Lura Armstrong and her mother came to the Black People’s Convention because, Lura says, “we want to get a sense of where the black community is going. We’re not politically active, we’re not affiliated with any community organization, but we try to keep abreast of what’s going on. If my understanding is right, out of this convention and out of the plebiscite next month will come one candidate that black people can stand behind. If my understanding is right, Sawyer and Evans aren’t coming today because they’re afraid of what white people will say if they do. That’s an insult to me as a black voter. They should come down here and find out what we want. If you want my vote, first you have to come to me.”

Rhoda Hatch came to the Black People’s Convention as a representative of the Commonwealth Baptist Church. “I’m here to listen and see who shows up, then go back to my church and make a report to the congregation,” Hatch says. “This is one of the first times our church has gotten directly involved in the political arena–except every time there’s an election we have a sermon going along with it telling people to vote: not who to vote for, but just to register and vote. Two of us from my church showed up today. We’ll tell people what we saw. Our congregation will decide who to support.”

Travis Johnson came as an observer. “This is the black community and this is where black politicians get their base and their power, and you must first start at home. You seldom see overflowing crowds at meetings like this. You can judge the importance of the event not by the numbers of people here, but by their quality: These people are informed. The news will spill out.”

They came filing into Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church last Saturday afternoon, shaking out umbrellas and stamping dry their feet, some 300 delegates and 900 observers, by my count–one-fortieth of 1 percent of the city’s population. They came out of the rain like people coming out of the shadows. They blinked at each other and exchanged greetings. They bought T-shirts saying “One black mayoral candidate” for $8 each, and tennis shirts for $12. Outside, in the rain, “I boo Sawyer” buttons were being hawked for a dollar, videocassettes of Louis Farrakhan for $19.95. Steve Cokely, the former mayoral aide with the happy-go-lucky smile and the dark, conspiratorial fantasies, passed out fliers for his upcoming lecture. “I’m here to kick white supremacy’s butt,” he said. Inside, it was like a town hall meeting in the most ordinary of towns.

Delegates were registered from 151 organizations–24 churches, including Tabor Evangelical Lutheran, Beautiful Zion Missionary Baptist, Christ United Methodist, and Greater Love Baptist; 46 block clubs; 13 ward-level political organizations (four of them run by politicians presently in office); and a host of community and political organizations, including Citizens for Self, People of Purpose, the Anti-colonialism Movement, the Black Health Organization, Concerned Black Fire Fighters, the Afro-American Police League, Alpha Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority–Omega Chapter, the Black Designers’ Association, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Nation of Islam, and Women for Evans.

There were few professional politicians among them. The convention consisted mostly of mothers clutching oversized handbags, fathers holding babies, middle-class people who identified themselves, when you asked, by naming the church they belonged to. No one had a funny haircut.

There was something audacious about their mission–to select a single black mayoral candidate from the three now running: aldermen Danny Davis and Tim Evans, and Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer. Audacious because, while progressives talk piously of rainbows, this was clearly a blacks-only affair; audacious because neither Davis, Evans, nor Sawyer has said he will abide by the plebiscite’s decision; audacious because, with a few exceptions, the people here were littlewigs, small wheels, plain.

Before they started, the Committee on Decent Unbiased Campaign Tactics (CONDUCT), a civic watchdog group established during the last mayoral election to discourage racial politicking, released a statement to the press: “The plan to convene a racially segregated and racially exclusive plebiscite for the purpose of choosing a favored black candidate for next year’s special election represents a step backwards for Chicago. These actions are deeply divisive and give race a preeminence in our political and civic life which it does not deserve. They reflect a deep pessimism about race relations and the future of the city which we believe is unwarranted . . .”

The CONDUCT letter became a butt of levity at the convention. “We don’t get no letters from CONDUCT when we beat up on each other,” said Reverend Al Sampson, of Fernwood United Methodist Church, in his concluding remarks. “We don’t get no letters from CONDUCT when we steal from each other. We don’t get no letters from CONDUCT when we rip off each other. But the minute we try to get together with each other, they gonna tell us, Oh no, don’t do that. Keep whipping each other. Keep lying on each other. Keep hurting each other. But don’t ever, don’t ever come together.”

Sampson said, “This convention only becomes the first of many conventions, so white folks and crazy Negroes, get ready, ’cause we’re going to have some more conventions where we talk to each other, like it or not.”

