Chicago’s political environment has had an interesting and dramatic history since the days of the first Black Elected Cook County Commissioner John Jones in 1871. Nearly four decades later during the Great Migration, Blacks relocated from the South bringing with them the red dirt under their shoes from Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. With high expectations of better job opportunities and a quality of life—the same levels of exclusion and racism welcomed many arriving in the city of broad shoulders. But, with great perseverance and determined to overcome obstacles, we gradually began to understand that power lies in numbers—despite blatant segregation and invisible racial boundaries. We increased the number of Black residents who steadfastly called this city home– securing employment, purchasing homes and starting businesses to build a community within a community– to grow beyond the contained boundaries challenging a machine system controlled by White-led politics.
In the 1960s, as Black Southerners began to find their preferred communities, whether it was in the Black Belt of Bronzeville or the near Westside—many were raised as Republicans. Chicago, a staunch Democratic party town, was built on patronage, favors and selective gatekeepers to maintain a sense of dominating order to each community. While others prospered, Black and Latino communities were often the last to receive the crumbs. The Civil Rights movement would catapult the work of local activists who fought for fair housing, equal and quality education along with employment inclusion especially for city and government jobs.
The arrival of a young minister from Montgomery, Ala., would bring national media attention to Chicago’s blatant and despicable culture of racism. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march through the communities of Marquette Park and Cicero would change the course for many young activists’ lives and journeys. Those who are no longer with us today and the ones alive who we call our elders continue to remind us why the fight must continue. The Chicago Defender’s Top 20 most influential political figures is comprised of men and women breaking through barriers or aligning themselves in a system to provide opportunities, becoming the voice for many who are often silenced.
1.Harold Washington (April 15, 1922 – November 25, 1987)
Harold Washington is referenced in every major conversation when the history of Black political power arises. His intellect was unrivaled as well as his ability to move a room of people to their feet. He was the nucleus of having a “seat at the table” for Black Chicagoans across the board i.e. local government, business, education, law enforcement and community activism. His influence and the opportunities he presented to many are relevant today. Washington rose up the ranks in machine-style politics knowing how to play chess when others failed by playing checkers. He served the 26th District as the State Representative from 1965 to 1976; State Senate from 1977-1980 and won the US Congressional seat in the 1st District from 1981-1983.
Washington defeated incumbent Jane Byrne in 1983 to become the first African American mayor for the city of Chicago. He would appoint both Black and Latinos in administration and senior positions in local government, making a defining statement that would lead to the infamous “council wars.” He faced opponents who were against providing minority-owned firms city contracts. He was for more than having a seat at the table; he wanted to make sure people were fed. His legacy continues to be the topic of discussion for those who felt his death on November 25, 1987, was a halt to progress for Black communities across the city. Several buildings are named in his honor throughout the city– from former Loop College to the Harold Washington Library on State Street.
Barack Hussein Obama arrived in Chicago as a community organizer in 1983. Getting schooled by the elders who took him in to guide throughout the variables of Chicago neighborhood culture and history—he cut his teeth on real grassroots engagement. He met, and later married attorney Michelle Robinson. A civil rights attorney, he taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago and felt at ease in his environment—building solid friendships along the way that would later become the glue to his candidacy for public office. He served the 13th District as Illinois State Senator from 1997 to 2004 and was elected to the US Senate in 2004—a seat that was held by Carolyn Mosely Braun. Mentored by IL Senate minority leader Emil Jones II and ministered by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama learned the power of political strategy and understanding his constituents.
His impeccable style of moving the masses through words would bring one of the largest voter turnouts during his bid for the White House in 2008. History was made as Obama would be elected for two terms as the 44th President of the United States. Under his administration he would put in place the Affordable Care Act; appeal to the Supreme Court to support same-sex marriage; immigration assistance for undocumented children through the DACA program; promote discussions on climate change; push legislation to allow students college loan debt relief, among a great deal of other accomplishments.
