Not one to suffer fools gladly, the blunt-spoken Lutrelle “Lu” Palmer was not exactly a consensus-builder in his day. But if there was one thing that both his friends and foes could agree on, it was that the veteran journalist and political gadfly was a race man of the first order. Born in Newport News Virginia in 1922, the son of a prominent–and ultimately humiliated–Black educator, Palmer came within a thesis of earning his Ph.d from the University of Iowa, and was known to regularly, and publicly, scold peers who self-identified as “journalists” first, and “Black” second.
When a White editor at the Chicago Daily News refused to publish a story on a capo in the Blackstone Rangers, Palmer summoned the street gang’s infamous leader, Jeff Fort, to the newspaper’s downtown office, to convince the editor that it would be in his best interest to run the story.
Palmer would characterize that particular episode as a rare victory in his losing battle against racism in the newsroom, and when he inevitably quit, he worried that the newspaper’s executives might try to stop him from removing the volumes of notebooks he’d accumulated over the years. So he called an old friend, Bobby Rush, who was the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the the Black Panther Party at the time, and asked him to send over a few men to conspicuously help retrieve the boxes of files from the Daily News office.
His association with the Panthers was integral to his political identity. After Chicago police fatally shot Rush’s predecessor, Fred Hampton, in a predawn raid on December 4th, 1969, Palmer was one of the first journalists to assert publicly that the slaying was, in fact, a state-sponsored assassination. Subsequent revelations proved him correct, and, earned him the nom de guerre, “Panther with a pen.”
Hampton’s murder, followed by the death 7 years later of Chicago’s Pharaoh-like Mayor, Richard J. “Boss” Daley, were the main flashpoints for the Black community’s political uprising against the ensconced Democratic machine, culminating in the election of the city’s first Black Mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983. After Daley’s successor failed to even plow the streets of Black neighborhoods entombed in nearly 2-feet of snow in early 1979, it occurred to Palmer and others, that if they did nothing, Black Chicagoans might very well be buried alive by the avalanche of racial animus emanating from City Hall.
The principal problem was that in the Chicago Democratic machine’s monopolization of the political process, it was profoundly anti-democratic. Its old boys’ club of aldermen, precinct captains, ward heelers and central committee men infantilized the electorate by requiring voters to do nothing more than show up at the polls every four years to cast a ballot. Under this arrangement, the best Black Chicagoans could ever hope for was ousting from office an egregiously bad machine pol like the State’s Attorney, Edward Hanrahan, who approved the hit on Hampton in 1969. But if they ever wanted to move beyond choosing the lesser evil to represent them at City Hall, they’d need a new strategy.
They decided to flip the script, recruit the candidate who best represented the Black community’s interests, and then do whatever it took to elect him (there were really no women to consider at that juncture) in a city that was almost a demographic impossibility: roughly a third white, a third Black, and a third Latino.
With his Motown baritone, the soaring cadence of a Baptist preacher, and a striking resemblance to Ossie Davis, Washington had them at hello. The attorney had been part of the Daley machine that dutifully complied with orders to shun Martin Luther King Jr’s 1966 visit to Chicago. But that experience, combined with Hampton’s death, and Daley’s bid to topple Washington’s mentor, a Black Congressman who’d dared challenge the mayor on the issue of police brutality, had caused Washington to defect from the party machine, for all intents and purposes.
Still, when Palmer and his cadre approached Washington about running for mayor, he played it coy, agreeing to the mayoral bid but only if the group registered at least 100,000 new voters and raised $200,000 by the fall of 1982. Washington was nothing if not a pragmatist, and while he was intrigued by the possibilities, mounting a mayoral bid struck him as a tad quixotic. What’s more, he already had a good job, representing Illinois’ 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He had hoped to dissuade supporters by setting the bar high.
No one so much as flinched, least of all Palmer, and his wife, Jorja, who began teaching political education classes– modeled on the Panthers’ efforts under Hampton–at the nonprofit organization the couple had founded and funded, Chicago Black United Communities, on the city’s South Side.
