In Chicago, We’ve Fought to Stand Together
Washington Post, August 24, 2008
On Saturday, Aug. 6, 1966, Chicago’s southwest side was quieter than even the small Kansas town where I grew up. The five-room bungalows — the city’s signature residences — were empty behind their lacy curtains. Even the children had disappeared. People were either hiding or taking part in a major riot a half-mile to the west.
I’d only been in the city for 10 weeks, but I already knew these streets well. What I was slower to learn, at age 19, as my fellow volunteers and I toured the neighborhood, was the insidious way that racial tension wraps itself around politics, swimming pools and even summer camps in Chicago, my adopted city.
George, Barbara and I were working for the Presbyterian Church of Chicago. We were running a day camp for kids in a mostly Catholic, Polish-Lithuanian part of the city. Our summer of fun was a sugar-coating over a hard lesson: the need for racial tolerance. We were trying to counter the pervasive messages of hatred the kids received at home and even from the local Catholic church’s youth group.
By then, Chicago had been dubbed the most segregated city in America. Until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, African Americans hadn’t been able to shop in many downtown stores. Students in Chicago’s black communities had been sent to school in trailers because the city wouldn’t put up new schools or fix up old ones. Still denied access to most Lake Michigan beaches, black children didn’t have swimming pools in their badly kept neighborhood parks, either.
Barack Obama had turned 5 just two days earlier, on Aug. 4, 1966. Of course, none of us had ever heard of him then, but if anyone had said on that hot summer day that a black child would grow up to be a major party nominee for president in 2008, we would have been incredulous. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream seemed remote, unattainable in the face of the fury and hate spilling onto the city’s streets. Perhaps only King, who was working in Chicago that year, had a faith big enough to believe that today, this day of a presidential candidate who is African American, would come.
It’s a strange thing for me to think about — that my adopted city, where white women wheeled baby carriages up to houses owned by black people and pulled out bricks to throw through the windows — could nurture Barack Obama’s political life. I marched with King from Soldier Field to City Hall that summer. I tried to share his vision with white children on Chicago’s South Side, and this week, 45 years to the day since he spoke to the nation on the Mall, his dream is coming true.
King had arrived in Chicago in January 1966, moving into a tenement in the black neighborhood adjacent to the white one where I would work that summer. At the time, the city had rigid and open real estate codes that confined blacks to a narrow strip of housing on the South Side. Banks would not lend money to black buyers, and white real estate brokers would open up a new block of housing to black renters or buyers only when density in the preceding block had reached an average of four people to a room. King was joining local civil rights leaders in a series of marches on real estate companies, demanding an end to this pernicious policy.
Shortly before the Aug. 6 march, every priest in Chicago had had to read a letter from Archbishop John Cody, proclaiming that open housing and racial tolerance were part of Christ’s commandment to love one another. And yet on the day of the march, many from the parish of 2,000 in my neighborhood joined a furious mob that rioted for eight hours, torching cars, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, striking out with motorcycle chains, beating up nuns and priests who were marching with King. Meanwhile, the police and fire departments — mostly white forces full of men who had grown up on the South Side and who knew many in the mob by name — would absorb physical and verbal abuse for protecting the civil rights leader. “I have never in my life seen such hate,” King said at the end of the day, “not in Mississippi, or Alabama. This is a terrible thing.”
Chicago became my permanent home the following year, but my real political baptism came in 1971, on a cold November election day. The city’s elections were notoriously corrupt, and I agreed to be a poll watcher in my South Side precinct. I watched the Democratic precinct captain repeatedly enter the booth with voters while the two election judges (one Republican, one Democrat) and a cop stood idly by. When I protested to the judges, the cop frog-marched me to the alley behind the polling place, slammed me against the wall and said, “Girlie, we’ve been running elections here since before you were born. You go home.”
I went home.
In 1893, visiting the Chicago World’s Fair, English journalist William Snead said that Chicago “elections are bought with money, with whiskey, with free lunches.” A century later, he might have written, “with money, jobs and clout.” A powerful Democratic organization in Chicago and Cook County, and an equally powerful Republican organization in suburban DuPage County, seem able to use public jobs and such public works as garbage hauling, airport concessions and construction to reward supporters. In Illinois, we call it “Pay to Play.”
Unlike many other states, Illinois doesn’t limit the amount that people can donate to local politicians, which is in itself an invitation to corruption. “When you don’t have contribution limits, it’s like you don’t have a red light at that intersection,” says Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “It makes it a lot easier for things to come together that people may say are wrong, but that are not necessarily illegal.” But Chicago has a twin history of corruption and reform. The first always stays ahead of the second, but the reformers never give up hope.
The racial segregation that brought King to Chicago in 1966 persists, although some of the most egregious abuses have been abated. Our beautiful beaches are open to all. Education and public transit remain thorny problems, as does housing, but some middle-class neighborhoods are actively integrated. The president of the Cook County board of commissioners and the president of the Illinois Senate are both African Americans with considerable power and patronage at their disposal.
The idealism that brought me to Chicago in 1966 has been replaced by too much understanding of the world of the real, but off and on since 1971, I’ve considered running for public office. In Illinois, however, to be a player in Democratic politics, you really need the support of at least one key power broker. These days, those brokers include Chicago’s mayor, the president of the Cook County board, the speaker of the Illinois House and the president of the Illinois Senate. Each time I’ve thought about running, I’ve decided that for me, the bar is too high: The quid pro quo that’s required, in any city, any state, would be hard for someone with my uncompromising disposition — and my propensity to shoot from the hip. In time, I turned my quest for justice over to my fictional detective, V I Warshawski. Her integrity is a frequent obstacle as she navigates Chicago’s mean streets, but her toughness guarantees at least a small measure of justice for the people she helps.
Like me, Barack Obama arrived in Chicago with high ideals and a passion for social justice. Unlike me, he found that his road does lead through electoral politics. One of my novels, “Burn Marks,” shows how an idealistic person can be squeezed by the political process. In that book, my fictional president of the county board, Boots Meagher, gets involved in an arson-for-hire scheme that leads to murder and almost gets V I Warshawski killed when she investigates. At the end of the novel, after V I gets too close a look at the lengths to which some people will go to keep the right friends friendly, she gets a key reminder from an old pal: “This is Chicago, sweetheart, not Minneapolis.”
That book presents a snapshot of the most sordid aspect of Chicago and Cook County politics, but I believe that Obama has found a way of threading the needle between working with the established powers and maintaining a commitment to social justice. He ran for Congress in the 2000 primary against four-term incumbent Rep. Bobby Rush. He steered clear of the key players in the Illinois Democratic Party to run as clean a campaign as possible, and he lost resoundingly. Since then, he has built essential bridges without seeming to have lost his integrity.
In 2002, when Obama was still my state senator, I met him when I was serving as a member of the advisory board of an organization that serves the mentally ill homeless. He had come to advise us on how to change state policy on Medicaid reimbursement for advanced-practice nurses, something we had been struggling to do. He made no promises that he couldn’t keep; he made no offers of help in exchange for money, votes, jobs or any other commodity. But he told us what we had to do, whom we had to speak with to start the process. The senator has come of political age in one of the roughest states in the nation. He belongs to the generation after mine; he didn’t have his view of race and politics shaped by the riots of 1966. I think he knows how to do what neither V I Warshawski nor I can manage: stay honest and get the job done in the world of the real.