By James Krohe Jr.
It’s been 21 years since Richard J. Daley croaked from a heart attack, but he lingers still in Chicago’s dreams. Voters elected his oldest son mayor in the hope that dad passed on to Richie more than his name.
The early returns on a politician’s career come, of course, from the voters, and most of them agreed that Daley was the perfect mayor in the 1960s and ’70s. But the pictures of him drawn by historians and social scientists today scarcely resemble the caricatures of either his hagiographers or his haters. The famous master pol, it turns out, didn’t care much for politics, and arguably wasn’t very good at it. The greatest Democrat mayor was indifferent to the fate of the Democratic Party. “Mr. Clout” lacked the power to affect the most important issues. Far from the best man to run Chicago in those days, he was as unfit by experience and training to run a multicultural city as a nun is to manage a nightclub. Yet the infamous ghetto maker also emerges, paradoxically, as a friend to blacks.
Journalists fed off Daley’s corpse while it was fresh, and scholars have been boiling the bones ever since. But Daley the politician continues to be obscure. Most of his deals and deliberations remain hidden; anything that might be valuable to scholars would also have been valuable to state’s attorneys and intraparty rivals, so Daley apparently kept it all in his head. In much the same way that astronomers deduce the mass and movement of an unseen star by its effect on the things around it, scholars have built up a picture of Daley in studies of housing or municipal finance or racial politics. These works seldom show up at Barnes & Noble, and so far none have come close to the major biography based on original sources that a mayor of Daley’s historical heft probably deserves. Daley’s personal papers remain unavailable, and there’s no rich harvest of memoirs to sift through. The mayor’s associates were not what you might call literary men; Daley valued aides for their inability to explain what was going on to outsiders.
It takes a while for history to digest really large figures. Anyone capable of writing the authoritative book may well disdain the assignment–Daley’s life is unlikely to keep a first-class mind stimulated until the grant runs out. Journalists often assume that a person at the center of interesting and important events must be interesting and important. Daley the mayor loomed large, but Daley the man was, well, basic.
All who knew Daley remarked on his quickness to take offense–Norman Mailer wrote of his “massive bull temper.” Many an uptight public figure possesses charms that he reveals only in private, but even his admirers concede that Daley was provincial and narrow-minded. We assume that such a powerful figure must be able to tap reservoirs of shrewdness in his private dealings. But the evidence compiled to date has yet to find many examples. In 1995’s Richard J. Daley: Politics, Race, and the Governing of Chicago, Roger Biles cites an often-quoted anecdote from a former executive of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, who recalled that when President Johnson asked Daley for advice on how to extricate the nation from the nightmare in Vietnam, Daley replied, “Well, figure out how you got in. And get out the same way.” Biles recounts the remark because it smacks of peasant wisdom, though a second look reveals it to be poppycock. It suggests why Daley had little influence in dealing with presidents beyond helping to get them elected.
In contrast to the heroic dimensions of the mythical Daley, the real guy was, as Biles puts it, a “plodding Irishman from Back of the Yards.” Milton Rakove, a hardheaded political analyst who tended to go softhearted when writing about Daley, summed him up as a “devout Roman Catholic,” a “true son of Erin,” a “staunch family man” born of “hardworking parents,” and a “neighborhood boy” who never forgot his roots. Bridgeport produced every mayor from Ed Kelly to Michael Bilandic, and Bridgeport politics was Daley’s university. Any day now some PhD candidate will trace Daley’s divide-and-conquer approach to the packinghouse owners of his youth who split Back of the Yards society by exploiting ethnic resentment and suspicions.
Still, Daley was a queer sort of Irishman. He had no gift of gab, betrayed no trace of the poet, and could be described as the life of the party only in the political sense. His virtues were patience, a capacity for hard work, and guile.
Bridgeport was no longer an Irish neighborhood but an Irish-American one, and Daley fit as perfectly there as moss on a rock. Clannishness, insularity, and pugnaciousness toward outsiders were elevated to political principles. Bridgeport’s political factions were famously prone to violent vendetta. As Finley Peter Dunne put it, “soaking” a man with a brick was a “mere diversion.” The Bridgeport Irish were also acutely sensitive to intramural class distinctions. The young Daley was a protege of a “shanty Irish” pol, Joseph “Big Joe” McDonough, who named Daley a precinct captain and City Council clerk. This left him vulnerable to the slurs of his betters.
Like so many before him, Daley converted the contempt of his social betters into a prideful modesty by insisting that what he could not have was not worth having in the first place. “He does not like [places like Maxim’s],” wrote Mike Royko in Boss, because “people might think he was putting on airs” or “going high-hat.” He declared against all evidence that life in Bridgeport was every bit as nice as in other places. To the end of his days, he derided as social climbers the Irish who moved to different neighborhoods.
In fact, Daley was modest only by the standards of the wider world. He always dressed like a banker in suits pointedly not made in Bridgeport, and one suspects that he stayed there because having what everyone called the “nicest house” meant more to him than having an average one in a better neighborhood. That so many of his neighbors depended on his patronage no doubt satisfied what seems to have been his natural desire to play lord of the manor.
In Daley’s youth there were 11 Roman Catholic churches within a single square mile of the Back of the Yards. But the faith of most Irish Catholic pols owed less to virtue than to convention, and faithful church attendance made them no more pious than playing golf makes one athletic in Burr Ridge. Daley was different. The archbishop of this secular church was a paragon of piety. He attended mass every day. Whatever effect it had on him, Len O’Connor wrote in Clout, the spectacle of the mayor praying regularly probably soothed LaSalle Street.
Piety and modesty are novel virtues in a politician of any era, the more so in one who presided, as Daley did, over a political operation notorious for its moral squalor. During his years in Springfield, Biles writes, Daley led the life of a “Roman Catholic puritan in Babylon.” His bigotry against adulterers among his inner circle, indeed his pruderies about sex in general, suggests that inside Daley there lurked a prissy choirboy.
