Monday, May 8, 2017

Washington-Epton, 1983

Harold, Bernie, Timuel, Chicago and me

I had lunch with Timuel Black last month.  Tim will be 99 years old in December. But it's a young ninety-nine. No, he doesn't hear very well. And he's got macular degeneration, so he reads slowly and definitely favors material with big print and big images. He doesn't lift his feet very far off the ground when he walks, but he walks. He doesn't use a cane, either, though it strikes me that he should. But Tim still has things to say, memories to share, an acute grasp of how far along the arc of human liberation we have travelled, and how much more ground there is to cross.

Author of Bridges of Memory: An oral history of Chicago's first wave of black migration, Tim claims that he's too old, at this point, to be limited to telling only true stories. Having made that point clear, he proceeds to tell me the story of his family's migration in 1919, part of the first wave of southern black folks headed north. In his family's case, the journey was from Birmingham, AL to Chicago. He was a baby at the time, so he doesn't remember much about the trip north. But he does remember that life in Birmingham had gotten intolerable for his family. Tim claims that he was the one who insisted that it was time to get out of town.

"I told my parents that I was done with the south. I'm headed for Chicago," he says. "My momma said, 'he's not even old enough to change his diapers, so I'm going with him.'" And, he says, his daddy had to come, too.

He finishes his story and looks at me, like, maybe, I'm going to argue with him. But I can't argue with the proposition that when you're an activist and a storyteller, there's a variety of ways to capture truth. Nor will I argue with Timuel Black, who is, for my money (and along with fellow Chicagoan Studs Terkel) one of the finest American oral historians of the last century.

Getting one-on-one time with Tim is a privilege that I may not have earned, but for which I qualify for a couple of good reasons.  Mr. Black, as I knew him at the time, was my U.S. history teacher when I was a Hyde Park High School junior. That was in 1963, back in the day when I didn't have anything but a faint idea about all that he could teach me. But it turns out that teachers, the dedicated ones, anyway, will always welcome us back whenever we show up. Some 50+ years later, I can confidently claim to have been schooled by him many times since I left his classroom behind me.

A better reason for the access Tim permits me may lie in the fact that he and my father, Bernie Epton, were old political comrades. Given the combination of Tim's lifelong record of speaking humanitarian and progressive truth to power and the memory of Bernie running against Harold Washington for mayor of Chicago ("Epton, before it's too late"), the thought of Bernie Epton and Timuel Black as political allies might sound like an alternative fact. But it's gospel according to Timuel.

During an earlier visit with Tim, 15 or so years ago, Tim told me that he and Bernie had started the Chicago-area Henry Wallace for President committee in 1948. In the early days of the Cold War, that was no small thing.

Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt's vice-president from 1941 to 1944, was more deeply committed to the New Deal than Roosevelt himself. But for his 1944 reelection campaign, Roosevelt replaced Wallace on the ticket with the far more conservative Harry Truman, the choice of "the [Democratic] party's conservative, pro-business and segregationist wing."

During the 1948 campaign, Wallace took explicitly leftist positions, advocating for national health care, for protecting and extending New Deal programs, and for an end to segregation. Somewhat predictably, Wallace didn't fare well as a third party candidate, finishing fourth behind Truman, Republican Thomas Dewey and Dixiecrat and arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond.

For Tim and Bernie, the Wallace campaign was an early taste of politics for keeps. Tim said the first few years after World War II were heady days for activists, especially in the black community on the south side of the city. "During the war, I was a staff sergeant in a logistics unit supporting the American advance through Western Europe. In Germany, my unit saw one of the concentration camps at Buchenwald," Tim said.

It was both a horrifying and motivating experience for him. "Many of us returned to the U.S. believing that it was up to us to change the country and the world," he said.

Multi-racial and multi-ethnic activist groups formed in Woodlawn, Englewood, Hyde Park and South Shore after the war, Tim told me. "Your dad was one of us," he said. "In those years, we moved forward together."

