. “Wait until the county elections. There’s a damn near total lack of spirit.”
Although their population is dwindling, whites are becoming increasingly vigorous about registration, and surged to a cent registration rate for the 1987 mayoral election. What that means is that in a 1995 rematch between Evans and Daley, Daley could maintain up to a 70,000 vote advantage.
Daley has consolidated his position by drawing to himself the disparate friends of black political empowerment: Hispanics, Asians, Jews, gays, lesbians, intellectuals, and progressives of all stripes. Some thought he did this in a calculating way. When Daley gave a generous number of cabinet appoìntments to Spanish-speaking people, he created, according to Cook County recorder of deeds Carol Moseley Braun, “the perception that we are entering a new era of war between the minorities—between a favored minority and a not-so-favored minority. People are concerned about that.”
When Daley won fully half of the whites who had voted for Harold Washington, some chalked it up to shifting demographics on the lakefront: Idealistic young renters are being squeezed out by stodgy homeowners. Some pointed to Evans’s failure to grab the campaign’s moral high ground: Race-sensitive whites fled Evans in droves when his aide Dorothy Tillman called Mayor Sawyer “a shuffling Uncle Tom.” Some observers said Daley rode a wave of white pride—a wave that was showing up for the first time in the white progressive community. Alderman Bobby Rush: “I was astounded at some of the individuals and some of the communities that went hog wild for this guy [Daley] and swallowed his sanitized image in one gulp. But I shouldn’t have been. Because of Harold, a lot of people took a lot of things for granted. The cancer of racism as it related to the white progressives was not addressed in those six years. But it still was there, and we should not have been surprised.”
Some said it was a blend of all those things. Alderman David Orr, the highest-ranking white pol to endorse Evans, says the Evans campaign had problems with organization, fund-raising, and image. Orr says, “A lot of people wrestled with the issues and concluded that Daley would do more for the reform movement.”
Because Evans’s new Harold Washington Party won 428,000 votes in the last election, many people expected him to push for a delegate on the city election board, hammer out a platform, slate candidates, and expand into the state legislature. His influence could be considerable on the county level, where Democrats routinely squeak by the Republicans solely because of black votes.
But Evans has been lying low. If you seek him out, he will give you an up-to-date, meticulous list of Daley’s failures—he has made it his business to keep track. But he feels that noisy opposition would only make Daley look good. Strategist Jim Andrews: “That was the mistake Eddie Vrdolyak and the Machine made with Harold Washington—they made him. Had they left him to his own devices, he wouldn’t have been so lionized. I don’t think people wanted to give Daley that kind of straw man.”
After the results of the upcoming census are presented to the President, in January 1991, the state General Assembly and the City Council will draw up new ward and legislative maps. “The drawing of the maps is going to be the political issue that’s going to dominate this city over the next five years,” says Rush. “It’s going to be a ferocious and intense battle.”
The remap is the ultimate in political deal making. While it goes on, it makes City Hall look like the yen pit at the Mercantile Exchange-and the Merc like a pack of kids swapping baseball cards.
Bruce Crosby, an aide to Alderman Carter, the named litigant in one of the last decade’s crucial remap lawsuits, says that several city wards now represented by white incumbents could be redrawn so that they had black majorities. He names the Tenth, a working-stiff blend of Hispanics, blacks, and Slavs; the 14th, with its racially shifting packinghouse district; the 18th, currently divided neatly between black and white; the First, though Near West Side gentrification has given it more whites; and Daley’s own 11th Ward, which has a number of black precincts around Comiskey Park, and could be redrawn to include the Robert Taylor Homes. Maurice Sone of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund says that at least four Hispanic wards could be added in the next remap, including the 7th, 11th, and 14th on the South Side, and either the 32nd or the 33rd on the North. So there could quite possibly be a new nonwhite majority in the next City Council.
But there’s a lot more to a remap than numbers. In the last go-round, Jane Byrne tried to extend the 43rd Ward in a thin strip that ran along the lakefront for a mile, then across Chestnut Street to her building—so that she could run for the chairmanship of the county Democratic party without having to run against George Dunne for committeeman of the 42nd Ward. When black aldermen sat down together to draw an alternative map, many seemed primarily concerned that their wards include their mothers. One black alderman kept the remappers up for five extra hours on the night before the issue went to trial, because he realized that a branch of the Moo & Oink meat house, which had nine jobs, had been left out of his ward.
Blacks had a chance to affect the map because Jane Byrne and her allies went too far. Their map blatantly fractured and packed black communities to preserve white incumbencies, and it was ruled illegal by the court. Maybe Daley won’t go as far. Maybe he’ll take the process out of the smoke-fîlled room and hold public hearings. Maybe he’ll let one ward go black and one Hispanic, keeping his majority but taking the steam out of the inevitable court challenges.