Sampson’s words went off like firecrackers, but they weren’t nearly as radical–or as reasoned–as the words of attorney Thomas N. Todd, whose speech is quoted at length below. Todd is the recipient of a CONDUCT reprimand himself, and he wears it like the notch in a gunslinger’s belt. He gave one of the most memorable speeches of this political season, summing up the meaning and the message of the convention. His words, thick with emotion, with defiance and pride, rose and dropped like waves onto the willing ears, onto the hundreds of waiting faces.

The Ku Klux Klan held a rally the following day, in Marquette Park. It’s tempting to see the two events as flip sides of the same unhappy coin–as expressions of racial hatred and alienation. But much more than that was woven into the fabric of the Black People’s Convention. It was close to five hours of song, logical argument, prayer, street-corner signifying, and political palm reading. The people there didn’t really resolve anything, but then they never really intended to. At the Black Plebiscite, which will convene toward the end of September, the conventioneers will vote on a candidate and hammer out a platform. For now they just wanted to show their leaders–and the rest of us–where black Chicago is at.

Step back nine months, to the dreary December after Harold Washington’s death. Danny Davis, exhausted after a night of losing politics–he voted against the election of Eugene Sawyer by a coalition of 23 white and 6 black aldermen–slumps into a booth in Clark’s Restaurant on West Chicago Avenue.

“Black people are in a box,” he says. “You can’t have but one black candidate and expect to win. The question becomes, who is that candidate? And how do you arrive at the point where there is only one black candidate? Can the black vote be drawn back together? Will the base be solid enough in the black community?

“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know. I don’t know. Right now, people feel personally violated. There is a feeling that the will of the people has not been expressed. There is a feeling that the will of the people has not been listened to.”

After soup at Clark’s, Davis met up with Lu Palmer, the newspaper columnist, radio commentator, ward organizer, and 40-year veteran of what he calls “our cause.” In conversations then and through the winter, Davis and others prevailed upon Palmer to organize the plebiscite. If Palmer was reluctant to take on the task, it’s because he knew exactly what it entailed. He had put together a similar event in 1982–and helped launch Harold Washington to the fifth floor of City Hall.

“Do you recall 1982?” asks Palmer. “In 1982, there was nobody, including Harold Washington, who wanted to run for mayor.” Palmer says his organization, Chicago Black United Communities (CBUC), “sent out 35,000 fliers and survey sheets–just passed them out wherever black people were and put a full-page ad in the Defender asking people, Who would you like to see run as the black candidate for mayor? We got better than 13,000 forms back, which gave us a clue that people out there were interested. They listed 92 names. Harold Washington had the highest number of responses by far, but I took the top ten names and called each one of them. Four said right off the bat that under no circumstances would they run, so we had six names.

“Now in 1982, nobody in the black community knew what the word ‘plebiscite’ meant. We had a public forum, a voting process, at Bethel AME Church, designed for black people to choose a single candidate. It was for black people because white people are simply not equipped to answer the question of who black people want to be the black candidate.”

To organize this year’s event, Palmer says he sent out letters to “I don’t know how many organizations and churches–hundreds, just taken at random. I sent the word out to as many community organizations, churches, and block clubs as I knew of on all sides of town. I talked about it on the radio and in the newspapers. I got the word out, telling people we were going to hold a plebiscite and inviting them to be a part of the planning committee.

“Some whites wanted to participate, and a Hispanic guy called and asked if he could be a delegate. I told them, I’ll take it to the planning committee. I took it to the committee and the committee voted unanimously that the plebiscite would remain all black.”

When he formally announced the event, Palmer was greeted with a hailstorm of criticism–from blacks as well as whites. His responses were disingenuously simple; some felt they were designed to satisfy those who support him and irritate those who don’t.

Isn’t an exclusively black people’s convention inherently racist, as CONDUCT implies? “You cannot be called racist unless you have the power to oppress others,” Palmer says. “We don’t have power, we cannot oppress another race, so how can black people be called racist?”

Wouldn’t he cry racist at a white-only plebiscite? “No,” Palmer says. “I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Any group has a right–really, a responsibility–to build its own power. As a matter of fact, white groups already do this kind of thing privately, we just don’t know about it.”

Won’t this plebiscite just aggravate the city’s racial tensions? “We are socially and politically aware enough to know that a black candidate must win votes from the broader community in order to emerge victorious in a special election for mayor. The intent is, and the hope is, that only one black candidate will emerge from our efforts, and that this one will have enough going for him not only to attract votes from all other ethnic groups, but to make us proud again. But we must put our own house in order before we seek the help of others. ”

Eugene Sawyer said early on that he would not participate in the plebiscite because his campaign is intended to unite a divided city. Tim Evans declined at the last minute, saying he wished the event were open to “people of all races who are concerned with justice.” Only Danny Davis, an adviser to CBUC’s political arm, the Black Independent Political Organization, agreed to participate in the plebiscite. Doesn’t that make this a Danny Davis production? “This is a production of BIPO and the Black Plebiscite Committee,” says Palmer. “We have had 45 to 50 people present at each of our planning meetings. Some are for Sawyer, some are for Danny, some are for who knows who. They make all the decisions. If I wanted to rig it, I couldn’t.”

But if Sawyer and Evans don’t participate, how meaningful can the plebiscite be? “The importance is, we will have given the politicians a platform if they want to take it, and at least some guidance on where at least some black people are, in terms of a single candidate.”

Palmer slugged away at the questions, but a week before the convention he told me, “I’m tired. I was very reluctant to even sponsor this. I’m just so tired, and it’s so unrewarding.”

As it drew near, the plebiscite began to look like Lu Palmer’s last stand: an inglorious end to an astonishing career as political activist and observer. Here was a man who, 18 years ago, left a position coveted by almost every white reporter in town: he was a columnist for the Daily News. He focused on black affairs, and fought constantly with editors whose refrain, he says, was “Lu, maybe you ought to tone this down.” Finally, he says, the paper ran a point-by-point rebuttal to one of his columns without warning him in advance, and he quit. “I had six file drawers full of materials packed in six cardboard cartons at the News,” Palmer later told Chicago magazine. “I didn’t know if the paper was going to let me take the cartons away. So I called Bobby Rush and said, ‘Send six Panthers over here.’ The Panthers came in full regalia, wearing black leather hats, black jackets, black everything. Each of them picked up a box, and I led them out of the newsroom. Nobody said a word.”

Palmer vowed then “that no white person will put an editor’s pen on any word I write, and I have kept that vow.”

His writing now appears in the Chicago Metro News, a paper that dedicates almost every column inch to the cause of black political empowerment. When he likes a candidate, Lu Palmer will go out and ring some doorbells. His commitment to progressive politics has kept him on the margins of power. “Most of the time, we get our butts kicked,” he says. “But even if we get a rare victory, such as the election of Harold Washington, so far as I’m concerned, we still get our behinds kicked.

“Washington never, during his whole tenure in office, ever provided any support to the black independent political movement out here–the very movement which put him in power. He did nothing to help build up the Task Force for Black Political Empowerment or shore up CBUC. He did everything he could to keep me from winning when I ran for Congress, and he used machine tactics to defeat me.

“Let me tell you one thing. Just after Washington was elected, a citation came from the city inspection department to Lu and Jorja Palmer, with a whole list of violations against the building in which CBUC meets. Now, this building is titled in the name of Jorja English, which is my wife’s name before she married me. My name is nowhere on that title. If they had gone through the proper means, the letter would have come to Jorja English. It came to Lu and Jorja Palmer. That, as you know, is an old machine tactic: deal with them through code violations.”

Palmer says, “I actually don’t get paid for being chairman of BIPO. I actually have to put out money–the mortgage on this building is $421 a month, and CBUC and BIPO have never paid a cent, because they don’t have it. I retired in June as a teacher for the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, and I’m living on a fixed income. After the plebiscite, I am going to reevaluate what I can do for the struggle. I’m 66. I don’t have funds.”

Attorney Thomas Todd began and ended his speech with a song, and people in the audience murmured the words along with him. As he spoke, their cries of “Tell it!” and “Yes, brother!” rose to a thunderous ovation. His voice shook the doors in the back of the church.

“Freedom, oh freedom,” he began.

“Before I be a slave / I’ll be buried in my grave / and go home to my God and be free.”

He said, “I am glad to be here today as a part of this gathering of the black family. I am not ashamed to say it’s a gathering of the black family, for I am black and Lu is black and this is a black church and this is the black community and you are black and all of us are black and I’m not ashamed to say that.

“But sometimes we have to set the record straight, because we become confused . . .

“I am amazed at all the brouhaha about racial plebiscites. If people are concerned about racial plebiscites, they should have been concerned in July in Atlanta, when the Democrats held a white plebiscite. They weren’t worrying about that. Oh, I know. They said that 21 percent of the delegates were nonwhite, but that was a smoke screen. Lu Palmer and these delegates are just more honest than the Democrats. Although they had some black support, black players, and black delegates, what happened at the bottom line? The Democrats ended up with an all-white, all-male ticket. But nobody called that racist. They called that the American way.