3.John Stroger (May 19, 1929 – January 18, 2008)
John Stroger changed the course for Cook County government as the first African American Board President of Cook County Commissioners, he would serve from December 1994 to August 2006. A native of Helena, Ark., he went on to attend Xavier University in New Orleans where he earned his BA in Business Administration. He relocated to Chicago in 1953 working on the administration side for the Cook County Jail. Jones attended DePaul University Law School, where he earned his J.D. His rise in the 8th Ward as the Democratic committeeman sealed his future as an active participant, pushing out significant Black voter turnout on the Southeast side. Elected to the County Board of Commissioners in 1970, Stroger would chair every committee residing over the governmental functions of county business.
Stroger was at every turn of local and county politics clearing a path for jobs and management positions many African Americans were denied for a long time. From balancing the county’s $2.9 billion budget to opening a new AIDS treatment and research facility, he advocated for women’s issues and rights. The Cook County Hospital was named after him during his tenure as county board president. Although Stroger repeatedly came under fire for patronage hiring and leaning more towards serving poor residents with healthcare provisions—he was revered as a true advocate for his community.
Jesse White’s name was recently heard on the Blagojevich/J. B Pritzker FBI wiretap as a possible US Senate candidate nearly 10 years ago because he was a familiar key African American candidate. White has made public service his mission, first elected in 1983 to the Illinois House of Representatives until 1993; he served as Recorder of Deeds of Cook County from 1993 to 1999 and assumed his current office of Illinois Secretary of State in 1999.
As the first African American Illinois Secretary of State and the founder of his namesake tumbling team, he is entrenched in the community throughout the state. The Jesse White Tumbling team has taught and mentored nearly 15,000 youth traveling around the world. White has serve as the 27th Ward Democratic Committeeman for several years, solidifying his political presence on the local front. As the longest-serving Black public official, White is considered a major power player and one who has provided employment for more minorities than his predecessors at Secretary of State facilities. To receive an endorsement from this elder statesman is a priceless gesture.
5.Carol Moseley Braun
No longer in politics, Carol Moseley Braun became the first African American female to serve in the US Senate in 1992. She was the second Black senator to serve, making significant history for not only Illinoisans but Black and women policy makers around the country. As an attorney, she joined the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago working as an assistant in 1972. In 1978, Braun was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives working for social change and reforms in education and healthcare. Prior to Jesse White, she served as recorder of deeds for Cook County in 1988 and in 1992 decided to throw her hat in the ring for U.S. Senate. Braun defeated incumbent Democratic Senator Alan Dixon in the primary and later Republican rival Richard Williamson.
Becoming the first African American female Senator would push her out there as the posterchild for women and civil rights. Her strides for changes in gun control reforms and education left a fingerprint on the issues that plague us today. She was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1999 to serve as U.S. ambassador to New Zealand.
6.U.S. Rep Bobby L. Rush
During the late 1960’s, Rush was a community activist in the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, a group that stood for racial and economic independence to provide essential resources within the community. With controversy for “baring arms”—they immediately became a number one target on the FBI’s list and later on Daley’s Chicago Police Department’s list. Rush ran the Panther’s Free Breakfast for Children program as well as the medical center. As a graduate of Roosevelt University, he earned his MBA in political science at the University of Chicago and later received his theological degree from McCormick. Elected in 1983 as 2nd Ward Alderman at the same time Harold Washington was elected as mayor, Rush later ran for the office in 1999 against incumbent Richard M. Daley.
In 1992 he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st District defeating incumbent Charles Hayes with 83 percent of the vote. He has held the office for nearly three decades, earning senior tenure and becoming one of the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus.
