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The Day the Movement Died




December really began on November 25.

Late that morning, a tiny clot formed in a dangerously fat-laden coronary artery of the mayor of Chicago, blocking it and starving his heart of the blood needed to keep beating properly. Moments later he collapsed. Moments later his brain was dead.

Hours later, when his body was pronounced dead, a million hearts were broken. But the dream did not die until December.

For even while the doctors were using electromechanical devices on the chest of Harold Washington, hoping to revive his inert brain and reactivate his heart, the brains of his enemies were coming to life.

There were the obvious enemies: Edward Burke, dapper alderman of the 14th Ward, second in command to Edward Vrdolyak during Washington's first term, now titular leader of the opposition; and such other familiar faces as aldermen Richard Mell and Terry Gabinski of the northwest side, and Fred Roti of the Loop. These faces were, of course, white.

Then there were the less obvious enemies, but truly the more dangerous opposition: aldermen Bill Henry of the west side, Robert Shaw of the far south side, and William Beavers of South Shore. Their faces are black but their thoughts are green. Beneath their skins they are brothers to Burke and Mell and Gabinski.

During their tenures in office they have been loyalists of whoever was in power. When Harold Washington was in power, they voted his line, even if it meant reform, for Washington had the power to destroy them in their own wards. He thwarted their greed.

Some aldermen approach the political pie with butcher knives. The Henrys and Shaws and Beaverses use chain saws.

They put those implements to work on the legacy of the still warm Harold Washington, whose ruling coalition was perilously fragile, depending on the willing or unwilling compliance of all the black aldermen, plus the Hispanics, and a painfully few whites.

The opposition whites were interested first in creating a white acting mayor. The opposition blacks were interested in a mayor who would not thwart their greed, but they preferred that he be one of their color. They assembled the votes of more than a half dozen of their peers, some of whom were not necessarily interested in booty but harbored one or another real or imagined grievance with Harold Washington and/or the members of his administration who had no respect for any aldermen.

The opposition whites assembled 23 of their number and a drifting Hispanic prepared to vote for Gabinski; they went to George Dunne, president of the Cook County Board, who dangles Burton Natarus, alderman from the Near North, on his personal string, and who deeply influences a nearby committeeman, who also dangles an alderman on a string. Strangely, Dunne, who has made more green than any living public official, also has a personal commitment to black empowerment. He instructed the whites to go with a compliant black.

Not without reluctance, the Burke-Mell group got together with the Henry-Shaw group, which had previously agreed upon Eugene Sawyer, who was never as black as Washington, as white as Burke, or as green-at-heart as Henry. In short, a rainbow of grays.

Eugene Sawyer's Sixth Ward is largely that part of town once known as the mink ghetto: heartland of the black middle class, which in turn is the heartbeat of the black independent political movement.

In a slightly different mapping, the ward, with its sister Eighth Ward, elected the first black independent alderman in 1967. A.A. "Sammy" Rayner Jr. retired after one term in 1971, but in 1987 his funeral home would receive the body of Harold Washington.

Eugene Sawyer, an amiable fellow who'd worked as a chemist for the city, who'd received his job and related nurturing as a worker on the old Daley Machine plantation, was elected alderman in 1971 and later became committeeman.

But his ward was independent. It was carried overwhelmingly by Republican Bernard Carey in 1972 and by the late congressman Ralph Metcalfe in 1976. Both were running against the Machine. In 1977, Harold Washington ran for mayor and carried the ward despite Sawyer's efforts for Michael Bilandic; in 1979, Jane Byrne won it overwhelmingly despite Sawyer's further efforts for Bilandic; in 1980, Harold Washington, running for Congress, carried it overwhelmingly against the Machine and Sawyer's efforts.

Finally, Sawyer got the message. He was up for reelection in 1983, when Washington would make his second and ultimately successful bid for mayor. Fearing he could get flattened by the Washington steamroller, Sawyer became the first Machine committeeman to endorse Washington. He remained a loyalist until the mayor's heart gave out.

(Ironically, just three weeks after Washington's, the heart of his 1983 opponent, Bernard Epton, also gave out.)

But Sawyer's heart has never been strong--a malady that manifests itself in his knees. Henry told him he could be made mayor; his heart filled and his knees stiffened. The black community, meanwhile, was being mobilized for Timothy Evans, alderman of the Fourth Ward, which includes large parts of Hyde Park-Kenwood, a constituency influential in Evans's own conversion to reform.

When the sentiment of the black community became manifest during that final, fateful weekend in November, Sawyer's heart sank and his knees buckled. He was in, he was out; he was in, he was out--right up to the day of the marathon City Council meeting that began on December 1 and did not end until early the next morning.

