September 19, 2010
Will Chicago once again become the city of tribes, racial and otherwise?
There's plenty of talk about it in the aftermath of the announcement that Mayor Richard Daley will abdicate the throne.
The concern is that the city will once again break along racial lines. But the color that really matters isn't black, white or brown. It's red, the color of all that red ink in the city's books.
To help address the question of tribes, many of us have been looking back, to the pre-Daley years and the Council Wars period of the 1980s.
It was the time of Mayor Harold Washington, a colorful and ruthless black political boss, squaring off with Fast Eddie Vrdolyak, a colorful and ruthless white political boss.
The tribes formed, and each side played what we call racial politics that actually ended — though it's not popular in the sentimental histories — when Ald. Fred Roti, considered the political representative of the Chicago Outfit, voted with Washington instead of Vrdolyak on an issue.
There was some confusion in the council that day. But the aldermen figured it out soon enough. Council Wars was dead.
Yet Daley is fairly credited with ending the fractiousness, although what's left unsaid during this time of sentimental revisionism is that his own 11th Ward alderman was with the white guys, and that when he came to power, the mayor ended the infighting largely by dipping into the City Hall treasure vaults in what is euphemistically described as "neighborhood outreach."
But now the money is gone. And the competition for limited resources threatens again to break along racial and tribal lines.
Perhaps it's not what we remember in the sentimentalized history that can be most instructive.
Perhaps it's what we forget, willingly, because to remember is painful and ugly.
I was there, a young reporter covering politics. I was skinny then, and my hair was dark, but I remember it, and I'm sure others remember it, too.
It wasn't Council Wars that primed the political pump for Daley's extensive, powerful and mostly successful reign.
It was what happened after Washington died in November of 1987, when black political Chicago tore itself apart in a debilitating civil war.
And I don't hear or read enough mentions of it these days, as some of us try to apply context to the politics.
What do I remember of that time? I remember being at City Hall one night well past midnight. Downstairs, the aldermen were shrieking, selecting Ald. Eugene Sawyer, 6th, to replace Washington.
They were all shrieking. One of them, Ald. Richard Mell, 33rd, was standing on his desk in that famous photograph, flapping his elbows, yelling that the old guard had their new mayor.
Another colleague was covering for me in the council chambers as I was upstairs, in an office near Washington's own, with his political director and campaign manager, Jacky Grimshaw, watching it on TV. We were smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. Her staff was busy shredding documents, which happens every time power shifts at City Hall.
"There's going to be a call here soon telling me about the job I don't have anymore," Grimshaw said, smirking, a tough lady stabbing out her smoke.
"But so what?" she said. "The whole thing's over anyway. It's finished. I know what they're going to say. They don't understand what this city is about. Sawyer and the rest think they're living in the past."
Grimshaw knew what it was about. She'd helped bring it about. And she knew what was coming. Daley was coming.
What happened after Washington's death is that two African-American camps were formed almost immediately and ripped each other's heads off.
Sawyer, who had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in his college days, was quickly portrayed by his rival, Ald. Tim Evans, 4th, as an Uncle Tom, a tool of the white guys. Evans, who'd spent his youth marching with his Chicago machine boss, was cast as the hero of the independents and progressives.
Evans' slogan at the time was "No Deals." And at a Washington memorial rally — actually a pro-Evans campaign rally attended by thousands at the University of Illinois at Chicago — in that emotionally charged vacuum after Washington's death, black politics was broken.
Vernon Jarrett, a friend of Washington's and a columnist at the Sun-Times, stood before the crowd and portrayed Sawyer in the most vicious terms, as a puppet of white racists, as one of the African militiamen who killed black children.
Jarrett told the crowd that African-American aldermen who supported Sawyer were like the Ku Klux Klan.
"Treat those black enemies like you treat the Ku Klux Klan," Jarrett said.
It got worse. A few days later, Sawyer was installed as mayor by white politicians. To counter the portrayal as an Uncle Tom, he brought into government supporters of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and that sparked charges of black anti-Semitism.
It was over. And it broke the heart of Lu Palmer, one of the true initiators of the Washington movement. I considered Lu a friend, and he was never the same afterward.
"We had a black mayor," he said of Sawyer. "And now, we've got Daley."
Tim Evans of the "No Deal" slogan prospered. He's now chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court. Sawyer died broke.
And you know what happened to Daley. He healed things.
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