7.U.S. Rep Danny K. Davis
A native of Parkdale, Ark., Davis rose through the ranks as 29th Ward Alderman on the Westside of Chicago. A graduate of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, he earned his MBA in guidance from the University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. from the Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, Ohio. His passion for public service was non-stop, challenging Cardiss Collins in back-to-back Democratic primaries in defeat but winning a seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners from 1990 to 1996. Before entering the U.S. House of Representatives, he tried his bid for the mayoral race in 1991 against Richard M. Daley.
Elected in 1995 to U.S. Congress for the 7th district, Davis has won every election becoming a leading policy maker in Washington, D.C. He has one of the largest congressional districts in the Midwest. He is an avid voice in the African American community and would be considered the elder statesman of the Westside political Democratic machine.
8.Jesse Jackson, Sr.
Civil Rights activist and an integral part of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s entourage during a historical period, he was recruited while he attended Chicago Theological Seminary as a seminary student as a leading voice among young activists for SCLC. After King’s death, he would go on to establish Operation Breadbasket, later known as Operation PUSH. Jackson’s oratory skills for rallying the best of Black voices against racial discrimination and boycotting companies that show little or no diversity in their workplace transformed how corporate companies operate today. His reach across international waters put him on the forefront as he became the peace negotiator bringing back hostages. In 1984, Jackson took a leap of faith and became the first African American U.S. presidential candidate during the Democratic primaries—twice. He would fall short of securing the Democratic nomination, but it would open the path to securing his place among one of the most familiar faces that crossed cultural and religious lines. “Keep Hope Alive” was made famous. As the head of what is known as Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Jackson has built an interfaith, multi-media organization that connects leading Fortune 500 companies with entrepreneurs and students for coalition’s annual conferences and seminars.
9.Emil Jones, Jr.
Considered one of the most influential state legislators in Illinois, he and his wife’s names are one of the biggest on Chicago State University campus. Boisterous, direct and outspoken—Jones retired in 2009 after serving since 1983. He started in1960, working on the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign, rising up the ranks as part of the 8th Ward Democratic political powerhouse—he’s held several jobs in local government.
Jones served in the Illinois House of Representatives for ten years from 1973 to 1983; and was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1982. Over the next 26 years, he would be a top player in statewide legislation, serving as the president of the Senate and a member of the Executive Committee. Although he lost Democratic primary bids in 1988 and 1995 congressional races—he would become a thorn in Illinois House speaker Michael Madigan’s side. An ally of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich would allow him to flex his seniority in pushing through financial assistance to certain state educational institutions. There have been several controversial issues concerning patronage but no more than other political figures who have blessed family members with positions in government. Jones bares no bones about where his loyalty lies, recommending his seat be held by his son, Emil Jones III.
For the past 25 years, Preckwinkle has steadily moved up the ranks of the Cook County Democratic Party. Lately, she has been criticized for the county’s sweetened beverage tax, which was repealed in October 2017.
She first served as alderman of the 4th Ward for 19 years and strengthened relationships with Hyde Park, Kenwood and Bronzeville families who have set down roots in those communities for decades. It’s one of the few truly diverse wards in the city and includes the University of Chicago – a villain to some and a savior to others.
She became Cook County Board President in 2010, after beating incumbent Todd Stroger, Jr. over the heavily promoted one penny sales tax, which she later implemented to close budget gaps.
A former history teacher, Preckwinkle has worked with several organizations including the Chicago Jobs Council working with civil rights attorney Eugene Pincham. Her fight for affordable and fair housing and at times in opposition to Mayor Richard M. Daley as a council member has earned her stripes in staying steady in the game of male-machine driven politics.
A Minneapolis native, her role as the second African American woman to serve as Cook County Board President (Bobbie Steele appointed in 2008 after John Stroger’s death was first) would be blazoned with balancing the budget, lay-offs, restructuring the county healthcare system and oppositions from within the board. Preckwinkle’s position in the Democratic party is strong and her support for those who have gone on to serve in electoral seats includes State Rep. Christian Mitchell; city of Chicago Treasurer Kurt Summers; State Rep. Julianna Stratton and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.