In 1950, Bernie ran in the Republican primary in the Second Congressional District against Dick Vail, a former member of the House of Representatives, who had lost his seat two years earlier to Democrat Barratt O'Hara. Bernie ran as an advocate for open housing and as an opponent of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which had been established by Congress in 1930 for the explicit purpose of investigating communist influence across the country.

In the upshot, Bernie lost, though he continued to be active on the south side, working with community groups, serving on the board of directors of the Jane Dent Home for the Negro Aged and Infirm (a facility created to address the fact that sick and elderly people of color were barred from most private nursing and retirement homes). Once he passed the bar examination, Bernie also joined the Lawyers' Decalogue Society (the Jewish bar association) and the South Shore Chamber of Commerce.

Though he never discussed it with me (or anyone else, to my knowledge), I suspect that the witch hunts of the McCarthy era had, at least, a subtly transforming effect on Bernie. Long after Dad died, in the process of sorting through boxes of family memorabilia as we moved from Washington, DC back to Chicago, I discovered a piece of campaign lit from 1954 that Bernie had kept, but never shared with me.

It wasn't from any of Bernie's 10 campaigns for the Illinois state legislature or for Congress or for mayor of Chicago. It was a piece circulated by the Citizens for Vail Committee during Dick Vail's campaign for reelection to Congress. Remarkably, it doesn't focus very much at all on Vail's achievements as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and seems to focus on Thomas Lewis, Vail's actual opponent in the upcoming primary, only to assert that Lewis was really the second coming of Bernie Epton, the real target at which the piece aims. And does so in the extreme red-baiting and race-baiting style of the time, making this point, among others:

"The contents of this circular may seem at first glance to border on the indelicate. However, fire must be fought with fire. The venomous Sun-Times which supported EPTON in 1950, has endorsed LEWIS in the present campaign. The Daily News also preferred EPTON in 1950 and the News supports LEWIS in the present campaign. VAIL carried all Wards and the District despite the Left-Wing Press by an enormous majority. VAIL saved the District from Epton. You can now help him save it from Lewis. Watch the recommendation of the Chicago Defender, out this week. You can be certain that VAIL will not be the Defender choice."

Imagine that. In 1950, Dick Vail saved Illinois' Second Congressional District from left-winger Bernie Epton. And tagging Bernie as a leftie is not done lightly here. In fact, the details of Bernie's program and his associations with prominent, south-side Negro leaders are elaborated elsewhere in the circular:

"Epton ran on a 'Liberal' platform of Civil Liberties, FEPC [Fair Employment Practice Committee], Public Housing, abolition of the Committee on Un-American Activities, etc.; and an aroused and indignant Eighth Ward Republican electorate marched to the polls and buried him under an avalanche of votes cast for RICHARD B. VAIL, who had been the target of antagonistic blasts from the Chicago Defender for years."

A picture of Bernie flanked by Major Euclid Taylor and Archibald J. Carey, two influential black leaders of the time, pulled from the Defender, ran next to that text. It's worth noting that the Chicago Defender was, from the beginning of the 20th Century on, a successful Black-owned, journalistic enterprise, dedicated to advancing the status of African Americans in the city and the country. In The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, author Ethan Michaeli wrote this about the years following Harold Washington's
victory in the 1983 election:

"It was long past the time when any one newspaper, television or radio station could claim to speak for an entire people and the Defender was struggling to hold on to its remaining readers, rather than expanding its audience. Nevertheless, the Defender continued to punch far above its weight, a resolute voice of conscience in a city rife with hatred, fear, and greed, and in a nation that was not nearly done expiating its original sin."

Plainly, it is a matter of record that early in his political career, Bernie Epton pursued political objectives and played a role in the affairs of the south side and of the city of Chicago that allied him with people like Timuel Black, Archibald Carey and Major Taylor, and won him the endorsement of the Chicago Defender and other publications, like the Chicago Daily News, literally a red-flag to witch hunters like Richard B. Vail. In that light, it is a great irony that Bernie's role as Harold Washington's opponent in the 1983 mayoral campaign was a significant contributor to creating a Chicago that, in Ethan Michaeli's words, had become "a city rife with hatred [and] fear."