“After every four week period we would have a graduation,” Palmer recalled in a 1992 interview, “and every graduation speaker was Harold Washington. He’d come by, make a nice little speech, give out the citations. The first graduation we had was on the coldest day in Chicago history when the wind chill factor went down to 80 something below zero. We were so poor we had no heat in the building and so the people kept their scarves on, and I mean you could see the breath coming out of their mouths.
But nobody left. I turned to Jorja and said ‘these brothas and sistas are ready’ because you know how our people are about the cold.”
By the fall of 1982, Chicago’s Black radio station, WVON, crackled with Palmer’s clever taunt, “We shall see in 83,” the CBUC had unleashed 2,000 trained organizers on the streets of Chicago, and with their zeal and expertise, they not only met Washington’s initial demands but eclipsed them, adding 180,000 new voters to the city’s registration rolls, and delivering a war chest of nearly half-a-million dollars.
With the incumbent, Jane Byrne and Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley, dividing White Democrats, Washington emerged triumphant in a bitter primary, then squeezed just enough White votes from his Rainbow Coalition to win the general election against a bipartisan White electorate that was unified in its contempt for Washington. For Black Chicago, said Robert Starks, a political scientist professor at Northeastern University and a key political strategist for Washington, the campaign “took on almost a religious or gospel character . . “It became almost a civic religion.”
Despite stiff opposition from white aldermen and state lawmakers, Washington’s administration began to deliver the spoils to his constituents almost immediately, as he worked assiduously to cut everyone in on a sweet deal that had previously been reserved for a privileged few. He rescinded a municipal ordinance prohibiting street musicians from panhandling, issued an executive order forbidding municipal employees from enforcing immigration laws, computerized city departments, extended collective bargaining rights for public trade unions whose rank-and-file members were often kept in the dark about the labor contracts struck between their corrupt leadership and the Daley machine.
He opened up the city’s budget process by holding public hearings around the city, increased the number of women and Blacks at City Hall, capped campaign contributions for contractors doing business with the city at $1,500, and professionalized the city’s workforce by banning patronage hiring and firing, all of which would’ve been unimaginable under the old machine. He even mothballed the city’s limousine, for an Oldsmobile 98.
“We had built Chicago to a peak of Black solidarity by the time it came to elect Harold,” Palmer said in 1992. “You’d better not even think about not voting for Harold Washington. I mean it better not even come in your mind, or somebody would go upside your head.”
Short-lived as it was, Washington’s City Hall was the crowning achievement of a nationwide revolution, that had begun 50-years earlier at the height of the Great Depression, when organized labor integrated its ranks and its leadership, and workers of all races banded together to transform bad jobs into good ones. The sine qua non of that rebellion were the descendants of chattel slaves, who not only helped imbue the economy with unprecedented buying power, but articulated a coherent, shimmering vision of what a racial democracy– a Beloved Community– might look like in practice.
As another Chicago son, Barack Obama, prepares to vacate the White House, his enigmatic legacy can only be understood as a response to this insurrection, and the radical Black polity that was its engine. Any serious interrogation of his record makes it painfully clear that Obama was the titular head of a counterrevolution, intended to undo the democratizing efforts of a generation of Americans who found their voice in the transformative post war years.
You cannot, in other words, even begin to make sense of the Republic’s first Black president without understanding Chicago’s first black mayor, can’t get your arms around what has transpired over the last 8 years without examining the 80 that preceded it, and cannot appreciate the arc of America’s political universe without some clarity on both the top-down movement that catapulted Obama into the catbird’s seat and the bottom-up populist movement which produced Washington.