However polyglot its personnel, the values and preoccupations of the Daley machine derived from the Irish community that gave rise to it. And little about the community can be understood without reference to the church. The term “Irish” as understood in Daley’s Chicago was shorthand for “Catholic.” Indeed, it may be just as accurate (and in some ways more revealing) to consider the Daley organization as a Roman Catholic machine. The sense of grievance that fueled the political ambition of the Irish owed much to their bitter memories of anti-Catholic bigotry both here and in the old country.
Daley disguised the religious content of his politics in platitudes, perhaps because he did not want to risk exciting the kind of Catholic baiting he must have recalled from his youth. Paul Green, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Administration at Governors State University and a chronicler of Chicago’s Irish pols, suggests that the Irish machine was born in the aftermath of a nasty anti-Catholic campaign by incumbent mayor Big Bill Thompson in 1915. Daley was then 13, an age when most kids awaken to the injustices of the world.
The machine has often been described as a rude secular church. The faithful were attended by a hierarchy of priests who in turn served the infallible authority enthroned on the fifth floor of City Hall. This structure must have been comfortingly familiar to immigrants from Europe and, later, Latin America, and was probably responsible for their ready acceptance of it.
In the polite postwar era, religion has been defined as a private matter, and thus placed safely outside the bounds of public discourse. Religion as an aspect of political life is hardly touched upon by journalists, and this omission has distorted contemporary views of Daley in particular. His references to “church” as a cornerstone of family and neighborhood life apparently masked a zeal for Christian politics that would earn hallelujahs from Pat Robertson. Daley saw the 12 disciples as a political party, according to Mike Royko, and he apparently understood political parties to be agents of Christ. Milton Rakove wrote in Don’t Make No Waves–Don’t Back No Losers, “Daley’s mission on earth, in answer to the summons of his Lord, has been to do God’s work on earth by manipulating the processes of politics and government to create the Good Society in light of what he considers to be the Lord’s will for him and for mankind.”
Daley’s attitude toward sin matched that of most Bridgeporters in his day. To condemn it was presumptuous; to try to reform it was futile. By leaving virtue to the church, Daley was able to appropriate sin for the machine with a clear conscience (generally speaking, a sin was a personal matter, to be deplored only if it embarrassed the organization). He used men’s lust for money or influence to bend them to his will.
God does move in mysterious ways. Daley would probably disdain the comparison, but reading about him today brings to mind another Chicagoan who finds God’s purpose in politics, and who preaches of home and church as the sources of moral authority. Unlike Jesse Jackson, however, Daley never spoke of God’s will, or at least no one understood him to do so. Perhaps the Lord did speak through him, and what was dismissed as inarticulateness was just Daley speaking in tongues.
The essential facts of Daley’s political life are these: He was trained as a secretary at DeLaSalle Institute, and later attended night classes at DePaul University to earn his law degree in 1934. He was elected state representative in 1937, after which came stints as a state senator, state director of revenue under Governor Adlai Stevenson, and county clerk; he ran for sheriff once and lost. He won a seat on the Cook County Democratic Central Committee in 1947 and in 1953 was named its chairman.
The 1955 city elections gave Daley the mayor’s chair, too. He died in office in 1976, his machine creaking, his aides facing jail on corruption charges, his city’s reputation stained by riot and repression.
His prowess as a candidate forms the larger part of his reputation. The voters gave Daley an unprecedented six straight mayoral victories; he won at least 60 percent of the vote in eight of the ten primary and general elections between 1959 and 1975. Daley’s constituency transcended that of his putative party; it was broad enough in his middle years to qualify as consensus. Developers, union bosses, contractors, bond houses, and banks all regarded this most determined of public works mayors as a saint–he performed miracles by turning tax money into concrete. O’Hare Airport, not one but two McCormick Places, a huge water treatment plant, expressways galore–all built during Daley’s time. Home owners got everything they required, from streetlights to sewers. And if Daley gave these, his core constituencies, what they wanted, he gave black Chicagoans more than they might have gotten someplace else. His luck put him in City Hall at a time of federal largesse. Instead of having to spend precious jobs and contracts on black newcomers, he lavished on them all the riches of the welfare state.
Public spending was given priority according to his political needs. Critics at the time noted that when the city’s bridges, sewers, and viaducts were crumbling Daley chose to invest in improvements such as streetlights that were visible, cheap, and noncontroversial and so offered big political paybacks
relative to their cost. Later, when federal money became tight, Daley borrowed against tomorrow (like most pols do) and put off spending on things like lake revetments.
His real innovation was loading City Hall payrolls with permanent “temporary” workers exempt from restrictions on party political activity. Patronage workers were his real constituency, and he indulged them lavishly at the expense of taxpayers. The no-show payroller is a stock character in the city’s comedy, but a heavier public burden was imposed by thousands of underqualified people who did their jobs conscientiously but ineptly. Ordinary inefficiencies were left uncorrected because they served the organization’s need for patronage positions. Daley’s notion of public administration put efficient service ahead of efficient administration. This labor-heavy approach was fairly prompt in delivering services, but in the end it was burdensome.
