In 1996 a record number of African-Americans went to the polls–more than 5.5 million are registered in the south, an all-time high–and they were asked once again by many black candidates for their votes because they’re the same color.

But the power of race seems to be diminishing. Some astute observers, like Howard University political scientist Ronald Walters, even foresee the possible “death of black politics,” though the controversial Reverend Al Sharpton of New York believes that black politics has yet to reach full fruition. “The challenge of the 90s is to get the right blacks elected to office,” he said bitterly in 1994. “It is not that the political system does not work–we have just not tried it.”

Some 50 years ago on the south side, I was an unemployed newsman, having previously worked on three Communist Party dailies across the country. A high party official, William Patterson, was a friend of liberal black alderman Earl Dickerson, who was running for Congress in the First Congressional District. Patterson introduced me to the would-be congressman, and I was hired for his publicity crew.

As a white radical then, I was enthusiastic about Dickerson’s avowed goal to battle racial inequality in every phase of U.S. life. A smooth, ambitious, gregarious insurance-company lawyer, the independent, intellectually inclined Dickerson was attempting an uphill foray against the Democratic machine, and his prospects in the primary looked wretched. Tall, impressive, and always elegantly dressed, Dickerson had slipped into a term as alderman as a virtually unknown independent while party feuds split both the Democrats and the Republicans. But Dickerson had bucked the downtown machine, and Boss Ed Kelly didn’t forget easily. He threw his support to a former Republican wheelhorse alderman, Bill Dawson, a Fisk law-school graduate who’d switched parties to capitalize on the pro-Roosevelt swing of black voters.

Dickerson too tried to attach himself to FDR’s coattails, but his campaign had two fatal flaws, the first of which was his light color. His honey-hued skin wasn’t much darker than my tan, and the opposition camp whispered that he wanted to be white. He was also attacked for sending his daughter to a private white school on the north side. Avowedly militant darker politicians have on occasion pointed to light skin color as a sign that an opponent’s racial loyalty was doubtful. Chicago’s bombastic former representative Gus Savage derided the late secretary of commerce Ron Brown by calling him “Ron Beige.” When Roy Innis ran for mayor in New York against incumbent David Dinkins, he argued that he deserved African-American support because “I’m blacker than he is.” It was the kind of sniping that once led Shirley Chisholm to describe New York’s black politicians as “crabs in a barrel, crawling all over each other so nobody gets to the top.”

Dickerson’s second fatal flaw was his intellectual bearing. With his pedagogic demeanor, his clipped speech, and his elitist, bespectacled appearance, he was an easy mark for Dawson’s label, “Earl the High Hatter,” which was echoed in the pages of Dawson’s Second Ward Voice. (“The Voice Covers the Ward like the Morning Dew,” the paper’s slogan boasted.) The campaign rhetoric sank low in the Voice. Dickerson “is rapidly becoming known as a four-flusher, bullshooter and publicity craver,” read one issue. “He hires publicity agents and photographers to follow him around and record the oh-so-clever phraseology of his marvelous vocabulary, designed to enthrall the intelligentsia of all races into a state of mind bordering on insomnia by reason of the magnitude, longitude and latitude of his erudite erudition.”

Dickerson didn’t stoop as low as the Dawson camp, but he wasn’t averse to reckless mudslinging. In his election literature he indicted Dawson as an Ed Kelly lackey who held a lucrative City Hall job as a plumbing inspector even though he knew nothing about drainpipes. But this charge backfired, winning rather than losing votes for Dawson, apparently because some south-side voters admired him for being an enterprising sharpster who got a job where he did nothing, outwitting his white political bosses.

I always had to keep a low profile in the campaign. My name was never listed in mailings or any other materials. Being known to employ a white outsider (“Silk Stocking Meddlers” is what the Second Ward Voice termed people like me) could doom a black candidate. So the title of publicity director of Dickerson’s campaign was given to a lowly aide at the insurance company where Dickerson was general counsel, John H. Johnson. Johnson rarely wrote publicity literature, but he acted as a general backup man performing routine chores. We soon became close friends. (In time Johnson would play the most significant role in my future in black journalism when he began publishing a new magazine, Negro Digest, and asked me to edit it. Three years later I became the first editor of his Ebony magazine.)