**********

In returning to Chicago this past January, after 10 years in Washington, DC, I find that the city has a familiar feel. There is so much to love here. It's easy to talk to people on the street, on the bus and in stores. Of course, there's crankiness. After all, we are two and a half million strong and the odds are always good that one will run into someone who has woken up on the wrong side of the bed. But in random encounters with ordinary Chicagoans, there's an equally good chance of establishing a sudden intimacy that affects the heart and lingers afterward.

The city is sometimes stunningly beautiful, as well. The lakefront offers a variety of compelling looks in any weather, excluding those times when the wind blows so fierce and cold that one can't help worrying about freezing up and toppling over.

But some of Chicago's biggest problems are nearly as obvious as Lake Michigan's vast horizon and downtown's architectural grandeur. Except in a few neighborhoods, the city's racial divisions are damningly large and at the root of huge inequities in wealth, opportunity and life outcomes. The public school system and its teachers are overwhelmed by waves of social crisis. And too many human beings wander Chicago's streets with few places to go and nowhere to spend the night.

Of course, the dimensions of such problems ebb and flow with the passage of time, but since Harold Washington died in office in 1987, there has been little persistent optimism about fixing those problems, and a growing feeling that, collectively, we have no idea how to go about doing so.

All of those problems were manifest to various degrees in 1983 when Washington was elected mayor and Dad, having lost, sunk into a despair from which he never recovered. Much of his sadness in the years that followed the election lay in the knowledge that his reputation as a civic-minded, socially progressive politician had been destroyed in the rancor of the 1983 contest.

Bernie knew that he was widely, if not universally, perceived as a hater in the city that had been his home for all of his 60+ years. That he, himself, had played a major role in destroying that reputation might not have been a thought that he routinely entertained. But it seems to me that in the 1983 campaign, Dad took a hammer to the principles that had mattered to him most during his 40+ years as an activist and politician.

A recent event at the Beverly Arts Center included a showing of a documentary about Washington's life with an extended focus on the '83 campaign and his almost five years as mayor of Chicago. The documentary was followed by a panel of high-profile people who had been significantly involved in urging Washington to run in the first place, in the campaign that followed, and in his administration. The panel, including Jesse Jackson, Dr. Willie Wilson, and radio personality Cliff Kelley among others, was facilitated by Salim Muwakkil, an old-friend and former colleague at In These Times.

Salim's questions steered the panel toward a consideration of the factors that made Washington a uniquely qualified candidate, created a grassroots movement that would both persuade Washington to run in the first place, and win a difficult campaign that turned out more voters in Chicago than any other election, before or since. The question of why activists have not been able to build a progressive multi-racial campaign capable of again winning the mayor's office haunted the panel that night, as it routinely haunts many other gatherings of Chicago progressives.

Salim did me the great honor of inviting me onstage to participate as the seventh member of the panel. I don't have any direct experience of the campaign to bring to any such discussion--I was running for city council in Ann Arbor, MI at the time--but Salim's question to me had a different focus. Introducing me as a former colleague of his, a genuine progressive, and Bernie Epton's son, he asked for my perspective on the campaign and my father's role in it.

In response, I pointed out that Washington and I were both contributors to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and that, like Washington, I was a campaign that emphasized development in previously neglected neighborhoods, called for building a city workforce that reflected the diversity of the city's population, and outlined a more community-based approach to policy, including policing. In a 1983 radio interview with Alex Kotlowitz, then working for a Lansing, MI- based NPR affiliate, I had noted the similarity between Washington's political positions and my own.

I also told Alex that Dad loved the city of Chicago, would be a skilled administrator, and that serving as its mayor would fulfill his life-long ambition. When he asked who I would vote for if I were a Chicago resident, I told him that I guessed that would be an instance when I wouldn't know for certain until I was in the polling booth and making a final decision on that choice.

Dad heard that interview on the radio and was deeply shaken by it. The incident created a rift between us that endured for months.

I told the audience at the Arts Center that I didn't want to distract from the panel's focus on what strategy might build a Washington-style campaign that could take back City Hall, but that I could make some further brief comment on the '83 campaign and Bernie's role in it. Even from Ann Arbor, and focused on my own campaign, it was clear then that the Washington-Epton race was tearing the city apart. It was an adrenaline-soaked campaign that I have always believed had much to do with the fact that only a little more than four years later both Harold and Bernie were dead.