In spite of this fiscal foolishness, Chicago did not go bankrupt in the 1970s as Cleveland did. Nor did it suffer the municipal worker strikes and money shortages that plagued New York in those years. At the time most experts credited the city’s fiscal health to Daley and certainly he deserves some credit for it. Unlike most of his predecessors, he could add up a balance sheet. But the rather puffy claims of managerial efficiency made by his defenders have not been sustained by scholars. In Mayors and Money, for example, Esther Fuchs notes that different state mandates and different taxing powers were why Chicago stayed solvent while bond brokers wouldn’t return New York’s phone calls–it wasn’t any difference in the way they were run. For example, Daley enjoyed an incalculable advantage over New York mayor John Lindsay by fobbing off most of the usual responsibilities of city government. In the mid-70s Chicago–the corporate city–was only one of ten separate bodies supplying services to the people of Chicago. Parks, schools, mass transit, sewage treatment, welfare, hospitals, community colleges–all were off the books at City Hall. Daley did not invent the city’s fractured fiscal system, but he exploited it cannily, as in 1972, when he engineered a deal in which the administration of Aid to Dependent Children was turned over to the state. The difference this made in the revenues each mayor had to squeeze from his constituents was dramatic: In 1975 New York City spent $956 per capita, while Chicago spent $146.
Daley became mayor in 1955 by becoming head of the machine, and he stayed mayor because he was good at running the machine. He also benefited from his time. Political power in Illinois was split evenly between downstate and the city, giving him lots of leverage in his bargaining with governors and presidents. And Chicago was devoid of bona fide Republicans. His first four administrations coincided with the flight to the suburbs of thousands of middle-class voters. Postwar prosperity pretty much destroyed the good-government force in the city.
Daley’s success offers few lessons for today’s pols. He was an anachronism even while he served. He was Chicago’s last 19th-century mayor. Neither photogenic nor charming, he delivered speeches like a bailiff delivering an eviction notice. Daley became head of the machine by attaching himself to stronger, better-placed men, whose removal–usually by conveniently dying–left niches that he was quick to fill. He was insecure–a trait that verged on paranoia in his later years–and most of his deftest political moves co-opted potential rivals within the party. In 1970 he promoted Adlai E. Stevenson III to the U.S. Senate, thus ridding himself of a state treasurer with a well-known name and liberal credentials who was imagined to have potential as a leader of antimachine reformers.
Do-gooders had little chance against a man so expert in the use of weapons they disdained on principle. Daley had been opposed in his first race for mayor by reformers who were backed by business. The latter provides clout (mainly in the form of money), the former passion; united in opposition to a common foe and blessed with a plausible candidate, these two groups (more accurately, coalitions of groups) could be politically formidable, as Daley had learned in 1955.
He brilliantly split this coalition during his first term by undertaking a public works program that won the support–and lined the pockets–of bankers, developers, and large downtown retailers. He got big business marching to his tune under the banners of the “Nonpartisan Committee for the Reelection of Mayor Daley” and “All Chicago Committee for Mayor Daley.” The antimachine reformers continued to rail, but with no money and no press they were condescended to as tattletales and scolds.
Yet, save from electing its own to the City Council, the machine never did nearly as well for any candidate not named Daley. For instance, Daley backed a lot of lame horses in Illinois gubernatorial races–Sam Shapiro, Paul Simon, Mike Howlett. He was beaten by Dan Walker, who went on to take the statehouse. Then he helplessly watched Walker hand back the statehouse to the Republicans in a landslide for Jim Thompson, the man who as U.S. attorney put many of Daley’s pals in jail.
Various explanations have been offered for Daley’s many miscues as a statewide slatemeister. Did his slating decisions reflect devious internal politicking whose purpose only he could divine? Or was he just another big-city rube? All politics is local, said another famous Irish pol. Daley, even after a quarter century as the effective head of the state’s Democratic Party, knew as much about Illinois outside Cook County as he knew about Samarkand.
Of course, there’s the story of putting John Kennedy in the White House. The tale looms large in the Daley legend (it’s where Richard Ciccone opens his 1996 book, Daley: Power and Presidential Politics). Everybody knows about it: Kennedy carried Chicago in 1960, and thus Cook County, and thus Illinois, and thus the electoral college, all because of widespread ballot fixing by the machine. Daley was pleased to let the world think he’d made JFK president because he knew that nothing enhances one’s power like having a reputation for power. Scholars have since confirmed that Nixon would have lost Illinois even without the machine’s helpful exertions. If the machine did try to steal an election that year, some have said, it wasn’t from Nixon but from Daley nemesis Ben Adamowski, who was up for reelection as state’s attorney. The popular Pole posed a particular threat–his prosecution of police corruption was a dandy platform from which to launch a mayoral bid against Daley in 1963. In effect, JFK may have traveled on the coattails of the machine’s candidate for state’s attorney, Daniel Ward.
Daley’s reputation for making presidents exceeded his ability to do so. He couldn’t help his old boss, Adlai Stevenson, in 1956 (though it probably mattered little who Daley backed that year, because Eisenhower carried not just the state but the city, too). The race in 1964 was one that no Democrat could lose; LBJ’s big win in Illinois owed as little to Daley as Stevenson’s big loss. In 1972 Daley couldn’t keep the doomed George McGovern from being nominated for president, and he couldn’t even keep his seat at that year’s convention. By 1976 the aging Daley couldn’t pick a winner, much less make one; by underestimating Jimmy Carter, he failed to back the winner early and, as Len O’Connor later pointed out, lost his chance to place Carter in his debt.
Then there was 1968. Liberals still speak of how Daley lost the White House that year for Hubert Humphrey by embarrassing the nominee on national TV. Writers less prone to demonizing Daley–Garry Wills is one–have advanced the more sensible opinion that the head busting by Chicago’s finest probably helped Humphrey with voters who shared the mayor’s hatred of antiwar radicals.
But Daley probably lost Humphrey a lot of votes, too. By 1968, Daley’s policies on housing and schools and hiring over the previous decade had induced many a disgusted black Chicagoan to simply stay home. That may have cost votes for Humphrey, an old civil rights stalwart who drew well in middle-class black wards. Perhaps worse, many whites were voting for George Wallace–in some cases with the active encouragement of ward leaders. Humphrey ended up losing Illinois by only 100,000 votes or so. Daley’s machine may have been a kingmaker that year–by helping to put Richard Nixon into the White House.