Shaw and Henry kept Sawyer insulated day and night, guarding him even as he slept, fearful that the presence of Jesse Jackson and the petitioning of his black constituency would finally cause him to lose heart.

Jackson's entry into the selection process was controversial mainly in the white community and among the few black enemies of Washington. Though his inability to sway the Shaws and the Henrys was viewed as a defeat, he brought more to the Evans camp than he lost.

Three black aldermen came over to Evans as a result of Jackson's and their communities' pressures. Two white aldermen complained of Jackson, but one wound up voting for Evans anyway; the other was using Jesse as an excuse. Kathy Osterman of Uptown-Edgewater was voting for Sawyer because she hates her neighboring alderman, Helen Shiller, and Shiller was for Evans.

Meanwhile, Evans's organizing was scattered and late in congealing. Evans himself, a courtly and reserved man, out of a sense of decorum seriously out of place in Chicago politics did not leap into the fray while the mayor's body was still warm.

He was loath to begin organizing and making calls, though several centers of activity began independently on his behalf, none of them coordinated. By the time his movement came together, at the giant rally at the Pavilion on the last night in November, Burke and Henry had lined up the votes.

If a popular election had been held on December 1, Evans would have carried the black community six to one. But in City Council there was a parliamentary majority formed of 23 of the 28 white aldermen and 6 of the 18 blacks. Just as when Harold Washington held an electoral majority during his first term, the popular majority was thwarted by the parliamentary majority, all under the control of Burke.

It was Burke who was seen issuing orders to Sawyer; it was Burke who was heard threatening him, "Remember, we still got that on you!" A black official remarked privately, "Even when I was a kid in the south I don't remember hearing a white man talk that bad to a black man."

What did Burke have on Sawyer? One can only guess; perhaps it had something to do with the $20,000 "fee" the new mayor received years' ago from a lawyer in a Sixth Ward zoning matter. Perhaps, and more likely, that "fee" is only the tip of an iceberg not too far beneath the surface. Stay tuned to your local investigative reporters.

It's very likely that people who spent most of the past five years sneering at Harold Washington's claims to reform will now view those years as Camelot.

Lines began forming outside the City Council chambers by mid-afternoon on December 1. People had been urged to come down and petition their aldermen. They were exercising their right to petition, albeit under circumstances that dictated an unusual assembly.

The bigger the crowd grew and the clearer its sentiments became, the more Sawyer's knees buckled. Four times that day he changed his mind. Even Julius Caesar made up his mind the third time.

But the blandishments of Burke held sway while even Henry weakened, opting for a delay in time. Burke said no, tonight or never. Burke said there were enough white votes assembled to elect Larry Bloom, the Hyde Park alderman, if Sawyer quit. But Bloom would not have taken it without some black support.

The Burke aldermen, black and white, began to propagandize: the crowd was a "mob"; the aldermen were receiving death threats. Burke's minions, black and white, were outdoing each other in claims of death threats. No one will ever really know if any genuine death threats were ever made, but the Burke aldermen reeled them off as if bidding in an auction. One alderman topped them all by claiming, "They not only threatened to kill me, but they threatened to defeat me for committeeman!"

If the thousands assembled were a mob, it was the calmest, most respectable mob in world history. It was more of a witness, even with a scattering of jeers and chants. The crowd represented the advance guard of a popular majority, the majority won again and again and again by Harold Washington. It was Woodstock, not Altamont.

But the popular majority would be thwarted, as soon as Burke did his final threatening, cajoling, and praying to stiffen Sawyer's knees, revive his brain, and reactivate his heart.

Parliamentary maneuvers and long speeches could not alter the direction, only prolong the fight. December 1 became December 2 and four hours into the new day Edward Burke and his brothers under the skin made Eugene Sawyer the 43rd mayor of Chicago.

They made a mayor who will talk of carrying on the Washington tradition and agenda, even while his brothers under the skin are getting out their butcher knives and chain saws. To paraphrase the great British statesman in parliamentary debate, "Hearing 'reform' from his lips is like hearing 'virtue' cross the lips of a harlot."

Sawyer's brothers under the skin chortle contentedly as he talks reform, because they know that even if he begins to believe his own speeches, they still have the parliamentary majority to thwart him. They know, too, that the 43rd mayor is a perfect instrument. They can run him for the next 14 months and then run him for office in 1989 and he will divide the black community and open the breach for one of the whites who are waiting in the wings.

They know that they have rent asunder the Washington coalition, and that is how they made the dream die in December.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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