Washington was everything that Obama was not. Washington reversed public policies steeped in White supremacy, Obama deepened them. Washington weakened the influence of money in politics, Obama strengthened it. Washington accommodated immigrants and helped transform Chicago into a sanctuary, while Obama deported more than any president in history. Washington rewarded organized labor for its efforts to elect him, Obama gave labor unions the cold shoulder, when he wasn’t trying to bust them altogether. Washington opened space for women, people of color, and even workers in the informal sector trying to make a living any way they could in an enervated economy; on Obama’s watch, the nation witnessed an unemployed Black man lynched on a Staten Island street corner merely for selling loose cigarettes.
Washington invoked Fanon, exalted the messianic quality of the African’s experience in the Americas, and exhorted people of color to never give up the fight against injustice and oppression; Obama invoked Reagan, trafficked in folklore, and scolded Black men for feeding their children cold Popeye’s chicken for breakfast. Washington embodied Bessie Smith’s Blues, Obama the mediocre hip-hop of Drake.
None of this was by chance. If Washington’s election is viewed in its most irreducible form– namely, the pinnacle of what the Rev. William Barber characterizes as the nation’s second Reconstruction– then Obama can only be contextualized as the plutocrats’ man in the White House, installed for the singular purpose of preventing a third.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
The assassination of Martin Luther King, coupled with the twilight of American industry’s global dominance, ratcheted up both working class militancy, and the elites’ crackdown on it. Mineworkers in Appalachia and autoworkers in Detroit were fighting to reclaim their trade unions from a reactionary leadership that was in bed with management; communists were on the march in North Carolina, Black Panthers in Oakland, militant white college students protested the war in Berkeley, and Black parents and teachers fought for community control of their school curriculums in Brooklyn. Fred Hampton was organizing Black street gangs and Black professionals, Latinos, poor alienated whites youths, and college students and blue-collar workers of all races into a Rainbow Coalition intent on socialist revolution. Black voters capitalized on white flight following the season of unrest that began with the Watts riots to elect Black mayors in Detroit, Newark, Cleveland, Gary, Washington DC and Atlanta, and Puerto Ricans joined with Blacks and Italians to force the City University of New York to guarantee admission and free tuition for every New York city public high school graduate.
It took all of three months.
With Blacks accounting for a third of the country’s unionized workforce and taking on leadership responsibilities to boot, organized labor’s demands for a bigger share of the pie was causing wage inflation to spike, and combined with the Arab world’s demands that the West pay more for its oil, slicing into the oligarch’s profit margins.
Something had to be done.
Gradually, and then suddenly, the Empire began fighting back. Nixon’s southern strategy, the FBI’s counterintelligence program, and an infamous memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Lewis Powell, who Nixon would later appoint to the Supreme Court, got the ball rolling, isolating the radical Black polity from polite society. New York City’s bankers and corporate executives doubled down on polarizing racial narratives in executing a takeover of New York City’s finances in 1975, scapegoating the pensions, wages and subsidies won by public sector unions for a financial crisis triggered by an overheated real estate market.
By the time an overworked and overweight Washington keeled over dead from a fatal heart attack while working at his desk on Thanksgiving eve of 1987, the sun was setting on the Reagan administration, and Chicago’s white political establishment was plotting a strategy for reclaiming lost ground.
The year after Washington’s death, a Harvard-educated Black Rhodes scholar named Mel Reynolds challenged a Black militant activist and Washington ally, Gus Savage, for the Illinois 2nd Congressional District, which included a swath of Chicago’s south side lakefront. It would take Reynolds three tries to finally unseat Savage but as Frederick Harris wrote in his 2014 book, The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics, the city’s two major daily newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times endorsed Reynolds, as did conservative Washington Post columnist George Will. The main business daily, Crain’s, did not endorse him, but went out of its way to praise him for his tendency to “downplay race as a factor in politics.”
Feted by foundations, bankrolled by wealthy campaign contributors and championed widely by the media and the affluent Hyde Park neighborhood that is home to the University of Chicago, Reynolds’ meteoric rise led one political rival to wonder aloud how an unknown who’d never held public office could amass such campaign cash and notoriety.