They had been allies in the Illinois State House before Washington moved on to Congress, and they died within three weeks of each other in November and December of 1987. They remain close together today, buried at the same south side cemetery. I could also add, from close observation, that the campaign, itself, and its aftermath, were devastating to Bernie's sense of himself as a principled politician. "Epton, before it's too late" became, and remains, a call to racial division.

Never mind that, as Bernie insisted in subsequent discussion with me, the slogan had been developed during the primary season, before Washington defeated Jane Byrne and Richie Daley, and was intended to highlight the fact that the city was in dire financial straits and that he was the fiscal manager to fix it. Whatever it was intended to mean, it didn't have that meaning when Chicago voters and election observers heard it. Instead, "Epton, before it's too late" took on a meaning Bernie never intended, a call to hold the line against a Black takeover of the city. Dad's real mistake in regard to the slogan was to resist acknowledging what was immediately obvious to everyone else, to resist acknowledging the only reasonable interpretation of the slogan and to immediately stop using it.

Why couldn't Bernie hear what happened, see that his campaign was going to enlarge the already existing racial rift in one of the country's most segregated cities? Certainly, Bernie's belief in the principles that had driven his political career forward and his sense that he had never been anything but a racial healer and uniter contributed to his tone deafness. But I've always believed that in the '83 campaign, a campaign that drove every single political participant forward with urgency and feverish anticipation, that kept people sleepless at night, eager for or dreading the next day's events, that Dad, closer to victory than he had ever imagined or hoped for, could persuade himself that he was still Bernie, and that his eventual triumph would be the best thing that could happen for the city of Chicago.

He was wrong, of course, and that's what I told the audience of some 1,200 or so Washington campaign veterans, that Bernie was wrong and in the aftermath, in his heart of hearts, he knew that he was wrong. That knowledge, I said, would be a major factor in his death shortly afterward.

When I was done speaking, Jesse Jackson spoke up. Don't be ashamed of your father, he said, adding, in what struck me as a rather awkward attempt at consolation, that there were Black folks who didn't support Harold and had caused even greater damage than Bernie had.

**********

I didn't get to respond to Jackson's comments that night, but it should be clear that I am not ashamed of Dad. I am proud of him. I am proud of the good he did in his life and of the forthright positions he took for racial justice and for equal rights.

I am proud that my father supported the public school system with great fervor, that he didn't move out of the neighborhood when my older sister and I graduated elementary school and moved on to Hyde Park High School, which at the time was more than 90 percent African American. Other families moved out of the district or sent their children to private schools. Of the 56 white children that graduated my all-white elementary school only 12 went on to Hyde Park.

Three years after I graduated high school, Martin Luther King was assassinated while in Memphis to support striking city sanitation workers, Bernie and my brother Mark travelled to Memphis to join the sanitation workers at a memorial march for King. The Bernie who went to Memphis in solidarity with the values King espoused was the Bernie I knew him to be. I am proud that he never sat back and left the duty to engage to others.

But I also believe that his legacy includes a lesson about how we can all miss what matters most when a decisive moment comes along in our lives. If Bernie had not been a candidate himself in the '83 election, I believe that he would have been an outspoken supporter of Washington's candidacy. But that wasn't how things played out for Dad.

Indeed, when he became the Republican nominee for mayor, his campaign strategy was focused on building a coalition of minority voters and liberals who could no longer abide the tyranny of the city's Democratic machine, or the way it appropriated the wealth of the city, and encouraged division and inequity. In that light, "Epton, before it's too late" makes sense. But Dad's failure to recognize and respond appropriately to the way Washington's victory changed the meaning of the slogan is a mistake for which he must bear responsibility.

There are still some folks out there, including some members of my own family, who contend that when Washington won the primary and it became clear across the country that a Republican could become mayor in a racially divided northern city that it was national Republican party types who conceived of the slogan and meant it to be a clarion call for white people. But Dad, himself, told me otherwise more than once, and though we didn't discuss his feelings about it at great length after the election, it seemed clear to me that he knew what he had done.