An aspiring, well-groomed, resolute youth, Johnson hoped to one day graduate from the University of Chicago, though he was then working as a $15-a-week factotum on insurance-company publicity. (I was putting together a two- to four-page weekly newsletter, writing and designing campaign literature, and writing regular news releases for all of $5 a week.) Johnson supplemented his skimpy income by working as a street inspector, one of a hundred-odd positions awarded to Chicago aldermen so they could take care of close political cronies and precinct captains. It was Johnson who advised me that the best way to get a press release printed in the Chicago Defender was to attach a five- or ten-dollar bill to it. (When I later became national editor of the Defender, I watched another editor collect.)

The finale of the primary campaign was marked by sleazy trickery that I didn’t learn about until after it was done. The First District included some of Chicago’s Loop office buildings, the black ghetto south of the Loop, and a small number of white precincts, which usually would be in the bag for the machine nominee, in this case Dawson. But a third candidate, an independent white, was in the contest, and some of Dickerson’s associates devised what they figured was a sure way to win these votes for the white candidate–and deprive Dawson of them.

One of Dickerson’s aides went to the office of the white candidate and filched his photograph, then several thousand cards were printed with the names and pictures of the three candidates. “Which Will You Vote For?” was the headline. There was no return address, no credit taken. The card was mailed to lists of white voters that were easily obtained through registration records.

It was the same kind of racist campaign chicanery that had been used for years by white candidates in the south to influence both whites and blacks. And it still goes on. In South Carolina in 1992, a Republican political consultant named Rod Shealy paid $500 to an unemployed black drug dealer (who’s now serving five years in state prison) to run in the Republican primary and draw black voters away from the Democrats and persuade whites to vote for a white Republican candidate. Shealy mailed pictures of the candidates to voters just as the Dickerson aides had. “I didn’t care what black guy,” Shealy later admitted. “It was all a ploy.”

But the trickery didn’t work for Dickerson. Dawson won handily, with his precinct captains producing all the votes he needed. Dickerson finally admitted reluctantly that perhaps Dawson was the better politician. He made peace with Dawson and turned his political organization over to him.

Hearing that I had done much of the graphic promotion work for Dickerson, Dawson called to compliment me on my efforts and to ask me to do public relations for him. “You know you did a good job on me in your publicity,” he said. “I want you to do the same on the Republicans now.” I switched sides and was soon editing the same Second Ward Voice that had helped destroy Dickerson, who never again was elected to public office. It was disconcerting to be asked to write laudatory copy about a man I had berated the week before, but I accepted my dilemma as a part of the distasteful opportunism of politics.

Dawson defeated his Republican opponent by some 3,000 votes, and he would hold on to his congressional seat for 28 years, until his death in 1970 at the age of 84. At his headquarters on election night I was amazed as the vote count came in from ward heelers. Listening to the tabulations, I could occasionally hear someone on the phone ask, “How’s the vote going? How many for Dawson?” The response was sometimes “How many do you need?”

Congressman Dawson urged me to continue in his political organization after election day, promising me a bright political future. We had hit it off at our first meeting. When he paid me my last check, he told me I had a gift for politics and ought to stay in the “game.” We would often meet in weekend sessions in his dark, disorderly headquarters over seedy storefronts along 35th Street.

On the stump, the balding, broad-shouldered Dawson was a bombastic, dazzling, hypnotic orator in the best tradition of Sunday preachers, but in our meetings he was soft-spoken and self-effacing. Sometimes he would reminisce about his childhood in a Georgia town “just this side of hell,” where when he was only 15 he stood guard one night with his father, a barber for whites, to prevent a lynching. Always speaking of himself in the third person, the politician who came to be known as “The Man” would tell me how he “hated the word Democrat” when he came to Chicago with less than 50 cents in his pocket and began to earn his keep on the south side, “the damnedest pesthole ever conceived in the mind of man.”

