When Mayor Harold Washington collapsed at his desk and died last November, he left a political and spiritual vacuum in Chicago`s black community that has created the current, informal and furious power struggle among those who would succeed him.
This fight over political power, currently epitomized by Mayor Eugene Sawyer and Ald. Timothy Evans (4th), began within minutes of the speeding word that Chicago`s first black mayor was dead. It continues through the manipulation of symbols that seek to define ethnicity, morality and the future of the city`s newly predominant political bloc.
Since Washington`s death, the symbols tossed by each side have been crafted and aimed with precision as the city`s black community tries to recover from the loss of an incredibly charismatic leader.The most brutal of these tactical symbols were employed at an event that was billed as a memorial service for the mayor but shaped into a political rally for Evans. At that event, Sawyer foes endeavored to depict the 6th Ward alderman as a traitor to his race.
The next day, 5,000 people, many of whom had attended the Washington memorial, angrily descended upon City Hall where Sawyer eventually won the support of the Chicago City Council in the early morning hours of Dec. 2. Many of those people had been transported there by Evans` supporters and remnants of the Washington government who were about to lose power.
The image of that crowd-referred to by some as a mob and by others as a people`s crusade-has been the definitive symbol of the power struggle currently being played out in the media, in churches and in neighborhoods and government.
The dominant theme at the time of Sawyer`s election was one of ``No Deals`` offered by Evans` supporters, even while some within that group burned telephone lines seeking accommodations with the enemy. That ``No Deals``slogan was a symbol designed to obscure a political fact-that anyone with a chance would try to take the job.
Evans, who like Sawyer speaks of seeking broad-based support across the city, cites reports of poll results showing him holding a commanding lead among blacks.
``The last time I looked at a poll I was leading by 70 percent in the black community,`` Evans said, referring to a poll commissioned by former Mayor Jane Byrne in her current campaign for clerk of the Circuit Court.
``You look at something like that and you get the feeling of which way things are going,`` Evans said. ``People know I was close to the mayor and fought for him, and (they) see that I`m carrying the ball.``
Sawyer, who now declines invitations to events where Evans will be present, speaks of the rift as a ``family squabble.``
``It`s a fight within a family,`` Sawyer said, ``and we`ll work it out. But some people who are talking about this mantle of Harold Washington`s are the same people who won`t support the mayor`s political slate. How can you pick and choose?``
One black alderman who supports Sawyer said the new mayor had been crippled by the perception that he had betrayed black Chicago. ``In the black commmunity, this thing is about race, about who is black and who`s not,`` said the alderman.
As Sawyer`s political strategists cast about for means to shore up black support, the new mayor traveled to Alabama and, at his college alma mater in Montgomery, he spoke of spending his college years in the city that had become the focus of the civil rights movement. He recalled guarding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and participating in the black boycott of the city`s bus system.
Last week, he vowed, along with Operation PUSH, to close down the Dan Ryan Expressway renovation unless black contractors and workers receive more contracts and jobs on the most visible public works project ever developed in the black community.
Evans, meanwhile, continues to speak in black churches to loyal followers and has walked through Sawyer`s 6th Ward, ostensibly to register voters in his enemy`s home base. Although claiming to be the rightful Washington heir, Evans has refused to endorse Washington`s March 15 primary slate of blacks and white ethnics.
Perhaps the most debilitating image Sawyer has had to confront is the perception that Ald. Edward Burke (14th), one of Washington`s leading antagonists, had intimidated Sawyer into taking the mayor`s office. Constant rhetoric on local black talk shows centers on whether Sawyer betrayed his ethnicity by allowing white aldermen to vote him in as Washington`s successor. ``The nature of symbols is that it isn`t the detail, the facts, but rather the meaning attached to them that is important,`` said Murray Edelman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist and author of``Constructing the Political Spectacle.``
``These symbols and slogans, whether they be `black power` or `black ideology` or `black betrayal,` tend to guide people`s thinking, quite apart to the stands on issues and a lot of other complicated events. To create some people as leaders, and others as enemies-that is what is going on in Chicago.``
It is not the first time politicians have tried to succeed a mythic figure by attempting to seize his mantle by the hem and drape it across their own shoulders. When Mayor Richard J. Daley died, both Jane Byrne and Michael Bilandic claimed they represented Daley`s interests.