The Chicago machine was a Daley machine, not a Democratic one, which is why the wheels fell off City Hall when the old man died. As any number of witnesses testified, after Daley was safely dead, the criterion for success in the machine was fidelity to the mayor’s interests, and what was good for Daley and the machine was often bad for the party. Daley would opt to advance not the best candidate but the candidate who was owed the most for his service to the organization. Such moves are advanced by loyalists as proof of Daley’s honor, but it seems just as plausible that he slated these geezers out of his fear of rivals. He surrounded himself with ineffectual toadies, men that Mike Royko rather overpraised as “good sturdy mediocrities.” By protecting himself, however, Daley kept potential successors starved of the experience and standing that he himself had used to revivify the ailing machine in the early 1950s. Several analysts have said that Bilandic could have beaten maverick Jane Byrne in 1979 if the regular Democrats had also fielded a credible black Democratic candidate for mayor–which they could not, since Daley never dared to cultivate black leaders. By never giving the talented and ambitious a power base, he kept himself strong and the government stupid. The city was run like a Soviet cement factory. Biles’s characterization of Daley as a “colorless apparatchik” is both psychologically and sociologically astute.
Like many a feudal lord, Daley couldn’t imagine his city without him; Chicago endured years of political drift and turmoil after his death because he had neglected to groom a successor, apparently assuming that his eldest son would automatically get the job as a matter of right.
It was Daley’s bad luck, and Chicago’s tragedy, that an Irishman of his generation was mayor at a time when the city’s population increased from 18 percent to 35 percent black. By his 64th birthday, in 1966, ten times as many black people lived in Chicago as when he was 18. By the time he died, the city’s official black population was well over a million. Between 1960 and 1980 the number of city wards that were 80 percent or more black went from 6 to 14.
The consensus of historians is that race was the key to Daley’s success as head of the machine–and to his failure as mayor. There were intelligent people in his day who believed that America had found the answer to its race problem, and it was to get rid of public officials like Daley. His attitudes seemed to harden along with his arteries, but that’s too simple, if not exactly unfair. The black migration was, with suburbanization and the demise of 19th-century-style industry, the great city-shaping force of the mid-century. Attempts to cope by the Daley organization– alternatively accommodating, defiant, hypo-critical–mirrored the city’s larger struggle.
Here is the aspect of the Daley record most ripe for revision. The first books on Daley by journalists were unremitting in their condemnation of his race policies. Later scholars may not have shed much more light on the topic than did, say, Mike Royko in Boss, but they’ve treated Daley and race with a lot less heat, presenting a more complex picture of racial change. Their Daley did not single-handedly build the ghettos, for example, and class figured as well as race in his political calculations–if seldom as decisively.
Daley, the quintessential deal maker, sought two accommodations to the city’s new black presence. The first was his own machine’s political accommodation to the burgeoning constituency; the second was the city’s social accommodation to its new demographic reality. The first accommodation Daley pulled off masterfully; the results of the second were more ambiguous. Both accommodations were, from the black perspective, disasters.
The legend of Daley the political wizard originates in the fact that he managed to run a racist city administration and still draw crucial black votes to support machine candidates. Through the 1950s and into the ’60s it was enough for Daley to not be assertively antiblack to outpoll opponents who were either racist or otherwise unappealing to the black wards. In 1963, state’s attorney Ben Adamowski was a credible candidate for mayor who courted ethnics by taking a stand to the white side of Daley’s official (if tepid) commitment to open housing. Daley’s views on race were little different from Adamowski’s, but black voters backed a man who was not eager to advance black interests to forestall the election of a man bent on rolling back gains. Not being antiblack made Daley still too liberal for a lot of white working-class members of the Democratic coalition. Adamowski got 51 percent of the white votes cast and carried 18 wards. He even captured 28 percent of the vote in Bridgeport.
Daley found himself in 1963 at the same fork in the road that George Wallace had come to a few years before in Alabama. Like Daley, Wallace had begun his political career as a moderate on race. But the specter of court-ordered school integration panicked the south as public housing did Chicago. Like Daley, Wallace bet on the past against the future; like Wallace, Daley became a symbol of the law-and-order backlash against civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests. Bridgeport was George Wallace’s hometown of Clio, Alabama, without the dirt roads. There was the same suspicion of outsiders, the same working-class grimness, the same anti-intellectualism. George Wallace’s well-quoted disdain for pointy-headed intellectuals was shared by Bridgeport.
Neither man was a simple bigot, and neither offered simply racist programs. Southern historian Edward Ayers wrote last year in the New Republic that Wallace opposed integration because black people were, to his followers, symbols of ideological and class resentments based in real inequalities. In Chicago, whites saw the federal insistence on open housing as an attempt at social engineering–a plot by liberals who believed fervently in black people’s right to move into other people’s neighborhoods. Both Daley and Wallace articulated those resentments by speaking in a code that reporters and other highfalutin types translated only crudely.
Daley’s career prefigured the shift of the white ethnic working class to the Republican Party that began tentatively with Barry Goldwater in 1964 and culminated with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The south, a prescient Garry Wills wrote in 1975, “has preserved what Democrats are trying to foster elsewhere–‘ethnicity,’ neighborhood, populism, a blend of tradition and rebelliousness.” While the national party followed the northern liberals, Daley bent toward the other members of the Democrats’ alliance–what Wills called “presentable mild segregationists.” By the late 1960s, the difference between Irish big-city machines like Daley’s and the south was mainly in the accents in which they denounced federal integrationist demands.