“If you are really concerned about racism in a plebiscite, where were you in New Orleans when the Republicans had a white plebiscite, with only 2 percent of the delegates being black? Nobody called that racist. . . .

“I say to the media and to CONDUCT, if you cite us, you better write to the Democratic party, and the Republican party, too.

“What you do today is not unlawful. What you do today is protected by the United States Constitution. Oh, I’m so glad I went to a black college and learned how to read the Constitution. In the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, it says you have a right to peacefully assemble. That’s what you’re doing today. In the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, it says you have a right to petition the government. That’s what you’re doing today. In that same First Amendment, it says you have the right of free speech and free expression. You are not outlaws. You are lawful and you are participating in what America says it really wants.

“The issue of race is a smoke screen because in Chicago and in America, all-black votes have not always been rejected. In 1955, when white Richard J. Daley won with the black vote, that vote was not taken back because it was all-black. In 1975, Lu you remember and I remember, the Committee for a Black Mayor supported a white man. It was all right to be all-black then. In 1979, when the black community elected Jane Byrne, it was all right to be all-black then. So what is the issue about this plebiscite being black? I’ll tell you what it is: as long as the black community supports a white candidate, it’s all right, but when black people support black people it’s all wrong.

“I know what the game is. I understand the game . . .

“Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, on August 28, the same day Martin made his speech, I was sworn in by the Supreme Court of Louisiana as a lawyer. But 25 years after the march on Washington there still beats in the heart and soul of America a fundamental hatred for black people . . .

“This is one of the most critical periods that I have ever seen. There is something wrong in the black family. There is something wrong in our family when we see brothers fighting brothers, sisters fighting sisters, families being torn apart, neighbors not speaking to each other, people who have a record of achievement in our community being turned upon. We need to stop this now. Win, lose, or draw, we are destroying ourselves.

“Some say to me, it’s because of Harold Washington’s death. Yes, we still grieve. Yes, we still weep. Yes, we still hurt. But that’s not the reason. There is something more, beyond just the death of Harold, and we all feel it. I see and I sense that inside our community, there are too many private agendas being placed above the community interest. That’s one thing that’s wrong.

“There are too many private agendas being placed above the community interest: too much contrived confusion, orchestrated confusion, deliberately done, and it’s coming from inside the black community as well as outside. It’s in some people’s interest to show the black community as divided and at each other’s throats. That’s why you read in the white media that there is a split, that there are divisions, there is a fissure. Well, you know we don’t even know what ‘fissure’ means, so that’s not written for us. The perpetration of division is deliberately done because everybody knows that if you are weak, if you are not strong, you cannot fight. No army’s strong enough to fight the enemy within and the enemy without . . .

“Why do we want a black mayor? Why? The reason we want a black mayor is simply rooted in history in Chicago. At least as I have lived in Chicago, only a black mayor has attempted to be fair. Maybe one day, maybe somewhere, maybe a white mayor will rise up and be fair. I haven’t seen one yet. Until I see one, I am sticking with history. Richard Daley was not fair to black people. Bilandic was not fair to black people. Jane Byrne was not fair to black people. Those were the last three white mayors. But Harold Washington was fair to black people, white people, Hispanics, and women.

“Now, if my experience has been bad with white mayors and my experience has been good with black mayors, for me not to support a black mayor would mean I was dumb, stupid, and blind, and I am none of those things.

“Not only should the black community support a black mayor, but, based on history, the white community in Chicago should immediately convene a black plebiscite in the black community and select their own black candidate. Why? Because the black mayor elected in 1983, Harold Washington, was fairer to more white people than all of his white predecessors. Hispanics should convene their own black plebiscite and select their own black candidate because Harold Washington did more for Hispanics than all his white predecessors. If they’re interested in history, if they’re interested in facts, then women in Chicago should hold plebiscites in the black community and select their own black candidate because Harold Washington, the mayor elected in 1983, was fairer to women than any of his white predecessors. Certainly black people should support a black mayor. Harold Washington did more for black people in Chicago by accident than all the white mayors did on purpose.

“If you have a white who is fair, bring him. Bring her. But until you bring one, I would be silly to support them as an abstract proposition. I’m not unfair, I’m just empirical . . .

