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Why Illinois Is the Mecca of Black Political Power

Underwood’s win in an overwhelmingly white district yet again shows Illinois’s openness to electing black politicians.

J.B. Pritzker, Barack Obama, Juliana Stratton, and Lauren Underwood, who won Illinois’s 14th District last night.   Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

Next year, half of Illinois’s statewide officials will be African American: Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton, Secretary of State Jesse White, and Attorney General Kwame Raoul.

In any other state, this would be remarkable. But not in Illinois. In fact, we’re America’s capital of black political empowerment.

Illinois has sent more African Americans to Congress — 18 — than any other state, and the count isn’t even close.

That number will increase to 19 when Lauren Underwood, who defeated Rep. Randy Hultgren in an exurban, conservative district, is sworn in next January.

We’ve also had three black senators, and, of course, we produced the first and only black president.

Illinois does not have the largest percentage of African Americans of any state. In fact, we’re 13th on that list, with 15 percent, a figure close to the national average.

So why have African Americans had so much political success here?

The answer has to do with two distinctly Chicago phenomena: machine politics, and segregation.

Chicago’s political machines have been built on ethnic alliances, a tradition that goes back even further than Mayor Anton Cermak’s “House for All Peoples” to William Hale Thompson, Chicago’s last Republican mayor, who served in the nineteen teens and twenties.

Unlike in the Southern states from which they had migrated, blacks could vote in the Land of Lincoln, and in that era, they belonged to the Party of Lincoln. Their votes were welcomed by Thompson, who saw them as a bloc to counter the Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants who allied with the Democrats.

The Southern migrants were confined by housing covenants to the Black Belt, a South Side neighborhood seven miles long and one-and-a-half miles wide. As a result, they made up a majority in two wards, making them a force to be reckoned with.

They were fanatically loyal to Thompson. In the 1919 mayoral election, the Black Belt gave Thompson 80 percent of its vote, as well as an admiring nickname: “The Little Lincoln.” Following the great tradition of Chicago patronage, Thompson rewarded their loyalty with jobs, so many that white Democrats derisively called City Hall “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

More importantly, blacks had their own alderman. Oscar DePriest, first elected to the city council in 1915, would become America’s most significant black politician between Reconstruction and World War II.

In 1928, the South Side’s white congressman, Martin P. Madden, died before the November election. The next morning, DePriest was in Mayor Thompson’s office, demanding the nomination.

DePriest won, and Illinois’s 1st Congressional District, which contained the Black Belt, has had a black congressperson ever since — the longest run in the nation.

The Voting Rights Act was decades away, but in Chicago, blacks were so concentrated on the South Side that whites couldn’t gerrymander them out of a seat.

One of DePriest’s successors in that seat, Harold Washington, was the second pivotal figure in the city’s black political history. Washington inspired Jesse Jackson to run for president in 1984 and Obama to move to Chicago in 1985.

Washington also strengthened the community organizations in which Obama was cutting his teeth. Obama’s Project Vote!, which put him on the local political map, was a successor to the South Side voter registration drive that made Washington’s election possible. The project also helped build the voter base that put Carol Moseley Braun in the Senate.

“Everybody owes something to Harold Washington, because that was something they never thought could happen,” former Chicago Defender editor Lou Ransom once told me. “If Harold can be mayor, what can’t we do?”

(We should also mention Roland Burris. Although he tainted his legacy by accepting a Senate appointment from Rod Blagojevich — and erecting a future mausoleum for himself in Oak Woods Cemetery marked with the words “TRAIL BLAZER” above a list of his achievements — Burris was Illinois’s first black statewide official, winning election as comptroller in 1978.)

Chicago’s tradition of grooming black political talent is magnified by the fact that it’s in Cook County, which contains half the state’s population. The local Democratic Party is a countywide organization in which suburban committeemen are expected to support the party’s slated candidates. The party’s endorsement certainly helped Kwame Raoul win suburban Cook County — and the state — over a field of mostly white candidates in the Democratic primary for attorney general.

The result is a state that has shown an unprecedented willingness to vote for black candidates.

In 2004, when Obama faced Alan Keyes in the nation’s first-ever Senate contest between two black candidates, columnist Amity Shlaes wrote that “Illinois has a record as host to such innovation” and was “yet again emerging as the venue for a shift on race.”

Underwood’s victory in an overwhelmingly white district again demonstrated Illinois’s openness to black politicians.

The only state that approaches Illinois in electing African Americans statewide is Massachusetts, which has had a black senator (Edward Brooke), and a black governor (Deval Patrick, who was born and raised in Chicago — so we can take partial credit).

On Tuesday, Massachusetts elected a black congresswoman, Ayanna Pressley. In Georgia and Florida, though, black candidates for governor were both defeated.

The rest of the country has a ways to go before it catches up with Illinois in this department. Governor is the one office no African American has won in this state. Burris tried three times, even leaving a blank spot on his tombstone to proclaim the achievement.

It will happen someday, though. This is Illinois.

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