But their power fight was viewed as a political contest. They did not hope to replace what black activist Lu Palmer calls ``a messiah.``
The current contest between Evans and Sawyer is being watched carefully by other black politicians and leaders who would become mayor, from Jesse Madison, executive vice president of the Chicago Park District, to City Treasurer Cecil Partee. And while the fracturing continues, black leaders recall the white ethnic political split that allowed Washington to win election in 1983.
Washington died at the peak of his power. And as the first black mayor in Chicago, he became a national figure in Democratic politics, embodying the aspirations of a community that had been largely excluded from the political process. He also had finally taken control of city government, eliminating any real opposition to his authority as leader of the city and of Chicago`s blacks.
His political base of low-income and middle-class blacks, Puerto Ricans and white liberals, which had been so successfully held together by his personality and by circumstance, unraveled immediately after he was pronounced dead. Those groups, which had sublimated their agendas in a collective attack on the old machine, saw the chance to reassert their interests.
Symbols have been used in politics, by all groups and at all times. In a democracy, they take on primary importance because they become the weapons with which public debate is waged. And in a democracy, it is ultimately the public debate that determines who gets what, where and how.
Because political tactics in a democracy dictate that debate be conducted on a less elevated plateau, simple appeals to emotion are vital, and complex issues are oversimplified.
Those who define the symbols and terms of the debate have a distinct advantage, whether a Chicago politician or those who campaigned against the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork.
In Chicago, appeals to ethnicity have existed since the city`s incorporation 151 years ago. In 1983, the most vivid example of this was seen during the general-election campaign between Washington and State Rep. Bernard Epton.
Epton`s ``Before it`s too late`` slogan was interpreted as an appeal to white racism. At the same time, Washington`s slogan, ``It`s Our Turn,`` was interpreted to mean not only black political aspiration, but was given a moral imperative. Washington said the saying applied not only to blacks, but to anyone who opposed the regular order.
Washington, a machine product turned maverick Democrat, was never considered to be in the forefront of what was called the black movement. But when drafted to become the movement`s candidate, the mayor appropriated its language, rhetoric and symbols for himself.
He purged those movement leaders who had set the agenda for black empowerment and controlled the terms of the 1983 debate. Any source of power other than Washington was dispatched to a political gulag or otherwise dealt with.
Jesse Jackson, for one, left Chicago to pursue presidential politics. Those close to Washington believed there was not enough room in Chicago for two men who personified the symbols of the black movement.
Palmer, a black power activist and radio commentator who waged a public battle against black machine politicians, had developed the Washington slogan ``We Shall See in `83.`` Ald. Danny Davis (29th), the political adviser to the Task Force for Black Political Empowerment, was another intellectual who had helped set and define the terms of blackness as ideology rather than a condition of race.
Both men found themselves believing the rhetoric they created and used in Washington`s campaign. Both were disillusioned when Washington declined to help them in their own campaigns for Congress, opting instead to back regular Democrats.
``Washington took their symbols, the symbols of the movement, and made them his own,`` said William Grimshaw, a political scientist at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the husband of Washington`s chief political operative, Jacky Grimshaw.
``Movements suffer when they become institutionalized,`` Grimshaw said.``And the movement itself suffered with Harold. The leaders couldn`t speak out on policy. They were constrained, and when they did speak out, they were accused, forcefully, of not having a purity. They got their heads chopped off.``
Palmer and other movement leaders echo Grimshaw.
``He took the power to himself, almost like Mayor Daley,`` Palmer said.``And the political maturity of black politics stopped while he increased his power. And there is a need for that singular power, but he became a messiah as a result. And this is our curse, that as a people we`re not looking for a man, but a god to lead us out of oppression.``
According to black movement leaders, political aides to Evans and Sawyer, and other analysts, the notion of blackness as an ideology is critical to the understanding of black politics in Chicago and the remolding of that constituency in the post-Washington era.
