Savage Appeal

Those columns Vernon Jarrett wrote just before the primary didn’t merely tout Gus Savage for Congress. They excoriated Savage’s opponent. They made Mel Reynolds out to be “some high-talking guy” making a “frantic effort” out of “hysterical ambition”–Jarrett called him everything but uppity.

Is Vernon Jarrett entitled to such a free-swinging opinion? Is he entitled to such an opinion when it will decide an election? Is he entitled to such an opinion in a daily newspaper even when it offends thoughtful white people? Vernon Jarrett is the only columnist in either daily paper (the “white racist press” that Savage lambasted in his victory speech) writing to local black people about local black concerns. There’s no privilege without responsibility.

From the north side of town, it was easy for us to see that young Reynolds, an up-by-his-own-bootstraps Rhodes scholar, was exactly the role model that struggling south-side black folk need. And then Jarrett stepped in, guaranteeing Gus Savage another two years in Congress. Oh boy . . .

We called Jarrett and asked him what in the world he was doing. It turned out that young Reynolds rubs Jarrett the wrong way. “Reynolds has a wide reputation as being a sort of mysterious phony,” Jarrett told us. “This man works incessantly to convince people he is some kind of deliverer. He’s very ambitious to go to the top quickly.”

Up here on the north side, it was easy to see that Gus Savage was the opportunist, a dyspeptic race baiter talking trash to get reelected. But Jarrett reads the man differently. Jarrett admires Savage for voting right in Congress and for having the gumption to speak his conscience. He just wishes that every time Savage opened his mouth he wouldn’t put his foot in it. “If you didn’t have so many mealymouthed politicians, a Gus Savage wouldn’t stand out. This is the tragedy of the whole thing,” says Jarrett. “He says things that other black leaders refuse to say that they could say in more acceptable language.”

Jarrett’s own language was troublesome enough. His columns hammered at Reynolds for “bringing in powerful Jewish sources,” and he singled out an appeal for funds from Robert Asher, national chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Jarrett told us that the help Reynolds got from AIPAC had Savage “absolutely picked to the quick.” Furious, Savage boasted at a rally the Saturday before the primary that virtually every single contribution to his own campaign “came from a black.” And according to the Sun-Times Savage went on to say: “You might wonder why these people all over the country want to send money to get rid of Gus Savage. . . . Let’s look at foreign affairs, and you may just find an answer. . . . One-third, almost, of all the United States’ foreign assistance for all the world goes to one little nation, Israel . . .”

Two days later, Savage began his victory speech by thanking Louis Farrakhan, who is anathema to most Jews. Did that victory speech make the slightest contribution to the progressive coalition politics so close to Jarrett’s heart, and which even Savage claims to support?

“It didn’t do coalition politics any good at all,” Jarrett allowed. “I don’t know anybody who wanted Gus to say that.”

But as Jarrett sees it, Reynolds had been playing into the hands of black nationalist demagogues, of whom Savage, for all his ranting, isn’t one. “Anti-Semitic feeling in the black community is almost incidental, and it shouldn’t dominate public discussion the way it does,” Jarrett said. But “if word gets out that some Jewish money came in here and knocked [Savage] out–do you think that’ll set well? It’ll reinforce what these other characters are saying.” Jarrett meant Farrakhan and Steve Cokely in particular–“that whole crowd that called Harold Washington the captive of the Jews.”

Vernon Jarrett and Gus Savage belong to the same generation and have been through the same wars, and we think that’s ultimately why Jarrett supported him. For a postmortem on the Second District race from someone closer to Reynolds’s age, and ours, we called Salim Muwakkil, a senior editor of In These Times.

Muwakkil agreed that there’s less anti-Semitism in the neighborhoods than a Robert Asher presumably thinks. “That’s generally the rap pushed on Farrakhan, but most college students don’t hear anti-Semitism–they hear self-affirmation,” Muwakkil said. “So when Jewish interests attack, it triggers a circle-the-wagons mentality. Certain politicians recognize the power of that and they exploit it.”

Like Savage? we said.

“Well, yeah. The first person Savage thanked was Farrakhan, and he was flanked by Fruit of Islam on both sides. He embraces that with his arms wide open and he’s been rewarded for it.”

