At the ABC7 debate Thursday, the candidates for mayor were asked whom they would name to their “kitchen” cabinets—their unofficial group of advisers.
Not surprisingly, Gery Chico named two men whose endorsements are crucial: Congressman Luis Gutierrez and the Reverend B. Herbert Martin, Sr., longtime pastor of the Progressive Community Church in Bronzeville. Martin, 68, is best known for being Harold Washington’s close friend and pastor—and for standing with Steve Cokely in 1988 after Cokely, then 37, made inflammatory recorded lectures at Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam headquarters. Soon after, Cokely moved to City Hall to work as neighborhood liaison for Harold Washington’s successor, acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer.
In the taped lectures, Cokely accused doctors, “especially Jewish ones,” of deliberately injecting blacks with HIV. He charged that Jews were busy assembling a world government that would oppress blacks, and he denounced Christopher Columbus as “a Hispanic Jew boy.” Cokely didn’t much like Christians either, opining that the crucifix is a “symbol of white supremacy.”
As calls on Sawyer to fire Cokely intensified, Martin stepped up to defend the aide. In an interview with the Tribune’s Bruce Dold, Martin said, “There is a growing opinion among younger blacks, grass-roots black people, that Jews are running things, that Jews are unfair, unloving….” When Dold asked Martin if he believed Cokeley’s remarks to be true, Martin responded, “There is a perception. As to whether it`s true or not is something that has to be tested out.” He added, “Sometimes the truth is rather inflammatory. I’m saying, there is a ring of truth to it.” Martin also told Dold that “inflammatory statements like those should not be tolerated at all,” and called on blacks and Jews to start a dialogue.
After five days of indecision, Sawyer fired Cokely.
Martin said back then that he had been misinterpreted—he meant to say that some blacks, not him, agreed with Cokely and it was important that whites realize this. And indeed, Martin has been a bridge builder: in 1998, he reached out to the families of the three white boys charged with severely beating an African-American boy who rode his bicycle into an area bordering Bridgeport. He courted local Jewish leaders and worked to bring together the black families of Bronzeville with the white families of Bridgeport. In 2005, he even co-presided over a “freedom seder” between 500 African-Americans and Jews.
It didn’t surprise me that Chico, who needs African-American votes on Tuesday to produce an April 5th runoff with Rahm Emanuel, would embrace Martin. Chico seems to genuinely respect the pastor, and I found Martin—who served as Washington’s (and then Sawyer’s) chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority—to be a warm and intelligent man when I interviewed him shortly before he gave his endorsement to Chico.
Still, in the wake of Chico supporter and labor leader Jim Sweeney denouncing Rahm Emanuel as “nothing but a Wall Street Judas [with] a bag of silver when he went and passed NAFTA,” one would think that Chico could have found a less controversial big name to drop. (The Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman was the only reporter I’ve found who, during the course of this campaign, mentioned the Cokely-Martin tie.)
Chico’s press secretary replied to my request for a response with the following statement: "Gery would never condone those remarks and the Rev. Martin himself apologized for those remarks decades ago. Since then, Rev. Martin has built a diverse coalition of leaders of all faiths in the interfaith community. The interfaith community can be a strong help to the next mayor in addressing issues like poverty and public safety. As a mayor who will bring people together, Gery hopes to work with faith leaders like Rev. Martin to make Chicago a safer, better place to live."
Rev. Martin did not respond to a message left on his cell phone. Attempts to reach Cokely were not answered by post time.