Monday, March 16, 2009

Telling Bernie's Story

Dad’s story aired this weekend on This American Life. Listening to the story was a roller-coaster ride in mainly dark places. I hate thinking about the campaign slogan “Epton Before It’s Too Late.” The discussion of the slogan during the program made me tearful.

Worse than that was the audio of the screaming white crowd gathered at St. Pascal’s Church on Chicago’s North side, the crowd that drove off Harold Washington and Walter Mondale before they could speak. If I could, it is that moment, that hateful rage at St. Pascal’s, that I would sever from his memory. But I can’t. St. Pascal’s is history and it can’t be evaded.

Dad couldn’t find a persuasive way to reject race-motivated support for his candidacy. Once the campaign began, it became almost impossible for him to want to do so. He had a chance to be elected mayor. He and everybody else knew that the vast majority of his votes would come from whites terrified by the prospect of a black mayor for the city of Chicago.

I am confident that at any other time of his life, he would have been repulsed by the notion that he would become a figurehead for a white reaction. I am almost as certain that he was repulsed at the time. But he was simultaneously beguiled by the prospect that he might be elected mayor of the city he loved. His revulsion would have been a private thing. It would not have been shared with anyone, not with his wife, not with me, or with any of my siblings.

But if it was there, it would have been a cancer, and unshared, it would have been a potent one. It would, I believe, be the cancer of conscience and remorse that would run its course and kill him four years later.

During the campaign, Harold Washington told at least one person I am aware of that the Bernie Epton they were running against “is not the Bernie I know.” It wasn’t the Bernie I knew, either. It wasn’t the Bernie who was a progressive Republican legislator from Hyde Park for 14 years. It wasn’t the Bernie who worked with Timuel Black and others organizing support for socialist Henry Wallace for president in 1948. It wasn’t the Bernie who was viciously red-baited by Republican candidate for Congress Dick Vail in 1952. It wasn’t the man who continued to send his children to majority-black schools on the Southside of Chicago while other white middle-class families fled the public schools and, even, the city itself. It wasn’t the Bernie who flew to Memphis with my brother Mark to join the memorial march organized by the sanitation workers after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

But it is the Bernie that history remembers. That history shouldn’t be erased. But it can be enlarged. Dad was a good man who deceived himself and fell into tragedy because he wanted something too much, something he was not destined to have, something that in 1983 belonged to Harold Washington and a movement for change.

Bernie’s story is one I intend to tell someday. And I will tell it because I personally need to tell it. But I will also tell it because of the lessons it can teach us all.


  1. Tell your story, Jeff! His story sounds like a classic tragedy--man w/ a fatal flaw. I didn't listen to This Am Life.
    Sandi W.

  2. Hey Jeff,

    The segment on Bernie was great, and, I think, enhanced my understanding of the election I had heard so much about, and of recent Chicago history in general.

    I have a handful of friends that are Chicago natives who are about my age (9 or 10 during this election) that remember the tone of the race. I encouraged them to listen and downloaded the mp3 to share if they missed it.

    I read There Are No Children Here about 12 years ago and thought it was great. I think I'll pick up more Kotlowitz now that I'm reminded he's a fellow transplant.


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  4. Hey, Bright. Thanks for responding. It's true, Bernie is part of an arc of history that has roots at one end in the stories of all the different folks that came to Chicago whenever, for whatever reason, and for however long.

    In 1983, he made some choices that I think were wrong, but made perfect sense to him. His campaign didn't really change the arc much, but it reopened unhealed wounds caused by our collective tendency to do no better than muddle through when it comes to race. It ought to go without saying that we frequently do much worse than muddle.

    Some of Dad's supporters in the '83 campaign may have been there, in hostile confrontation, in the 1960s when Dr. MLK, Jr. led an Open Housing March through a neighborhood on the South Side. Dad was not yet born in 1919 when a white mob attacked black families on a South Side beach, triggering a race riot that continued for nearly two weeks.

    Though those events, and Dad's campaign, could have happened somewhere else, in their details, they were Chicago. And the collective, social memory is there, even in the absence of specific, personal recall.

    As you root yourself in the city, you could do much worse than commune a little with Alex Kotlowitz. Try his book "Never A City So Real."
    While you're at it, check out Stuart Dybek, "I Sailed With Magellan," and Billy Lombardo, whose book, "The Logic of the Rose," is a series of evocative stories about boyhood in South Side Bridgeport.

    And finally, Cancer Bitch (Sandi Wisenberg), whose post begins this thread, is a Jewish girl from Texas, fully transplanted to Chicago. You can find her rich, wise, funny, rooted blog at

  5. I've heard it said how infair it is that people are so often remembered for their worst moments despite the countless good things they do in thier life. Sad

  6. Thanks for your observation. I guess I'm of two minds about the unfairness of life. Dad was tested at a moment of historic importance. I think that in failing to campaign against divisiveness and anger, he failed his better self and the city he loved.

    But I know that judgment is harsh. His actions and choices were more often decent, kind and generous. He also had moments of real heroism. I guess he passed most of the tests along the way. How unfair is it that history often judges a life while looking at an isolated moment?