Chicago possesses “the strongest black nationalist community of any city in the country except maybe Brooklyn,” Muwakkil said. “If you talk to black college students, young blacks generally, they feel the black community is leaderless. The only ones who meet the criteria are ones like Farrakhan who are uncompromising in their views. . . . Farrakhan and Gus Savage, for example, are the only ones who’ll speak out against the invasion of Panama, which was an outrage, there were thousands of civilians killed. . . . At the end of the year, there was news of Israel cooperating with South Africa on nuclear technology, and when Shamir came to the States he met with the [congressional] black caucus and admitted it and said he’d stop it. But the black caucus didn’t say anything. The only person to say anything was Gus Savage. . . . There are reasons people vote for Gus Savage. The people who supported Gus Savage are not aliens or mutants.”

We asked about Reynolds. “His personality is kind of off-putting,” said Muwakkil. “I don’t think he’s arrogant but he carries himself–I think he’s had to armor himself because of his peculiar circumstances, to camouflage what must have been some feelings of inappropriateness.

“He does represent something new in some ways,” Muwakkil went on, “these younger, secular, kind of technocratic candidates with no links to the civil rights movement, who aren’t clergymen, who come from a much more pragmatic mold than the old-time politicians, which Gus embodies. There’s a change that is trying to take place, and I think Gus focused on the anxiety that change is fomenting.”

But inevitably, we supposed, this generation will take over.

“There’s something else that has to be done first,” Muwakkil said. “Black Americans still don’t have any sense of identity. That’s why we’re attracted to Farrakhan’s ersatz authenticity. Malcolm X is very popular among black college youth right now. Malcolm X and Farrakhan–they’re talking about identity. We can go places, we have access, but we don’t bring anything to it. . . . We still haven’t figured out a way to connect to the motherland in any meaningful way. I don’t think we’ll be complete people until we figure out a way to do that.”

Yet it’s Reynolds who’s taken college students to visit Africa. Muwakkil conceded the times are full of contradictions. “He was such a good candidate,” Muwakkil said, “it’s a shame he got involved in the peculiar dynamic the black community happens to be in right now.”

We asked about Jarrett’s influence on black voters. “A lot of people respect Vernon Jarrett deeply,” said Muwakkil. He’s the one voice in the papers “who reflects the views of the black community.” The trouble is, Muwakkil went on, the papers provide so little context for what Jarrett writes “that when he reflects those views they come across as shrill and discordant. He’s a lone voice in the wilderness.”

Inside Politics

Why we don’t settle elections by taking a spin through town . . .

John Callaway (on Chicago Tonight, election night): “Bruce, you’ve been out all day. Tell us where you’ve been, how many wards you’ve been in, and what you’re seeing.”

Bruce DuMont: “First of all . . . there appears to be very little street visibility for Cecil Partee, the endorsed candidate of the Democratic Party. . . . I think the most significant thing that I saw today, both on the south side and throughout the entire county, was heavy visibility for Patrick O’Connor. . . . I think the possibility of an O’Connor upset is alive and well.”

Callaway: “One of the things you might have seen by going around is whether the organization is doing anything for Mr. Lechowicz . . . ”

DuMont: “They appear to be sticking with Ted Lechowicz. I know when I stopped down at the 23rd Ward, Congressman Bill Lipinski, who has publicly endorsed Richard Phelan–there are Lechowicz signs all over. . . . A couple of committeemen who have portions of the Ninth Congressional District say that they believe that Edwin Eisendrath might be able to pull off an upset, in fact they think he will . . .”

Callaway: “When you take your regular forays into the wards on election day you frequently come back and talk about signs. . . . Now that you’ve had a few years to reflect upon it, do you place some importance on seeing signs?”

DuMont: “I do, because I think it’s an indication of organization. . . . One other interesting sign that I saw today in driving through Cicero, which is one of the strongest Republican townships in the county of Cook. . . . This is a sign that says ‘Dump Edgar before he dumps you. Vote Marshall for governor.’ . . . If signs like that have the degree of visibility that they do in Cicero, perhaps a signal is being sent by supporters of Jim Dvorak to Jim Edgar. If . . . they see that in Cicero Dr. Marshall came up with 1,500 to 2,000 votes . . . Jim Dvorak and his supporters could use that as a bargaining chip to retain the chairmanship of the Cook County Republican Party.”

Cecil Partee defeated Patrick O’Connor by 90,000 votes. Richard Phelan defeated Ted Lechowicz by a two-to-one margin, winning the 23rd Ward even more handily than that. Against Edwin Eisendrath, Sidney Yates received 72 percent of the vote. And in Cicero Township, Jim Edgar got 6,428 votes and Dr. Robert Marshall 351.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.