``People weren`t afraid of Washington negotiating with the machine,``said Davis, ``because people felt he was as powerful as the machine, and we would not get had in the process and not come out the loser. There is a fear now that when the black politicians negotiate with the machine, that the black agenda will be shortchanged because of a lack of political power as personified by any individual.``
Davis said this fear provides fertile ground for exploitation by those who would gain power. It also expresses some elements of the black nationalist ideology that so forcefully shaped Washington`s campaigns in the black community and remains a vital part of what is considered to be the Washington legacy.
As a political argument, ideology of whatever form is a simplification of political situations, shaped to serve as a guide to action and eliminate nagging ambiguities. Its structure poses two competing forces. Strictly observed, there is no room for middle ground; to the powerless, the system is oppressive while those who exert dominance do so under a system that is perceived to be fair.
In Chicago, blacks had been excluded from politics unless they adopted the commandments of the white-controlled machine. They were forced to live in segregated neighborhoods, denied access to public schools, beaten when they walked into public parks.
Robert Starks, a director of the Black Task Force and one of those who watched helplessly as Washington appropriated movement symbols, articulated aspects of the black nationalist ideology in writing in The Tribune on Jan. 6. ``Formal declarations of equality,`` Starks wrote, ``without creating the objective conditions for full economic participation and political empowerment cannot eliminate the structural forms of racial oppression.``
Palmer suggests the black community after Washington is in a position to mature and occasionally reach accommodations with white ethnics without betraying itself. But from the ideologists` perspective, agreements that led to Sawyer`s election can and have been perceived as an accommodation with the structure of domination.
``What we all wanted was a black mayor,`` Palmer said. ``And we ignored Harold`s warts so we could have one. Gene Sawyer is black, too. The difference is that Tim Evans` supporters are painting Gene as a stone Uncle Tom.
``The reality is that there is black power still, and while Washington is being canonized as a saint, we are ignoring reality and inventing new realities all the time. There`s not a nickel`s difference between Sawyer and Evans.
``They are saying that Washington passed the mantle to Tim Evans, which he did not, and are putting wings on Tim Evans shoulders, which do not fit.`` Davis, Grimshaw, Palmer and others say that the two potential successors, both machine aldermen throughout their political history, will do whatever is possible to create new images.
According to many observers, the exploitation of race as an organizing tool has already begun. Paul Green, director of public policy andadministration at Governors State University, said the critical issues facing blacks are not power politics but of schools, housing and jobs.
``Blacks are now the controlling agents, it`s their city politically,``Green said. ``Some are still suggesting that the black vote should be a monolithic bloc, and that`s nonsense. They`re using ethnicity as a rallying cry.
``Washington, who used it, had left it behind him,`` Green said. ``He was building a new coalition with ethnics, he was beginning to come around to that before his death.``
Under Washington, Press Secretary Alton Miller`s main objective was to protect the late mayor`s public image. He thinks that Evans has crafted his movements to appeal to a sense of a Washington legacy. Miller also said that Sawyer-while having shown he`s not a servant of that legacy or of machine aldermen-must quickly counter the attacks against him.
``Sawyer has been plagued with the unfortunate metaphor of betraying ethnicity,`` Miller said, ``I think it`s still possible for him to be more media-conscious himself, about developing a counterbalancing metaphor. He says he took office because he realized no other black candidates had the votes, and the job could`ve been held by a white.
``But it`s kind of a downcast, soft-spoken reply, not a strong symbolic moment to counterbalance the negatives. He desperately needs to find that, and he`s in a good position to do so.``
Evans, Miller said, is ``doing everything right by the numbers. He`s taking the liturgy of the Washington movement and is paying respect to every single ritual. He`s not leaving a single sacrament out, while looking for reinforcement at every turn.``
The ``Washington legacy`` that both Sawyer and Evans are in pursuit of is so complicated that even some of his former Cabinet officers have difficulty in defining it. But Miller said that phrases such as ``reform`` and``fairness`` and ``self-determination`` will continue to be used.
``Politicians and revisionists who interpret Mayor Washington for political gain should go out and do their jobs and quit shouting about it all the time,`` Miller said. ``I wish they would, but it`ll only get louder.``Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun