Sunday, January 02, 2011

Lazy Sunday Readings: American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard Daley - His Battle for Chicago and the Nation

In order to understand where Chicago is going, we must look back to where Chicago was. In order to put the current mayoral run in Chicago into perspective, we must look back at the singularly most powerful figure in local politics from the last century, Mayor Richard J. Daley.

From Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor's magnificent American Pharaoh's prologue:

Daley, who served as mayor of Chicago from 1955 until his death in 1976, was the most powerful local politician America has ever produced. He possessed a raw political might that today, in an age when politics is dominated by big money and television, is hard to imagine. He personally slated, or selected, candidates for every office, from governor to ward committeeman.... When he wanted something from them - whether it was a congressman's vote on the national budget or a patronage position in the county sheriff's office - he almost always got it... But Daley's influence reached far beyond the borders of his city and state. His control over the large and well-disciplined Illinois delegation made him a kingmaker in selecting Democratic candidates for president -- he was, Robert Kennedy once declared, "the whole ballgame."

To what end did Daley use all of this power? He reigned in an era rich with ideological leaders. Martin Luther King Jr. was battling for civil rights, and George Wallace was fighting for segregation; Eugene McCarthy was campaigning to end the Vietnam War, and President Johnson was struggling to win it. Daley had an ideology of his own: the flinty conservatism that prevailed in Bridgeport and in much of white ethnic, working-class America in the 1950s and 1960s. A devout Catholic and loyal machine member, he believed deeply in authority. He favored the strong over the weak, the establishment over dissidents. Daley liked presidents, business leaders, and powerful institutions; he was offended by anti-war protesters, civil rights protesters, and hippies, who sought to influence policy without doing the hard work of prevailing at the ballot box. Daley believed that poor people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, as his Bridgeport neighbors struggled to do. And he believed in racial segregation, of the kind that prevailed in his own neighborhood. Blacks stayed in the Black Belt to the east of Wentworth Avenue, and whites stayed to the west.

Daley shaking his fist at those d***ed hippies at the DNC in Chicago in '68. More on this story here, where I lifted this pic.

Those were Daley's views, but his agenda in office was less complicated: he was motivated first and foremost by a drive to accumulate and retain power. That was the way of the Chicago machine, and it was Daley's -- make deals and share the wealth with the Church or the syndicate, with black political leaders or anti-black neighborhood organizations, and with anyone else whose votes would help elect the machine's candidates. Daley's primary test of a political cause was whether it would increase or decrease his power... He formed alliances with politicians who could deliver votes, and ruthlessly cut them off when they were no longer useful - or when they became so strong that they posed a threat.

Daley came to see the great liberal crusades of the 1950s and 1960s - civil rights, the War on Poverty, and anti-war movement - as a threat to his power, and he battled against all of them. His focus was Chicago, but his power and influence were such that he ended up quickly shaping the national agenda. Nowhere was this more true than on civil rights. Daley was elected at the dawn of the civil rights era... The ... movement first took hold in the South, where Jim Crow enshrined racial segregation in the law books, but its implications for Chicago were substantial. The city was in the midst of a demographic revolution when Daley took office. The city's black population was reaching record levels, as trainloads of blacks fled their hard lives in the rural South for the promise of a better life in northern cities.

Chicago under Daley became America's major northern civil-rights battleground. After his success in the South, and after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King Jr. decided to take his movement to the North - and he chose Chicago as the place to start it off. King moved into a tenement on Chicago's South Side for eight months in 1966 and spearheaded the Chicago Campaign, personally leading open-housing marches into the city's white neighborhoods. Daley responded to King's drive with a brilliant campaign of his own. Daley did not make the same mistake so many southern governors and mayors had: he refused to let the movement cast him as the villain in its drama. In the end, Daley's handling of the Chicago Campaign would have far-reaching effects on the civil rights movement across the country. Daley also played a key role in preserving racial segregation in education, both in Chicago and nationally. Chicago's public schools were nearly as segregated as the southern schools that were being ordered by federal courts to integrate. Daley fought back attempts to integrate Chicago's public schools, and took on the federal government when it tried to force school desegregation on the city.

Daley was also a leading opponent of President Johnson's War on Poverty, and again his victory was felt far beyond Chicago. Daley did not share Johnson's moral commitment to using government programs to lift the disadvantaged up from poverty, but his greatest objections were political. Johnson's poverty programs incorporated the liberal notion of "maximum feasible participation," which meant that poor people should have as much control as possible over how poverty programs were run. Daley saw these programs as a threat to the machine, because they put money and power in the hands of independent community activists.

It goes on to acknowledge his great, grand mid-20th century accomplishments: the wide Dan Ryan expressway, the busy O'Hare Airport, the tall Sears Tower, the illustrious Magnificent Mile. But then the authors note that these accomplishments worked to further segregate the city and to give the greatest benefits to the wealthiest.

The segregation is still widely felt within this city, whether through the forced displacements of gentrification or through the apartheid-like differences in schools with nearly universal Black and/or Latino students versus those serving more White students.

It's important to know that the city has a history of strong segregation, because then one may understand why a progressive Black candidate like Danny K. Davis would give up his mayoral run (a fairly decent one) in order to give his endorsement to Carol Moseley-Braun (who is much more centrist), so that an African-American can stand a better chance against the White candidate, Rahm Emanuel (who is being supported now by former President Clinton). Ordinarily, wouldn't one progressive want to support another progressive - if that progressive truly believed in progressive causes? I think so, but in this case, the segregation issue was just too big to ignore. (Although a true progressive policy would make it so that all parties are heard and given a true chance to succeed. Which is what I believe that Miguel del Valle offers.)

At least that's my theory.

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