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Andrew Patner on Race and Politics In Chicago Before Harold Washington

The late Chicago journalist was a young staffer for this magazine when he captured the pulse of the city shortly before it elected its first black mayor.

Harold Washington and Jane Byrne square off at a mayoral debate in January 1983.   Photo: Anne Cusack/Chicago Tribune

When I heard that Andrew Patner, the longtime Chicago journalist, passed away last weekend, I immediately passed along the news. I figured a lot of people I know would care, as the breadth and ubiquity of his work touched a lot of Chicagoans. The results were movingly broad—just in my own little network, I could see how his path crossed through my boss from my first job out of college to a New York Times editorial board member to one of the guys in my fantasy baseball league.

It was a testament to Andrew’s many years in an impressive range of disciplines, which included a stint at Chicago. In the early 1980s, when Patner was a tremendously young staff writer, the city was asking itself: “Is Chicago ready for a black mayor?” The son of a crusading public-interest lawyer, Marshall Patner, Andrew found himself reporting on something of a local civil-rights revolution—reporting for which he would win a Lisagor award.

At the suggestion of Timothy Stewart-Winter—author of the forthcoming Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics—we’ve pulled one of his old Chicago magazine pieces from the archive: ”A Time to Listen: Black and Hispanic Voices Speak Out,” from February 1983. It’s both a short history of the rise of black politicians and voters as an independent political force in the city, and a oral history of residents, pols (including the legendary John Stroger), and activists.

For me, a couple things stood out. One is the importance of the shooting of Fred Hampton in 1969 to the rise of the independent black vote. Edward Hanrahan, the state’s attorney whose officers shot Hampton, lost to a coalition of Republicans and black Democrats when he ran for re-election. Patner writes:

At first their rebellion was a kind of guerrilla warfare that grew out of the civil rights movement. In the sixties and early seventies, independents A. A. “Sammy” Rayner, William Cousins, and Anna Langford were elected to the City Council from the South Side. During the seventies, black indignation spread beyond the ward level in response to the brutality and insensitivity of City Hall. The defeat of Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan by Republican Bernard Carey in 1972 after the raid on the Black Panthers, the re-election of Ralph Metcalfe to Congress in 1976 after he broke with Daley over police brutality, and Jane Byrne’s victory over Michael Bilandic in 1979—all were achieved because of the massive support of a black community aroused by word of mouth, not organized campaigns.

The other, odd as it may seem, is the importance of the post office. Take Lavon Tarr, a real-estate developer from Pill Hill in South Shore, talking about the importance of black professionals:

And the post office workers, the people on the railroad. The Pullman porter, he wasn’t educated, but he was exposed. He’d come back and share it with his community, his church, his home.

And Nate Clay, news editor of Chicago Metro News:

I came back to Chicago in 1964 and worked at the post office for five years. In the black community, a job at the post office was considered a great sign of success, like being a Pullman porter and working on the railroad. They were steady jobs, and people who came through the Depression remembered that people who had these jobs were the only ones eating. There were a lot of college-educated blacks there, a great reservoir of black talent there. I had not been around those kind of people before.

And Richard Barnett, an activist and postal worker:

I worked at a grocery store from when I was seven until I was 22 and went into the post office, in 1953. I’ve been there ever since. The Federal Government was practically the only place that provided jobs for blacks, especially those who were upwardly mobile. There were a lot of college-educated blacks in the post office, the Veterans Administration, Social Security. You could get a decent salary, though below private industry, and also the security of not being the last hired and the first fired.

Antidiscrimination orders didn’t even come into the post office until the sixties. I remember that Bob Lucas and some of us from CORE [the Congress on Racial Equality] picketed for black supervision because we were 80 percent of the work force of 20,000 in the main post office, and less than one percent were in supervisory positions. Lucas was fired for that.

It’s just a small thing in the piece, but it grabbed my attention, because it’s something I’ve written about before, the importance of the postal service as a building block of the black middle class. That’s part of the value of oral history, one of Patner’s many talents—furthering these echoes of the past into the future, as Patner’s work will continue to do.

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