Daley continued to rack up large black vote totals even after his strategic shift to a white agenda in 1963. Historian John Allswang says in The Mayors, “Daley’s 1967 campaign was as successful among blacks as among the rest of the people.” Well, among some blacks. A key part of the machine’s black support came from the “second ghetto”–which was mob dominated and often governed by white front men. These “plantation wards,” where politics was practiced at its most crass, gave Daley substantial majorities well into the 1970s, while his black support elsewhere had begun to dissolve. Black voters overall cast fewer ballots as the Daley era wore on. By 1971 only one black ward–Jake Arvey’s old 24th on the west side–delivered a higher margin for Daley than the city as a whole, and only two black wards (the 24th and the 27th) remained among the top vote producers. Turnout in the Second Ward, the heart of William Dawson’s old empire, dropped 21 percent from 1967.
In 1975 Daley was challenged in the Democratic mayoral primary for the first time since 1955. The contenders were Bill Singer, a white liberal from the 43rd Ward, and Richard Newhouse, a black state senator from Hyde Park. Daley took all 14 black wards, winning all but two handily–a result that to more credulous observers was yet more proof of the machine’s invincibility. The ’75 mayoral primary could plausibly be considered a defeat for Daley in the black wards. He won with pluralities; in 13 of the wards the vote for his opponents equaled 52 percent.
Daley was more popular among blacks than he was among ethnics until the civil rights upheavals began in earnest around 1963. He was a master at placating agitated reformers by giving them symbolic victories that relieved political pressure on him to make real changes. This skill is usually dismissed as political flimflam, but Daley grasped the symbolic appointments that legitimize the claims of outcast groups. He liked to brag that Chicago had more black judges and more black police commanders than New York City, but neither group proved willing or able to curb police abuses directed at their fellow African-Americans. During Daley’s 21 years as mayor only one black was elected with the support of the Democratic organization to a citywide office–Joseph Bertrand for treasurer in the 1970s.
By joining the Democrats, black wards surrendered their leverage on the white establishment, effectively granting monopoly power to the Democratic Party. By the time Daley took over, blacks were ghettoized politically as well as physically. Richard Keiser, an assistant professor of political science at Carleton College who has studied African-American politics in Chicago, calculated that, apart from his 1963 race against Adamowski, Daley could have won four of his five reelection campaigns if his opponents had gotten every black vote that went to him.
As blacks moved toward the Democratic Party, the local party began moving away from blacks. As their percentage of the city’s electorate grew in the Daley era, their political standing in Chicago actually regressed. Daley made blacks political partners, but removed black issues from the local party’s agenda. He expanded the number of black aldermen, but only in wards that had turned black (and, on the west side, often not even then). He replaced power brokers like William Dawson with what political scientist William Grimshaw has called “civic notables” like Ralph Metcalfe to polish the image of the machine, but he refrained from giving blacks access to real power.
Black hiring at City Hall increased under Daley but remained disproportionately small. In 1932 blacks made up 7 percent of the city’s population and a bit more than 6 percent of the civil service workforce. In 1976 blacks were 37 percent of the population but held only 24 percent of the city jobs. Black hires in departments that were traditionally white ethnic bastions, like the Police and Fire departments, were especially scant.
‘Twas not always thus in Chicago. The election of Chicago’s first black aldermen, committeemen, and (in 1928) congressman occurred decades before the civil rights movement. Ed Kelly had welcomed blacks into the Democrats’ ruling coalition in the 1940s, appointing a black person to chair the Chicago Housing Authority and committing himself to desegregating the schools and opening the housing market. Perfectly sane people said blacks in 1950 had more clout in Chicago than in any other city in the United States.
This solicitous attitude toward blacks had to do with the delicately poised politics of Chicago, which had not yet emptied itself of reform-minded (meaning antimachine) Republicans. The machine needed the black vote to counter them, so the black vote could not yet be taken for granted.
In the first half of this century black ward bosses had a product–votes–and willing customers in the various factions of the GOP and the Democratic Party. It was a seller’s market, and shrewd black pols like Dawson, Oscar DePriest, and the Reverend Archibald Carey demanded and got a good price. As late as 1951, the GOP won 48 percent of the vote for mayor in wards that were more than 90 percent black. It wasn’t until Daley’s election as mayor in 1955 that blacks truly joined the Democrats at the local level–a move that ended for this century at least their market value as coalition partners. Only when a charismatic black candidate roused black voters to combine with white reformers were they able to beat Daley–Richie Daley that is, in the 1983 Democratic mayoral primary.
In a town where every neighborhood belongs to someone else, newcomers can make their own place only by invasion. In Chicago housing has been, with schools, the battleground for social hegemony. Poor blacks in particular were shepherded into public housing projects, vertical townships built with government support and sanction. The color line was held in the private housing market by banks, real estate agents, and neighborhood vigilantes, all acting with at least the tacit approval of City Hall. But as overcrowding caused black families to push ever harder against it, the wall began to crack. In 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down racially exclusive real estate covenants–binding clauses in deeds forbidding the sale of properties to blacks. This voiding of racial covenants spurred black moves into Kenwood, Hyde Park, Oakland, Woodlawn, and North Lawndale. But white flight, usually offered as a consequence of racial change, in fact precipitated it. Few whites were able to move up, or out, during the Depression and World War II. Prosperity, and generous subsidies from Congress, triggered an exodus of young families to cheap new houses along the city’s periphery. That weakened demand for the bungalows of the racially homogeneous near-middle class.
The only way for public officials to slow this familiar process of displacement was to manipulate the private housing market. Several state urban renewal laws sought to clear the slums caused by overcrowding and criminally indifferent landlording and rehouse blacks in public housing. Thus a commitment was made, with the usual mixed motives, to a massive public housing scheme for Chicago. Hyde Park was crowded in the 1950s by poorer blacks seeking housing in its abandoned districts, and the University of Chicago pioneered efforts to save neighborhoods not yet “tipped” in terms of racial balance. The Illinois Redevelopment Act of 1941 called for public acquisition of derelict black properties, clearing them and building new housing to replace them. Oakland-Kenwood community leaders sought “conservation agreements” with owners to improve maintenance–often by “deconverting” buildings that had been newly occupied by black tenants. Sure, the plans as implemented amounted to “Negro removal,” but historian Arnold Hirsch wrote in his fine book Making the Second Ghetto that this was not the conscious intent of the programs’ designers, even if the programs were “precisely tailored to achieve those ends.”
