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Jackson Rushes in to Leave Chicago Divided

December 06, 1987|Ben Joravsky | Ben Joravsky is the author of "Race and Politics in Chicago."

CHICAGO — It was like old times in Chicago last week. The city faced a major crisis and to the rescue rushed the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, self-styled "peacemaker."

The crisis was the sudden death of Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor. Even before Washington's death was officially announced, the fragile coalition he had maintained for five years was falling apart. Jackson's mission was to keep together this coalition of black reformers and black party regulars; they had learned to quiet their differences over issues like patronage because of Washington's rock-solid support among their constituents.

Yet rather than build a consensus, Jackson's intervention failed to elect his man, polarized blacks and whites and left Washington's coalition divided.

To outsiders it must have seemed bizarre. Why would a national political figure interrupt a presidential campaign to entangle himself in a local morass--to drop international relations in favor of some inner city power brokering? How could a handful of black municipal officials ignore the pleas of the major black national leader? And how could one politician stir such divisive responses?

Jackson spent four busy days in Chicago, with almost all his activities (press conferences, prayer vigils, eulogies and back-room strategy sessions) closely watched. And then, just like that, he departed as quickly as he came, leaving confusion and rancor in his wake.

Local law required that Washington be replaced by an interim mayor chosen by and from the ranks of the 50-member Chicago City Council. Jackson backed Alderman Timothy C. Evans, who needed at least nine white votes to win. Evans could command only four.

Jackson's heavy-handed politicking undermined Evans' chances. He excluded whites from a key strategy meeting. "Even if I wanted to support Tim Evans, I couldn't do it because of Jackson," one white liberal lamented. "He organized meetings for blacks and Latinos only. That's racist. And who does he think he is, just flying in here to tell us what to do?"

Jackson turned a supposedly nonpartisan memorial service for the late mayor into a draft Evans rally, complete with signs, banners and buttons. And he helped orchestrate a groundswell that resulted in 4,000 chanting marchers descending on City Hall to denounce Evans' opponent, party stalwart Alderman Eugene Sawyer, calling him "Uncle Tom Sawyer" as the council prepared to vote. Washington's black aldermanic backers are now more openly hostile to each other than before.

Part of the reason for Jackson's unsuccessful efforts has to do with his own political sloppiness, the rest with the city itself.

Chicago is not Jackson's home town (he was born and reared in South Carolina), but it is where he came of age. He moved here in the mid-1960s as an aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is where he developed his organizations, first Operation Breadbasket and, later, Operation PUSH. From Chicago, he rose to national prominence.

In time, Jackson became something of a local lone gun. He seems uncomfortable sharing power with other black leaders here. As a result, while black residents may love him, many local black politicians are quietly resentful. As Jackson moved on to cultivate a national following, they stayed behind to conduct the gritty details of building a political base. Several consider his style grandstanding. And they have not forgotten how Jackson marched to the front of cheering celebrants on the eve of Washington's triumph in the 1983 Democratic mayoral primary to proclaim: "We want it all!" Jackson was stealing Washington's thunder and, more to the point, damaging his candidacy by needlessly frightening whites.

Yet before Washington's ascendancy, Jackson was hailed by white reporters as the acknowledged leader of black Chicago, an unofficial title, since he never ran for local office. Then, when word of Washington's death reached Jackson in Kuwait, the urge to rush home as a savior or king-maker was too strong to resist.

But beyond questions of ego, there is the peculiar matter of how racial politics in Chicago shape Jackson's persona. Although blacks comprise nearly 45% of the city's population and have long been the Democratic Party's most loyal supporters, their role in government was greatly restricted before Washington's election. While a few black politicians publicly enjoyed the patronage jobs former Mayor Richard J. Daley handed out, they--like the Democratic Party--were silent on crucial issues such as civil rights. Whites, meanwhile, fiercely resisted integration of schools, parks and neighborhoods. They made clear to city officials that they did not want black administrators in positions of authority over the day-to-day operation of essential city services. And on the rare occasions that white mayors attempted to promote integration, they were rebuffed by a strong and violent backlash at the polls.

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