Not since Eugene Sawyer succeeded the late Harold Washington has there been an African American Mayor of Chicago. The announcement by Mayor Richard M. Daly that he will not seek re-election after two decades in office would seem to open the doors for a well-positioned Black candidate to recapture the keys to City Hall. Though Rahm Emanuel, former Chief-of -Staff for President Obama, is seen as the front-runner, it would appear that an African American led progressive coalition, as the one that was forged to elect Harold Washington could be successful.
The problem is that since the death of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor, the Black community has been plagued by the “Willie Lynch Syndrome.” It is a culture of distrust, disunity, egoism and personal ambition internal to the Black community [legend has it that Willie Lynch was an Englishman brought in by colonial slave masters in Virginia to instruct them on how to control enslaved Africans]. The election of Harold Washington represented one of the finest hours in the history of Black politics in America, largely because a process was devised to inoculate the community from the Willie Lynch Syndrome. A broad-based coalition of grassroots organizations, churches, civic groups, business and professional organizations and leaders came together to urge a reluctant Harold Washington to be the “people’s” candidate for Mayor. This meant challenging the vaulted political machine assembled by the “Boss,” Richard J. Daley -- which included a subservient sub-machine with Black “under bosses” in the Black community. For decades any serious challenge to the Daly machine was thwarted by, you guessed it, Willie Lynch Syndrome – internal disunity, divide and conquer tactics and co-optation strategies employed by “Boss Man” Daley.
But, 1983 was different. Blacks from all strata and stations of life overcame their differences to focus on a common goal, finally defeating Boss Man’s machine. To achieve that goal, at Harold Washington’s request, Blacks registered more than 100,000 new voters and raised a ton of money. Moreover, community organizers reached out to the Latino community and liberal/progressive Whites to build what they hoped would be a winning coalition. It worked. In one of the most amazing campaigns in the latter half of the 20th century, Harold Washington won the Democratic Primary and the general election to become Chicago’s first African American Mayor.
Harold Washington emerged as one of the most revered elected officials in the history of Africans in America. Unfortunately, after his re-election, he suffered a fatal heart attack – a tragedy that opened the door for Willie Lynch Syndrome to resurface in the politics of the Chicago Black community. For all of his skill and talent as a political leader, Harold Washington failed to transform the coalition responsible for his remarkable election campaigns into a permanent organization that could deal with issues like succession. His sudden death created a void that opportunistic and ambitious politicians were eager to fill irrespective of the needs and wishes of the community. The Harold Washington Coalition agreed to support Alderman Timothy Evans to serve out the deceased Mayor’s term. However, over the strenuous objections of the coalition, old line, conservative machine Democrats persuaded Eugene Sawyer, another African American Alderman, to oppose Evans. With the support of the old guard, Sawyer prevailed and in so doing undermined the coalition and the process that had produced an historic success with the election of Harold Washington.
With the death of Harold Washington and the demise of the progressive coalition, it was back to politics as usual in Chicago. Richard M. Daly, son of the original Boss Man, was able to repair and resurrect the old machine, and seize the keys to City Hall. With the Willie Lynch Syndrome alive and well in Chicago, Richard M. Daly would comfortably serve as Mayor for the next two decades.
As the scramble to succeed him unfolds in a city that is majority Black and Brown, any possibility of an African American recapturing City Hall has been rendered improbable by Willie Lynch Syndrome. There are twenty candidates in a crowded field including Mr. Emanuel. While a group of community leaders have embraced veteran Congressman Danny Davis, three other prominent African Americans have also declared their candidacies – State Senator James Meeks, former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun, outgoing U.S. Senator Roland Burris as well as three lesser known African Americans. That is seven African Americans in a field of twenty. Blacks constitute roughly 30% of the electorate with Latinos comprising a slightly higher percentage (Latinos have three candidates in the race). It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that under these circumstances, it will be virtually impossible for an African American, or a Latino candidate for that matter, to become Mayor. Barring the success of legal challenges, Rahm Emanuel is likely to become the next Mayor of a predominantly Black and Brown city -- aided by Willie Lynch Syndrome!
I cite the distressing situation in Chicago because it is symptomatic of a broader problem in Black America, the absence of political systems and processes to develop Black agendas that reflect the community’s interest and regulate/coordinate the selection of candidates for office based on a Black agenda. The Willie Lynch Syndrome is not only alive and well in the politics of Chicago, it is rampant in Black communities across the country where individual “negro ambition” often outweighs the interest of the community. For example, former Congressman Harold Ford of Memphis was replaced by a liberal-progressive White candidate (who is apparently serving the community reasonably well) because several Black candidates “popped up” to run for the seat. The outcome was predictable with no mutually agreed upon process for narrowing the field to one or two candidates. The Black vote was splintered between the various aspiring Negroes, and a White candidate won the seat.
The same thing almost happened in New York when Congressman Major Owens decided not to seek re-election in the district once held by Shirley Chisholm. Four candidates popped up to succeed Congressman Owens in a district that has about 55% Black voters. Sensing an opening, a White city Councilman threw his hat in the ring. Faced with the danger of losing the seat, prominent Black leaders took to denouncing the White candidate for entering the race rather than focusing on a process to narrow the field to ensure victory for a Black candidate. Indeed, prominent Blacks picked their favorite candidate instead of using their influence to encourage candidates to drop out in the interest of salvaging the seat. Fortunately, in this instance, despite the Willie Lynch Syndrome, Councilwoman Yvette Clarke eked out a narrow victory to keep Shirley Chisholm’s old seat in Black hands. However, the victory should not have occurred by happenstance.
At the historic Gary National Black Political Convention in 1972, there was a major effort to instill the importance of devising and institutionalizing political processes and systems within the Black community, including developing Black agendas and selecting or endorsing candidates for public office. Creating political accountability structures that evaluate candidates’ performances based on a Black agenda was also viewed as an indispensible dimension of political process and systems in the Black Community. Though never adopted on a comprehensive scale, these ideas/concepts were part of the political dialogue in Black America for a considerable period and they were implemented in a number of communities across the country. Today, our community suffers from historical amnesia when it comes to these concepts/ideas about political process and systems. Consequently, Willie Lynch Syndrome is running amok and wreaking havoc on our communities.
It is time for a concerted national effort to reassert the value of the kind of political processes and systems envisioned at the Gary Black Political Convention. This is precisely why the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW) proposed the idea of creating the Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission at the State of the Black World Conference in New Orleans in 2008. Composed of leading scholars and activists, the mission of the Commission is to monitor the performance of presidential administrations as it relates to issues of vital concern to Black people and provide analyses, assessments and report cards to Black America. Moving forward, through IBW’S Damu Smith Leadership Development and Organizer Training Institute, we hope a critical mass of people will receive information and the skills to reintroduce concepts/ideas about political processes and systems in Black communities across the nation. It is time to eradicate the debilitating effects of Willie Lynch Syndrome in the politics of Black America!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.