As explicated by Hirsch, building better housing at higher density would solve the pressing need for more decent housing without allowing blacks to spill into white areas. Thus Chicago, as Hirsch put it, became “a persistent pioneer” in developing concepts that were later incorporated into landmark federal laws in 1949 and 1954 meant to “control and mitigate the consequences of racial succession.”
Under chairman Elizabeth Wood, the Chicago Housing Authority in the 1940s bloomed as a model of enlightened public housing policy. Indeed, the CHA is only today coming back to its innovations of the pre-Daley years, including low-rise buildings, mixed-income tenants, and scattered sites. Ed Kelly had allowed the CHA to operate free from political interference, and it proceeded to plan integrated public housing all over town.
Once the depth of white resistance to open housing became plain, Daley moved to bring the public housing bureaucracy under his own control. Federal public housing programs were expropriated as a source of public works funds and a means to direct new housing for blacks into already black neighborhoods. (Not all the segregationists who welcomed these policies were white, of course; by keeping black voters concentrated, the projects benefited Democratic ward organizations.)
Public housing is judged to have been a massive failure under Daley–politically and fiscally. By 1969 CHA family units were 99 percent black and 99.5 percent of them were located in black or racially changing parts of town. When in ’69 a federal judge found the CHA guilty of discrimination and ordered that any new public housing be built in white areas, the Daley administration simply stopped building public housing anywhere. In the end, blacks couldn’t be contained. Because urban renewal projects never built as many new apartments as they tore down, slum clearance only pushed more poor blacks into adjacent white areas.
Does hizzoner deserve the hisses? The conversion of Chicago’s low-rise private slums into high-rise public housing ghettos is indeed a textbook case of making a bad problem worse, but it was not immediately clear that the new towers would become slums themselves. Much of the thinking and lobbying for the projects was done by respectable propertied interests, many of them with impeccable credentials as reformers. Slum clearance was one of the liberals’ favorite nostrums. Mayors and property investors liked it; it offered the hope that what Hirsch calls a “solvent population” would be reattracted to the central city, thus strengthening the tax base.
The administrative and philosophical support for this program of government-sanctioned segregation didn’t originate with Daley. The system was in place by the time he was first sworn in as mayor. As early as the 1920s Chicago politicians had sought to improve housing in the ghetto rather than find improved housing outside it. In the postwar years federal officials respected local covenants banning sales to blacks when they sited projects. They also left site selection to locals. Chicagoan Harold Ickes, housing division head of FDR’s Public Works Administration, proposed the “neighborhood composition rule,” which kept locals from building any federal housing that would change the racial composition of a neighborhood.
In 1983 Harold Washington roared, “I do not mourn at the bar of the late mayor….He was a racist to the core.” In 1971 the Independent Voters of Illinois called Daley “flagrantly racist.” William Grimshaw–a Washington partisan and thus open to the charge of bias–wrote that the Daley machine in its later years had the “retrograde character of a southern white supremacist Democratic Party.”
Such compliments were common enough in Daley’s day, but they have excited an unexpected defense from some scholars of the period. Paul Green and Melvin Holli take exception to Washington’s characterization of Daley, dismissing it in their Bashing Chicago Traditions as a fit of vanity, a preemptive bid by Washington to polish his historical reputation at the expense of his predecessor. Allswang labels the IVI verdict as an exercise in “liberal verbosity.” And historian Steven Erie, author of the well-respected Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics 1840-1985, calls Grimshaw’s phrase a “polemical caricature.”
Racist is as racist does, and whether the mayor pursued racist policies out of personal enmity or political cynicism may hardly seem to matter. But the question does matter–and not because Daley was mayor of Chicago but because he was such a typical citizen of it. Certainly Daley did not understand black people. Even such a friendly chronicler as Allswang allows that Daley was “unsympathetic to the plight of urban blacks” and as a result was “less of a leader than he might have been.”
A central thesis of Daley’s politics was that black people were just another bunch of ethnics. Daley shared the progressives’ faith that American life was transforming, even if he imagined the possibilities in characteristically narrow terms: once newcomers got the hang of life in Chicago, he seemed to think, they would turn into Bridgeporters. Most critics at the time protested that optimism, arguing that persistent white racism or the legacy of slavery made the predicament of blacks different from that of other ethnics.
After 20 years, however, Daley looks pretty smart. For example, in The Promised Land, his study of the great black migration to northern cities like Chicago, Nicholas Lemann described black migrants as uniquely scarred by slavery and its aftermath. In an interview he explained, “They are the end result of taking a group of people who lived in a traditional culture, putting them in a different culture, subjecting them to very rapid and disorienting economic change, and taking away political and institutional structures and education.” Most of Chicago’s 19th-century ethnics came from peasant backgrounds that left them as ill-prepared for urban life as southern blacks. While many immigrants did not escape outright slavery, they did know indentured servitude, were often desperately poor, were despised upon arrival, and (save the Irish) suffered the additional handicap of not speaking English.
Daley repeatedly said he thought that blacks were like Bridgeporters, but he might have considered how much Bridgeporters were like blacks. The Irish experience mimicked in many ways that of the southern blacks. The Irish knew something about sharecropping, too, having also arrived in Chicago as a dispossessed peasantry. The systems in both Ireland and the American south institutionalized oppression, and neither was exactly an ideal preparation for life in an industrial urban economy.
Once in Chicago, the Irish, as Daley never failed to remind people, faced discrimination. They were the original underclass–regarded as careless breeders, layabouts, and indifferent fathers who introduced to America’s big cities a culture of drunkenness, illegitimacy, and hustling. The Irish in the previous century were widely assumed to create slums by moving in.