**********

Harold Washington spent the weekend before the vote in the kind of sleepless frenzied activity that typifies the schedules of committed candidates in close races. Bernie didn't follow suit.

"With a razor-thin lead in the polls, Washington today raced through a full schedule of appearances. Epton, who made only a few routine appearances, hopes to pull an upset in this heavily Democratic city, which hasn't elected a Republican as mayor in 52 years," wrote reporters Kevin Close and Bill Peterson in an April 12, 1983 article in the Washington Post.

So, what of the difference between how the two candidates spent the last days of what had been a divisive and hotly contested campaign? Washington's approach needs no explanation. He did what was required of him. But in those last days, Bernie was more absent from the public eye than one would have expected. He couldn't have thought that victory was assured. Every poll showed that the race was close.

Harold had trailed Bernie somewhat in the last month of the game, but in the last week he finally closed the gap, even pulled ahead in some polls. [Note: This piece, by Marilyn Katz and Bill Zimmerman ran in In These Times in May 2013. It tells the story of how two ads, "Pledge" and "Shame," produced by Katz and Zimmerman, were instrumental in turning the race for Washington in the last days of the campaign.]

Why did Bernie virtually stop campaigning before the campaign was over? Maybe he understood, somehow, that Harold had pulled ahead, that he would lose by almost 50,000 votes (about four percent out of a total of almost 1.3 million votes). Perhaps Bernie had also concluded not only that the election was lost, but that his political reputation was badly damaged, that the final vote count wasn't going to fix what had been broken.

It may not be possible to pick the point in time when Dad first realized that the campaign and decisions he made in the process would be decisive in how he would be perceived in the years to come. During the summer after the election, he did little other than contemplate his defeat and the way the world seemed to have collapsed around him. During my subsequent visits to Chicago, in occasional discussions about the campaign, he seemed mostly wistful and remorseful--talking about maybe running for mayor again in '87, the possibility of reconciling with Washington and even being appointed to some sort of city commission--but he was mostly lethargic and almost incapable of sustaining a discussion about his future.

Post-election, Bernie rarely ventured out to public events, even though he and my mom had spent nearly 40 years worth of weekday evenings campaigning, attending fundraisers, and showing up at civic and political events, sometimes as headliners. Years later, Tim Black told me about an encounter with Bernie at some sort of civic affair a couple of years after the election. There was time during the evening, Tim said, for Bernie and him to spend a few moments in private conversation.

"Your dad seemed very sad," Tim observed. "He came to me and said, 'Tim, all my friends abandoned me.'"

In a gesture of what I consider to be extraordinary tough love, Tim responded, he said, with "No, Bernie. You abandoned them."

The thought of these two old comrades whose paths had so unfortunately diverged spending that painful moment together nearly breaks my heart. But I much admire Tim for both loving my father and for responding to Bernie with the hard truth.

Like Jesse Jackson, Tim has told me that I must not be ashamed of Dad. "We accomplished so much together," Tim said. "The group we were part of, the work that we did, paved the way for the election of Carol Mosely Braun as a United States Senator, for Harold Washington to be elected Chicago's first black mayor, and for Barack to be elected president. One mistake doesn't change that."

Old as we may have suddenly become--Tim nearly 100, now, me about to turn 70--I know I'm not done learning from Tim Black. And I'm not done learning from the lessons Dad left behind, either. But one of those lessons was always to acknowledge the mistakes that we make and to move forward more wisely because we understand what went wrong.

Another lesson is to love this great city and make it better.


3 comments:

  1. What an incredibly moving article and story. It is filled with important history, reflections on racial conflict and progressive movement (with many elements I did not know about) and familial love. And beautifully written. Thank you for writing it.

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    1. Thanks, Heather. Coming from a person with your record of progressive engagement and achievement, your comment means a lot to me.

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  2. This is a well done, Jeff. I hope it's the first chapter in a larger work. The Washington-Epton campaign and its aftermath for all demonstrate, to me, the truth in this: "Demography is destiny, but character is fate."

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