11.Chief Judge Timothy Evans
As the first African-American Chief Judge of the Circuit Court, Evans has deep political roots. He was the alderman of the 4th Ward for almost 20 years and the late Mayor Harold Washington’s floor leader and Chicago City Council Finance Chair during his administration.
His bid to fill Washington’s post after his death was defeated by Eugene Sawyer and Evans later lost during a special election against Richard M. Daley, running as an independent candidate. In 1991, his reign as 4th Ward Alderman ended when Toni Preckwinkle won that city council seat.
Never one to back down, a year later, the John Marshall Law School graduate was sworn in as the first Black chief judicial officer in a court system that had been criticized with a long history of non-transparency before his takeover.
“Now, that I’m in this position, I can open the doors of opportunities for others. Yes, from the African-American community, but for any community that feels oppressed, I can open that door and let them see how the justice system works.”
12.Gus Savage (October 30, 1925 – October 31, 2015)
Augustus “Gus” Savage was born in Detroit and moved with his family at age 5 to Chicago. He attended city public schools and entered the U.S. army in 1943. Segregation within the armed forces had a lasting impression on his approach to ending racial inequality. He attended Chicago-Kent College of Law and Roosevelt University. Savage would choose to pursue a career in journalism and served as editor and publisher of the Citizen Newspapers chain. During this time then-Mayor Richard J. Daley did little to build economic development and substance in Black communities, and Savage spoke out about the city’s White power structure that controlled politics.
With his bid for Congress in 1980, Savage joined then-U.S. Representatives Harold Washington and Cardiss Collins making history. It was the first time three African-American lawmakers represented multiple districts, symbolizing the growing political influence of Blacks in Congress
Savage was known for his “unapologetically Black” interaction putting him further on the radar. In 1992 he was defeated by Mel Reynolds in the Democratic primary amid accusations he made improper sexual advances to a female Peace Corps volunteer during a trip to Africa.
13.Eugene Sawyer (September 3, 1934 – January 19, 2008)
Eugene Sawyer was the second African American mayor of Chicago, which is overshadowed by how he earned this appointment versus his ability to carry the office. A long-time Chicago council member, Alderman Sawyer served the residents of the 6th Ward for 16 years.
Born in Greensboro, Ala., Sawyer attended Alabama State University. There he became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. During the Montgomery bus boycott, he and the members of his fraternity served as security for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
He would later relocate to Chicago in his adulthood; he had become familiar with the city as a child who would spend time during summer vacations with his aunt. He joined the 6th Ward Democratic committee serving as the president for the Young Democrats.
After the abrupt death of Mayor Harold Washington, there was a split among Black council members between Sawyer and then-alderman Timothy Evans for the appointment.
Sawyer was sworn in on December 2, 1987, and served until April 24, 1989—being defeated by Richard M. Daley for the mayoral office. During Sawyer’s time as mayor, he would follow through on Washington’s mission to pass the Human Rights Ordinance to protect people from discrimination along with approving an ordinance to install lights at Wrigley Field for nighttime games. His support of the Clean Indoor Air Ordinance banned smoking indoors.
When you think about Black women in the Chicago Civil Rights movement, Dorothy Tillman is at the top of this list. At the front lines, Tillman worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a young activist. Raised in Montgomery, Ala., Tillman joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as field organizer. As part of organizing King’s move to Chicago to fight unfair housing and discrimination, she settled—later marrying and raising a family.
She was appointed in 1985 by Harold Washington to the 3rd Ward seat and would later hold the office until 2007.
Known as a loud and booming voice for Black people, especially poor Black people—her ward contained the highest concentration of poor Blacks. From fighting to improve socio-economic changes to quality education—she made no apologies for demanding reparations for slavery. Tillman was the first to recognize the rich history of the 3rd Ward as the centerpiece of entertainment and the arts and set out to find reinvestment into the community.