By insisting that blacks were his generation’s Irish, Daley misread his own people’s history. The Irish moved into the middle class thanks in large part to labor unions from which blacks were excluded. The black civil rights movement had much in common with the working-class fight to establish unions in the packinghouse districts in Daley’s own youth. That the two groups never joined in solidarity may be explained by the fact that the Irish had keen memories of blacks being used as strikebreakers in the packinghouses after World War I. Finally, blacks had been in Chicago for maybe two generations during the Daley era. It had taken the Irish a century and a half before they made it in any guild that didn’t demand either sweat or clout.
Social strains in Daley’s Chicago were not simply a matter of black and white. Grimshaw, for example, delineates three black communities, each of which reacted to Daley according to its own class and political traditions. One of these comprised the five middle-class wards south of 63rd Street. (The other two were the original Black Belt south of downtown and the four “plantation wards” of the west side.) Grimshaw and Allswang are among the authors who have confirmed that political values–what Green sometimes dismisses as “issues”–shape decisions in proportion to education and social class among black people as well as white. Middle-class blacks–mostly Protestant, socially conservative on every issue but race, repelled by both welfare culture and Daley-style corruption–were as much reformers as they were blacks.
Here, not along the lakefront, was the real bastion of independent politics in postwar Chicago, according to critics who were not color-blind. These voters delivered most of the black votes that white challengers to Daley were able to muster. Richard Friedman, the liberal Republican who ran for mayor in 1971, drew a sizable vote in three black wards. And Ralph Metcalfe was returned by these black voters to Congress after Daley dumped him as candidate and committeeman because Metcalfe had dared to ask questions about police brutality and endorsed a Daley primary opponent for mayor.
Occasionally these voters even sent their own aldermen to the City Council. The five middle-class black wards beat the machine in two races between 1963 and 1975. Unfortunately, they proved that while the machine could be beaten it could not be beaten twice; independents never kept their seats for more than one term against an embarrassed and aroused machine.
In 1989 Kenneth Mladenka, then an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, studied the distribution of recreational services in Chicago during the years 1962 to ’83. In general, he found that the allocation of facilities and services by City Hall was the result not of fiat but of broad demographic factors. In 1962, for example, white wards enjoyed levels of recreational resources that were three times higher than those in black wards. But as whites abandoned the city’s older neighborhoods, blacks began to move in and use those facilities. As a result, 20 years later the number of facilities in black and white wards was virtually the same.
Mladenka found that in 1962 the allocation of recreational programs was clearly biased against blacks; by 1972 race was no longer a significant factor in the allocation of program resources–though by 1983 black wards again received fewer programs than whites. This drop is plausibly explained by the spread of poverty through black neighborhoods and the consequent drop in demand for certain programs. (There was not, presumably, much call for ballet classes in Englewood.) He also found that investments in neighborhood recreation correlated a lot more closely with home ownership than with race. Black middle-class wards (“middle class” is here defined by high rates of home ownership) did better than white wards in which most residents rented.
Do such findings hint at a Chicago that might have been, a city in which political identity is complicated by race but not defined by it? Educated Hyde Parkers have long brought this more nuanced notion of social difference to the policy table. The aim of the massive urban renewal there in the 1960s was not to keep Hyde Park white, for example, but to keep it middle-class. (Biles quotes comic Mike Nichols’s sarcastic lyric: “This is Hyde Park, white and blacks, shoulder to shoulder against the lower classes.”)
Might Daley have forged an electoral alliance based not on color but on class? It has long been a daydream of the Left. Blacks and working-class whites both became Democrats in the first place because the party had appealed to their common interests during the Depression. The conventional liberal opinion is that working-class neighborhoods like Daley’s Bridgeport are less communities of color than communities of values (though is hating black people a value?). Race antagonism is almost never about skin color alone.
Big city machines like Daley’s distracted the urban working class from their collective problems by playing ethnic and racial groups against each other. This weakened whatever potential might have existed for a politics organized around the shared concerns of the poor and less affluent. But even if class, unlike race, is a mutable condition, would a city divided by class be more viable than one divided by race? Today’s Chicago is divided more finely by class than by race or ethnicity.
Given the way trends recycle, it was inevitable that a man as far behind the times as Daley in the 1960s and ’70s would soon be ahead of the times. Many of the questions asked defensively by the ethnics of his day would get a respectable hearing today.
For example, Daley’s manipulation of the powers of the state to resist the social impact of black migration has been called ugly at worst, futile at best. But was it dignified by a larger civic purpose? Certainly Daley must have seen that intimidating black people was not an end but a means, the end being dampening white panic and stemming the city’s self-destructive impulse toward Detroit-ness. “White flight” mischaracterizes the issue. The real crisis in Chicago was not that white residents were being replaced by blacks but that middle-class residents were being replaced by the poor.
Let’s look at housing. For Daley and most of his supporters the neighborhood was the proper locus of city life. To the extent that Daley articulated a social philosophy, it was based on conservative neighborhood values of the sort he espoused in his paeans to the city’s Bridgeports. And as Hirsch recalled, neighborhoods changed overnight. North Lawndale’s population had 87,000 whites in 1950, 11,000 in 1960; 100,000 blacks moved in during the same period. (South Lawndale, where Catholic ethnics had mounted the barricades, stayed white.)
White resistance to a black presence of any kind was based on the assumption that black neighbors were the harbinger of blockbusting and neighborhood decline. This has been dismissed as fantasy, or rationalization. But the conversion of rickety apartments into slummy dens by landlords, the craven fixes by which housing inspectors let it happen, the swindling of desperate black families who were sold houses they could not afford to keep up–all contributed to the equation of blacks and slums in the public mind.