“I don’t blame white people for dealing with their own self-interest, because that’s what America is about. But why is it that when white people deal with their own self-interest it’s called democracy and when black people deal with their own self-interest it’s called racism? They just keep trickin’ us. They say, We want racial harmony. There has never been racial harmony in America. America was founded on the premise of white male supremacy. Even when Harold Washington was mayor, there was no racial harmony. Never has there been. We’ve only seen temporary, cosmetic rearrangements of relationships.

“So, you want racial peace? Sometimes the cost of peace is too high. Ronald Reagan, why do you build up all these arms? He says, Because if we’re strong, they’ll be scared to mess with us. It’s called peace through strength. Well, I think Ronald Reagan was right. We want peace in the black community. That’s why we’re building up this army. We want peace through strength. That’s why we’ve come together.

“But I say to those of you who talk about racial peace and harmony, you got to bring some to get some.

“You can’t want peace from me and all you give me is war. You can’t want harmony from me and all you give me is discord. You can’t want light from me and all you give me is darkness. You can’t want life from me and all you give me is death.

“If you want some, you got to bring some.

“There was racial peace in the South when I was a child–because black men could not look white men in the eyes. That cost was too high. There was racial peace when I was a child in Alabama because black people could not walk on the sidewalk with white people. The cost was too high.

“In Alabama, we didn’t have a lot of paved roads. Sometimes, they were just clay. Sometimes, they were mud. Sometimes you’d see a sign: muddy road ahead. That was a warning. As long as the sun was shining, as long as it was dry, it didn’t make any difference. But when it rained, you’d get stuck. When you get stuck in the mud, you have to know how to push. We’re stuck in the mud in the black community. We’ve forgotten how to push. When you’re stuck in the mud, as we are, when the wheels are spinning, if you push the car forward, forward, forward, the wheels will spin and dig you deeper and deeper into, the mud. So the way you push, when you’re stuck in the mud, you push forward, then you push backward, then you push forward, then you push backward. To make progress, sometimes you must go backwards to go forward. Hear me! Sometimes you have to temporarily lose, to win in the long run.

“It’s not new in our community. In 1969, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were assassinated. But in 1972, we defeated [State’s Attorney Edward] Hanrahan–a long-term gain. Sometimes you have to go back, to go forward. In 1976, Daley dumped Ralph Metcalfe. A temporary setback. But in 1976 we elected Ralph Metcalfe despite the Democratic party–a long-term gain. After Ralph Metcalfe’s death, they shoved Bennie Stewart down our throats. There was malaise. There was confusion and anger. A short-term loss. But in 1980 Harold Washington defeated Bennie Stewart and went to the Congress, a long-term gain. Sometimes you’ve got to go backwards to go forward.

“Well, were stuck in the mud. I don’t know if we can get one candidate but, Lu, you’ve got to try. You’re right, Lu. This convention is right. . . . I say to you, if we do lose, it will be a temporary loss. And we will have a long-term gain. Do not give up. Keep working. And also, I say to those of you who may be responsible for the short-term loss, history will judge you harshly. And you may be all right in some other community, but you will never be all right in this community again! . . .

“Never again! Never again. We are not going back to the old politics. We are not going back to plantation politics whether the plantation boss be black or white. Tell them we are not going back. Tell them we have reached the threshold of freedom, we have reached the periphery of liberation and seen some indicia of liberty: We are not going back. We are not going back. We are not going back!

“Lu, I know you’re tired. Jorja, I know you’re tired. But don’t stop, because your cause is a righteous cause. Early in the morning, when it looks like you can’t make it anymore, when it looks like everybody has forsaken you, just pause for a while, and say the words of the black gospel song:

“I don’t feel no ways tired / I’ve come too far from where I started from / Nobody told me that the road would be easy. / I don’t believe, I just don’t believe / That you brought me this far to leave me!”

Coming after Todd’s speech, Danny Davis’s presentation of his candidacy was sobering. He read from a spiral notebook. He talked about revenue collection, health care, food poisoning, restoring trust in government. The City News reporter, jotting notes furiously, glanced over at me and said, “I counted two people who fell asleep on this side. Did you see that, too?” Davis later said that he would give exactly the same speech to an all-white plebiscite, if he were invited.

After Davis spoke, Lu Palmer closed the show, and a throng of delegates and supporters gathered around him. I edged in close enough to shout one question: Do you still feel tired? Palmer’s eyes flashed. “I feel exhilarated,” he said.

Research assistance was contributed by R.C. Carr.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jonathan Kirn.