Dawson freely quoted the classic poetry he’d learned as a student at Fisk University as he expounded his political philosophy, but that philosophy seemed to add up to playing the game according to the rules set forth by white politicians. He once defended black control of the popular numbers game by saying, “If there’s gambling in the rest of the city, then it’s OK in our neighborhoods. If anyone’s going to profit it should be the Negro. I don’t want the mob muscling in and taking out our money. If anyone is going to benefit from the frailties of our people I want the money to stay here where it will work for me.”

I didn’t know whether to believe much of what Dawson told me. He seemed so sincere and down-to-earth when he claimed he just “wanted to do right,” but he would often switch stories. He once said he lost his left leg in a World War I battle, but another time he said he lost it in a train accident. He would also switch positions, starting as a Republican alderman and then going Democratic. An obvious opportunist, Dawson was the archetypal politician of the classic H.L. Mencken quote: “In politics a man must learn to rise above his principles.” He was truly in the 1930-’40s tradition of Chicago as “clout city,” where the Kelly-Nash machine operated with an army of payrollers, white and black, who rarely worked but who thrived on graft (a $2 bill on the front seat of your car bought you a driver’s license without a test from an inspector, and a $5 bill openly carried in your wallet when you handed your driver’s license to a police officer was enough to cancel a speeding ticket).

In his many terms in office Dawson was continually under fire. He was often branded an Uncle Tom and was openly accused in newspaper exposes of everything from perjury to being “a tool of the syndicate” to collecting bribes for his campaign from gambling places in his district. In truth Dawson was no better or worse than many of the black legislators who followed him into offices (or the whites who preceded him).

In his later years he was able to wield far more power than other black politicians by virtue of his seniority. He also escaped the scandals that enveloped black politicians such as Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem and Charles Diggs of Detroit, though his secretary, Frederick Wall, was collared for selling post-office promotions and served time in prison.

Having lived for some years in the notorious 24th Ward of the crafty, Machiavellian Jacob Arvey and having covered City Council meetings while working at the leftist Midwest Daily Record, I had no illusions about Chicago politics. Yet I was still stunned by the tawdry guile I encountered in black politics. My liberal orientation impelled me to expect better, but I finally had to ask myself why I demanded more rectitude from black politicians. I continued to be dismayed over the years to read of one black politician after another nabbed for wrongdoing I once thought only whites were capable of.

Blacks have been elected as mayors in every major American city since Carl Stokes became Cleveland’s mayor in 1967, and there can be little doubt that voting in African-Americans has helped the black community. But for the urban underclass in big cities like Chicago, living below the poverty line in crime-infested slums, there can be few illusions left that simply electing black officials will change their personal lot. Former civil rights leader John Lewis, now representing Atlanta in Congress, contends, “A segment of black leadership has gotten so wrapped up in deal making that they’ve forgotten the people who elected them.”

Far more blunt in his criticism of blacks in public office is Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan, who, at a town-hall meeting sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, didn’t pull any punches: “Most of our leaders are picked by the very same enemy we are trying to get rid of.”

Black mayors have been replaced by whites in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Only four major cities now have black mayors–San Francisco, Washington, Detroit, and Baltimore. “The era when it was a matter of racial pride to elect a black mayor is gone,” says David Bositis, a researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank.

Discerning black leaders grudgingly acknowledge that when it comes to corruption blacks seem to have achieved equality. Kenneth Clark, the eminent black sociologist, once described the most difficult civil rights challenge as “the integration of corruption.”

It’s undoubtedly in the black community’s interest to continue electing black politicians. African-Americans understandably vote for black candidates because they have a gut feeling that someone with black skin will know and represent their concerns better than any white, if only out of self-interest. Unhappily, however, that has not always been the case. Atlanta minister McKinley Young has summed up the dilemma: “It’s like rising to the top of the stairs and discovering that things are just as difficult there as they were at the bottom.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Kurt Mitchell.