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Politics

detail of mural by Donnie Carter, Hareer Food and liquors, 5452 S. Halsted St., Chicago, 2018
detail of mural by Donnie Carter, Hareer Food and liquors, 5452 S. Halsted St., Chicago, 2018

Politics

African American political power in the United States came of age in the Midwest during the 20th century.

African American political power in the United States came of age in the Midwest during the 20th century.  That odyssey is perhaps best illustrated by the remarkable story of politics in Chicago’s South Side — an unbroken chain of political leadership from Ida B. Wells to Barack Obama.

In 1894, Wells moved to Chicago and began political and community organizing, including advocating for voting rights for women and voter registration for all African Americans. In 1913, Wells’ efforts resulted in women winning voting rights in Illinois.  In 1915, Wells and Chicago’s new African American women voters elected Oscar DePriest as Chicago’s first-ever African American City Council member. In 1928 DePriest became the first African American ever elected to the U.S. Congress outside the South, and the first anywhere in the 20th Century, thanks again partly to Wells’ coalition.  

Arthur Mitchell, an African American Democrat and DePriest’s successor, championed civil rights in Congress, and won a Supreme Court case challenging segregation of railroads — predating Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott by 14 years.  

Republican William Dawson, the next black congressman from the South Side, created one of the first African American political and electoral “machines.”  Dawson’s use of political patronage, his election day voter mobilization and political alliances with Chicago’s city leaders set the playbook many politicians of all colors would follow for decades. Among them: Harold Washington, who held Dawson’s former seat in Congress before becoming Chicago’s first-ever African American mayor in 1982.  

In the 1990s, the office held by DePriest, Mitchell, Dawson, and Washington was won by Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther and lieutenant to the charismatic Panther leader Fred Hampton.  

In 2000, Seale beat back a challenge by an up-and-coming politician: Barack Obama.  Obama, following his loss to Seale — the only political loss of Obama’s career — would go on to win election to the Illinois State Senate, the U.S. Senate, and the presidency of the United States. 

Obama’s capture of the White House completed the African American political odyssey from Ida B. Wells’s grassroots organizing to the highest office in the land.

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