This issue had a particularly pointed significance to Catholics. While black converts to Catholicism were not rare in Chicago, there were seldom enough members of the church to sustain the substantial infrastructure of church, school, rectory, and convent. Some white ethnic parishes had been able to count on 60 percent of the residents to carry the weight of all that brick; when the parish neighborhood went all black the parish might have been able to draw only 5 percent or less. Even had the newcomers not been poorer than the families they replaced, they would not have been able to keep up parish property.
What looked to outsiders like racial conflict was in many ways a church-state dispute. Most Roman Catholics–and virtually all the neighborhoods whose resistance to open housing was most bitter were majority Catholic–understood neighborhood to mean parish. These were geographically defined and often quite small. The buildings, so mean to outsiders, were imbued with meaning to the locals, because the parish was sacred space–faith and culture expressed in place. For Catholics, resisting outsiders was holding the ground, defending the community. More than real estate values were at stake in open housing–also church, school, home–everything that mattered.
The embattled Catholics of Daley’s Chicago came to resemble the Hasidim or the Amish–walled off socially to reduce contact with a contaminating world. To liberals of the time (including many inside the church) the defense of the parish was an atavistic reversion to the village mentality. They imagined a church bounded not by the parish but the world. Protestants and Jews could sell a church and relocate the congregation. But a Catholic parish by definition served that neighborhood and could not be moved.
Physical space becomes even more crucial to group identity when other glues weaken, when the old language vanishes, the young move to the suburbs, local merchants give way to national chains, and even (after Vatican II) religious practice changes. Modernizers held official sway in the Chicago archdiocese, but its support of multiracial housing had no apparent effect on parishioners’ anxieties. (When nuns and priests marched for civil rights in Cragin, Catholics there spit in their faces.) And many a parish priest was quite prepared to preserve the parish system at the expense of integration. Indeed, they believed–on rather more evidence than was available to liberals who preached integration–that saving the parish meant saving the church.
In the contest of individual versus communal rights, Daley consistently asserted the primacy of the tribe. This was antiliberal, certainly. Was it also unwise? Or was Daley a man whose racial policies were principled, if inappropriate to his time and place?
The Chicago imagined by race reformers describes life as experienced by bourgeois cosmopolites. But in Daley’s neighborhoods, where the issues in dispute were God and property and not favorite restaurants, difference mattered very much. Ecumenism in even an Irish parish meant a Wexford man deigning to worship next to a County Clare man, not a German. John McGreevy, in his 1996 history, Parish Boundaries, recalls the days when the Italian and Irish and German priests who served national parishes in the Back of the Yards wouldn’t speak to each other, much less work together for the neighborhood or the larger goals of the church.
Ethnic Chicagoans of Daley’s era survived in uneasy peace with neighbors of different religions, customs, and languages by narrowing the area of social contact as much as possible. (This is the secret to suburban life, too.) The key question is this: Is there any place in which the obligation of a citizen not to discriminate against other citizens does not apply? Is it the block? The neighborhood? The city? The metropolitan area? The question is settled in law but not in politics. Daley sided with the parish out of political necessity, sure, but personal religious conviction and an ancient sense of civic obligation were also at play; the feudal system was based on land, and when a king swore to do justice it meant protecting the common folk and the lesser aristocracy against the loss of their lands.
The Daley era in many ways anticipated the communitarian debate of the 1990s. The neighborhood holds a powerful appeal for today’s communitarians as a cure for all the ails of advanced capitalism–alienation, dissociation, divorce of work from community. Daley tried to preserve what the communitarians now hope to recapture. He achieved 30 years ago a wisdom about the limits of government power in the social realm that informs debate today. To white ethnics, Congress’s fair-housing statutes embodied principles of social conduct so abstract as to seem to be the impositions of an alien state. The right of free association that the Constitution does not enshrine–the right of like-minded people to gather to live together–was, and is, more cherished in such neighborhoods than the right to associate for political purposes.
One of the dumber relics of the 70s is the notion that segregation was a white, as opposed to a human, impulse. The fact that the likes of Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan have been channeling the dead Daley’s views on social self-sufficiency makes for an interesting addendum to the late mayor’s career. Blacks who can afford it retreat to their own same-race communities. Nor can it be said that this retreat is entirely a defensive reaction to white racism. Often the segregating force is genuinely voluntary, a desire for social comfort and cultural solidarity.
Someday a responsible scholar will ask the question that Alan Ehrenhalt asked ineptly in The Lost City: Was Daley, by imposing the ghetto as a condition of life in Chicago, the black’s friend? Segregation–self-segregation on the part of the old ethnic neighborhoods, a segregation imposed on blacks–compelled a degree of economic self-sufficiency on communities of all colors. Ehrenhalt hints that in a racist society blacks will be able to maintain a coherent social life only under conditions of ghettoization.
A–ahem–controversial thesis. But bright journalists have mused in print over why Atlanta–another regional capital with a large African-American population–has a vibrant black entrepreneurial and political class. The southern city has both a prominent black university and a wealthy black bourgeoisie. Could it be that this elite evolved because for generations segregated Atlanta contained a nurturing, if artificial, black community, while that process was aborted in Chicago after only two generations?
As William Julius Wilson and others noted, the plight of blacks was ultimately rooted not in racism but in economic change–specifically, the loss of well-paid (indeed, overpaid) unskilled jobs. Martin Luther King came to realize this; radicalized by his failures in Chicago, he adopted an economic program that would have amounted to a quasi-socialist reordering of the national economy. Arguably King would have been a better mayor of Chicago than Daley for that reason; but it is important to note that Daley’s failures are the result of his backward economics as much as his backward racial views.
The PC campus of the 1990s is not the place to expect a clear-eyed examination of such topics. It may take another 20 years before they can be taken up without burning a scholar’s fingers.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Kurt Mitchell.