The election of Rahm Emanuel as Chicago’s First Jewish mayor must be considered the final nail in the coffin of Black Power in Chicago. The long, slow demise of Black Power Chicago Style has been painful to witness. Amazingly, only 20 percent of Chicago’s 600,000 Black registered voters actually voted in this past February’s general election. Rahm Emanuel racked up close to 60 percent of those Blacks who bothered to vote at all. And the “Black consensus candidate”? Former Senator Carol Mosley Braun won only one of Chicago’s fifty wards. Surely Chicago’s First Black Mayor, Harold Washington, is spinning in his grave.
How did this happen? The most salient cause for the death of Black Power in Chicago rests with the First Black President himself, Barack Obama. Harold Washington’s 1983 election as Chicago’s First Black Mayor crowned Chicago as Black America’s political capital. Home to both Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, Black folks from around the country trekked to Chicago to study and replicate in their own cities the methods and means of Washington’s upset victory.
1983 marked the inauguration of not just a new and progressive Black mayor. Long dormant notions of “Black Power” as the political and economic embodiment of an over-arching philosophy of “Black Nationalism” were reinvigorated by a distinctly Chicago-esq infusion of energy and urgency. A renewed consciousness – a New Black Renaissance – rose phoenix-like amidst the ashes of Ronald Reagan’s all out assault against the cities and all things Black. Throughout Washington’s five-year reign, street gang violence in Chicago’s tougher Black neighborhoods dropped precipitously. A new optimism pervaded those selfsame neighborhoods. Senior citizens were afforded more honor and respect. Everyone, young people especially, held their heads higher as visions of limitless possibility became real and tangible. Not only a “can-do”, but a must-do spirit prevailed. People actually spoke to each other on the streets.
Basking in the afterglow of Washington’s triumph, Jesse Jackson was an unintended beneficiary of a large measure of Black Chicago’s new-found political capital. He promptly sought to exploit Washington’s success by launching his own now “serious” run for the presidency in 1984. But Washington’s unexpected death just three years later shocked Black Chicago into a state of political paralysis from which it has yet to recover. Thus, beginning in 1989, Black candidate after Black candidate, in election cycle after election cycle, attempted to pick up Washington’s fallen sword of state. Each, by default, assumed the role of Chicago’s Great Black Hope, the most prominent of whom included:
- a former Appellate Court Justice;
- a former State Attorney General;
- a sitting Congressman;
- a Baptist preacher, and most recently,
- America’s erstwhile First Black Female Senator.
None of these people managed to recapture Washington’s magic, and Richard M. Daley’s Black vote percentages grew with each passing election.
After Washington’s death, Chicago’s Black community split into assorted pieces and factions — from something called the “Harold Washington Party” to the “Regular” (read white) Democratic Party Organization, which included a significant number of Black aldermen who were beholden to Daley for their appointments to office. A separate set of Black aldermen loyal to Washington’s memory faced off against “Black nationalists” who themselves were at odds with “Black community activists.” The few “Black capitalists” who owned modest to large real estate holdings, insurance companies, ad agencies, neighborhood banks and currency exchanges, etc. were deeply indebted to the giant national and multinational banks and mortgage houses downtown. There was (and remains) only one daily Black newspaper (The Chicago Defender), amidst a plethora of neighborhood weeklies and newsletters. Black presence in electronic media was also negligible, with the exception of religious and various music programming and formats. The one Black radio talk station, WVON (“Voice of the Nation” nee “Voice of the Negro”) saturated the Black community with “black consciousness” programming and was actually instrumental in getting Washington elected. Black academics generally postured as “nonpartisan,” while the ever present Black preachers sat on Daley-dominated boards and commissions which oversaw the systematic dismantling of public education and public housing.
The masses of Chicago’s Black poor and working classes were unevenly dispersed among all these groups and slowly re-adapted to, and ultimately adopted, the new and improved Daley dominance. Adapting his late father’s tried and true pattern of divide and conquer to new conditions, Richard M. Daley patiently, methodically deepened these divisions. He used to full affect the vast power of political patronage, also developed by his father over his 21-year reign as mayor, and placed Black political sycophants in high profile positions while purging his Black political enemies. By the time mayoral election of 2011 rolled around, Black Chicago as a singular and potent political force was little more than a wistful memory.
See Part II