“White politicians have bought and paid for a novice who wasn’t even a block captain, or community leader, or even a member of a recognized church. There’s something wrong. His whole staff comes from City Hall, which tells you they’re being supplied to get rid of Gus Savage.”
Reynold’s career would ultimately be derailed by a sex scandal involving a teenage girl, but in his three years on Capitol Hill he amassed a voting record that was solidly neoliberal, voting for the Clinton Administration’s North American Free Trade Agreement, and the omnibus crime bill, both of which were catastrophic for Chicago’s working class and communities of color.
The same year that Reynolds won his Congressional seat, a young, 31-year old community organizer named Barack Obama approached Lu Palmer asking for his support for a voter registration effort. As Palmer told the story, he thought the Harvard-trained lawyer both arrogant and unoriginal, and sent him on his way. But three years later, he would encounter Obama again. An old ally in the Washington campaign, Alice Palmer (no relation) had finished third in the special election to succeed the now-disgraced Reynolds, and she wanted to return to Springfield. Palmer asked Obama to withdraw his name out of respect for the widely-respected Alice Palmer, but Obama refused. Palmer couldn’t recall Obama’s exact words but something about the way he spoke sounded oddly familiar. That’s when it clicked.
“Man, you sound like Mel Reynolds.”Palmer told Obama.
The political scientist Adolph Reed met Obama shortly after his election to the Illinois Senate and he was no more impressed than was Lu Palmer. He wrote in a 1996 article:
“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway. So far the black activist response hasn’t been up to the challenge. We have to do better.”
Three years later later, Obama challenged Bobby Rush for his Congressional seat, and the battle lines were sharply drawn much as they were in Reynolds’ Congressional campaigns.
“A dozen years after the death of Harold Washington, there is a generational shift in the leadership of the Black community,”Chicago Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal wrote in late 1999 as the campaign season was just gearing up in Chicago.
Chicago’s Black community was less impressed, however.
“Barack is viewed in part to be the white man in Black face in our community,” said Donne Trotter, an Illinois state legislator who was also challenging Rush for the 1st Congressional District. “Who pushed him to get where he is so fast? It’s these individuals in Hyde Park who don’t always have the best interests of our community in mind.”
And while Washington auditioned for his job with Palmer and a ragtag group of grassroots organizers in a southside Chicago community center, Obama’s close-up moment was at a 2003 fundraiser at the home of Democratic fixer and Bill Clinton BFF Vernon Jordan, getting face-time with such Democratic establishment fixtures as former White House Counsel Greg Craig, Mike Williams, a lobbyist for a Bondholders’ Association, and law partners at one of DC’s most connected firms, Tom Quinn, and Robert Harmala.
In a 2006 article for Harper’s Magazine, Ken Silverstein noted that Craig “liked the fact that Obama was not a racial polarizer on the model of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton,” and Williams was “soothed by Obama’s reassurances that he was not anti-business.”
“There’s a reasonableness about him,”Harmala told Silverstein, “I don’t see him being on the liberal fringe.”
In a 1992 interview, 12 years before his death at the age of 82, Palmer spoke of how he purchased most of his clothes on consignment. ”I can buy a suit for $10” rather than $200 and “see, the way I look at it that leaves me with $190 I can put back into the struggle.”
He recounted how his father was fired from his job as an administrator at an all-Black high school in Virginia, for no other reason than he protested the vastly different pay scales for Black and White teachers.
“I have given my life, as did my father, to this movement and that’s why it hurts so much to see our people give this city back to white folks,” he said. “Bad enough to give it to white folks but to give it to a Daley.”
“I’m actually depressed now because everything we fought for between 1981 and 1989 has been wiped away, destroyed, stepped on, stomped on.” Palmer said. He sighed heavily, and said almost prophetically:
“I don’t know what’ it’s going to take to bring our people back together.”