So, she began implementing a 70/30 plan, which meant that 70 percent of the business and jobs in the community would go to Black people. She spearheaded the first TIF to be utilized in the Black community and co-founded the African American Home Builders Association.
Interviewed by the Chicago Defender in August 2015, Tillman recalls her time as 4th Ward Alderman.
“I wanted our people to be able to stay in our community. I did not want them to leave because they had to, but because they wanted to,” Tillman said. “We were redeveloping Bronzeville, really Grand Boulevard, with Black people benefitting. We wanted to build our community off of our strengths, which were the arts,” she continued. “If you go to Chinatown, they sell you on the rice; I wanted people to come to Grand Boulevard and be able to hear our music and see our culture. I wanted to mark our community.”
A lawyer and certified CPA, Dorothy Brown currently serves as the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, an office she has retained since 2000. Although, there have been media coverage surrounding investigations involving business dealings by her husband and a former county employee, Brown’s popularity is unrivaled.
Her Southern roots have guided her through the eye of the storm—working throughout college to graduate Magna Cum Laude from Southern University, she received her MBA with honors from DePaul University and earned her law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law. She has worked in the private sector as a CPA for both Arthur Anderson and Commonwealth Edison—she would go on to become General Auditor for the Chicago Transit Authority for nearly 10 years.
In the last election, Brown was not endorsed by the Cook County Democratic party as an attempt to replace her with endorsed candidate—Alderman Michelle Harris. Brown overwhelmingly won with 76 percent of the county vote.
She clarified, “The Circuit Court of Cook County is the court of first impressions for the citizens of Cook County. We maintain the original records, exhibits, wills, and evidence for court cases. Unlike the Appellate and Supreme Court, where the original record from the Circuit Court is reviewed, these records can make a difference in whether a person goes free or is incarcerated; they can make a difference in them losing their homes to foreclosure, getting evicted, paying large sums of money – the records hold information that can affect people’s lives; as a result it is important that the office is independent and is accountable only to the people.
16.Cecil A. Partee (April 10, 1921 – August 17, 1994)
A native of Blytheville, Arkansas Cecil Partee graduated from Tennessee State University and earned his law degree from Northwestern University School of Law in 1946. He made the decision to stay up north, later landing a job as assistant state’s attorney. In 1956, he ran for the Illinois House of Representatives for and won. He was the chief sponsor of open occupancy legislation and served as the chairman of the House of Elections Committee. Ten years later, Partee was elected to the Illinois State Senate, eventually making history as the first African American to serve as Senate President in 1975.
His role as 20th Ward committeeman played a major role in for Harold Washington to win the State Representative election.
Partee earned many ‘firsts’ opening up the pathways for other Black legislators to run for similar positions that had only been held by their white counterparts. After an unsuccessful run for Illinois Attorney General, he became commissioner of the Department of Human Services for the City of Chicago. Elected in April 1979 as city treasurer, he held the seat until 1989. During that same year, Partee was appointed as Cook County state’s attorney to replace Richard M. Daley.
17. Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr.
As the only sitting Chicago council member on the list, Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr. has served the constituents in the 27th Ward since 1996. Growing up in the Cabrini Green Housing complex, his father was the local precinct caption where he casually watched his father work in the Richard J. Daley era. His sense of understanding people and how to navigate from the streets to earning his BA from Northeastern Illinois—has brought an objective style to Westside politics.
An area which started out with predominately Black and Latino communities gradually transitioned into one of the most diverse and transformative areas—attracting major companies such as Google, Twitter and McDonald’s HQ campus. Burnett chaired the Black Aldermanic Caucus for a while bringing together his colleagues on addressing concerns that plague Black communities throughout the city. He is considered a ‘quiet’ giant that has built an organization of alliances that span across racial and cultural barriers often settling the best solutions among complex problems.
18. U.S. Rep Robin Kelly
Robin Kelly represents the 2nd Congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. She is the youngest among her Congressional Black Caucus members in her home state, but she has become a rising star among fresh faces in Congress.