Or maybe, as in the school imbroglio, he will let things get a little out of hand. The new ward map will be ratified by the City Council’s rules committee, and minority aldermen say the chairman of that commit tee, Alderman Richard Mell, has been smiling darkly at them of late. Dorothy Tillman: “Mell said to me, ‘I have great things in store for you, Dorothy. I’m going to map your house outside of your ward.’”
Other aldermen say Mell has talked of remapping Evans and Alderman Larry Bloom, two of Daley’s most articulate rivals, into the same Hyde Park plan that could snuff Evans, or raise up half of the city against the Mayor. Mell and intergovernmental affairs chief Tim Degnan did not return phone calls on the subject.
Carol Moseley Braun wants to set the record straight. “I am not a candidate for mayor,” she says. “I think it’s stunning that I have had to say that over and over for the past six months. I am not a candidate.” Neither is Tim Wright, former commissioner of the city Department of Economic Development, now in private practice with Sachnoff Weaver & Rubenstein. Nor Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner Joe Gardner, a Jesse Jackson associate who has proved utterly adept at working with the Regular Democrats. Nor Mel Reynolds, who could bring Peace Corps and public policy experience to the Second Congressional District, where he is again challenging Gus Savage. Nor Chicago Housing Authority chief Vince Lane, who has virtually no campaign experience, only the heartfelt gratitude of all Chicagoans. Nor Jesse Madison, chief of the park district, who long ago charted the course for West Side independents. Nor Danny Davis or Tim Evans. Nor any of the current crop of young black state legislators who walk, talk, and play politics like mayoral material: House Black Caucus leader Anthony Young, and state representatives Robert LeFlore, Jr., Monique Davis, Paul Williams, and Art Turner. Nor the host of young attorneys, bankers, and business people who have been involved in campaigns and worked with government but have not yet run for elected office—you can’t begin to name all those people.
“There is a cadre of blacks in investment banking houses and law firms who could be picked, and you have no idea who they are,” says Andrews. Try to spot the candidate among them, he says, and “you’l1 sound like a guy who has a couple of foals and wants to call the Kentucky Derby. That’s amateur night in Kokomo.”
Picking a winner is a job black Chicago has traditionally reserved for itself. Harold Washington was persuaded to run in 1982-against his will, initially-by a group of black activists and business people who met for months in South Shore living rooms and basements. Evans was anointed Washington’s successor by some 428,000 voters who seized upon him in a process that was instantaneous and wholly unrevealed to white Chicagoans.
Chances are the process this time will be more like 1982. Evans was chosen by acclamation, but couldn’t get his campaign machinery running because too much of the money and organizational clout stayed with Sawyer. For now, the fact that there is no official spokesman for black Chicago works out to a strategic advantage: There’s no one for Daley to cut deals with, out-negotiate, or simply discredit. There’s a sense of fruitful leaderlessness, of many people working separately to lay a political foundation for the next decade.
But a list of potential challengers is being quietly compiled by contributors, organizers, and voters. One campaign strategist who helped put together the fundraising machinery of Harold Washington and Gene Sawyer called a 1991 challenge to Daley
“entirely doable.” He said, “All of us are still right here, waiting for the call.”
As for who that challenger might be, he said, this is a people who have learned by long habit to keep their short list hidden. “This is not a propitious time, and a city magazine is not a propitious place, to start naming names.”
Martin’s sermon today is about how to build family, and sticking to “God’s agenda” when the burdens of this world are overwhelming. He takes just a minute from the nearly three-hour service, “since some of you have been asking how things stand with me,” to say he has indeed noticed what people have been saying about him. He’s read the column in which Mike Royko called him “about as qualified to work in the field of human relations as I am to dance in the Joffrey Ballet.” He has read Kup’s explanation that he resigned from the Commission on Human Relations because he knew Daley wasn’t going to reappoint him-prescient, since he and Daley weren’t talking. He has seen the Sun-Times editorial cartoon depicting him with a lighted fuse snaking from his skull. He knows that they are calling him the time bomb, the inflammatory element.
He clipped those columns out, he says, and laid them on the altar. “And then Herbert Martin moved on, on to do God’s work.”
He breaks into a grin. “I came up in Mississippi,” he says, “so I know what it means when white folks call you a crazy—” And here he drops his finger like a bouncing ball on the two-syllable word that he will not pronounce.
“When white folks call you that, it generally means you are thinking for yourself and standing up for what you think.”
He calls for a prayer, “for Mayor Daley and all the people around him, his advisers,” and a chorus of amens comes up from the congregation.
God bless the Mayor, they’re saying. But from where I sit, it sounds as much like, God help him.