Attending Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, Kelly earned her B.A. in psychology and M.A. in counseling and later her Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 2004. A native of Harlem in New York City, after college she chose to call Illinois her home and worked has worked in public service for nearly 30 years. Kelly has built relationships throughout the South suburbs serving as Commissioner on Human Rights in Cook County; elected to the Illinois State Representative seat in the 38th district where she served from 2003 to 2007. Resigning her house seat in 2007, she joined the Illinois State Treasurer office becoming the first African American female Chief of Staff in a statewide office. Her attempt to run for the same office as State Treasurer against Republican Candidate State Senator Dan Rutherford failed in 2010.
Upon Democrat Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s resignation just weeks after his 10th term, Kelly stepped into the race to run for the Congressional office in the 2nd district. After several endorsements including both U.S. Representatives Bobby L. Rush and Danny K. Davis along with other New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She won 71 percent of the vote in the general election and was sworn in April 2013.
In her district, Kelly has a multi-cultural landscape of communities from the South Shore community in Chicago to the South Suburbs into rural and agricultural towns throughout Will and Kankakee counties. Her focus on breast cancer awareness and preventive measures for African American women as well as gun control reform has been the highlight of her detailed ‘Kelly Reports’.
19. Valerie Jarrett
Valerie Jarrett has never been an elected official, but she has worked for several who have held prominent seats. She was the longest serving Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama and oversaw the Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and Chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls. Throughout her tenure at the White House, she worked to mobilize elected officials, business, community leaders and diverse groups of advocates, leading the Obama Administration’s efforts to expand and strengthen access to the middle class, and boost American business.
A background in both the public and private sectors, Jarrett served as the Chief Executive Officer of The Habitat Company in Chicago, Chairman of the Chicago Transit Board, Commissioner of Planning and Development, and Deputy Chief of Staff and Deputy Corporation Counsel for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. She also practiced with private law firms for six years and served as the director of numerous corporate and not-for-profit boards including Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Stock Exchange, Chairman of the University of Chicago Medical Center Board of Trustees, and Director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
Jarrett grew up on the Southside in the Hyde Park community and she’s the great-granddaughter of Robert Robinson Taylor, the first African American to graduate from MIT. The city’s largest CHA complex, the Robert Taylor Homes were named after him. Serving in the Obama administration for eight years, there is no doubt she continues to be a valued friend to both President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. When she speaks, people lean in a little closer to listen to what Jarrett says because whatever it is—you know it’ll be good.
Foxx rose through the ranks of law school graduating from Southern Illinois University, to cutting her teeth as a juvenile prosecutor and supervising attorney in the juvenile justice bureau of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office—to holding down the position Chief of Staff for Policy and Planning for Cook County Board President, Toni Preckwinkle.
In 2016, the court ordered release of the police dashcam of Laquan McDonald would not only rock the nation, but it would forever change the course of Foxx’s career path. The ongoing concerns from citizens to public defenders surrounded then-Cook County Attorney Anita Alavarez and lack of urgency of prosecuting police officers involved in harassment and misconduct.
Foxx was immediately catapulted in the spotlight becoming the voice for criminal justice reform and advocate for change. She has become a solid and fresh voice on the political front. Her election win defeating incumbent Anita Alvarez for Cook County state’s attorney in 2016 is also a major win for the county’s bail reform system and building up in-house morale.
“For me, I feel so blessed to come from where I’ve come from and given an opportunity to do something. I want to be able for us to have prosperous communities thrive because we are not throwing them away. It’s personal to me because I’m watching us literally throw people away. It has impact on communities, when you throw away a generation.,” Foxx concludes. “What happens when the fathers aren’t there or when the sons aren’t there? When we have policies that don’t fit the crime and people go away—they come back, can’t get a job or an education. We’re watching the destruction and doing absolutely nothing about it.”