Burris, Roland W. 1937–
Roland W. Burris 1937–
Roland W. Burris first ran for political office in Illinois in 1968, and since the 1970s has held two of the state’s highest elected posts. He was Illinois’s first African American comptroller, or treasurer, as well as its first African American attorney general. Yet Burris has also made unsuccessful bids for the governorship of Illinois—a state that has elected more African Americans to its top offices than any other in the union—but he failed to win the necessary political support among the powerful Chicago-Springfield Democratic Party organization. “Some politicians are easy to pigeonhole,” remarked Chicago magazine writer Greg Hinz. “Roland Burris is not one of them…..His most visible side is that of the fighter, a man determined to succeed by dint of persistence and guile and hard work.”
Burris was born in 1937 in Centralia, Illinois, in the south-central part of the state, where his father, Earl, ran a small grocery store to supplement his income as a laborer for the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad. The Burrises had lived in Centralia for four generations, and Burris inherited a strong sense of community, a Baptist faith, and desire to eradicate injustice. He cited the summer of 1953 as a significant one in his life, for it began on Memorial Day with his dive into Centralia’s municipal swimming pool. The city had unofficially barred the town’s African American residents from using the facility, until Earl Burris decided that it should be otherwise. Burris’s father even hired a lawyer to meet them at the pool that day, in case of trouble, but the attorney failed to appear. “All summer long, I heard my dad saying, ‘If we as a race of people are going to get anywhere, we need lawyers and elected officials who are responsive and responsible,’” Burris recalled in the Chicago magazine interview. By the end of that summer, the 16-year-old Burris had decided to pursue a career in politics.
Burris studied political science at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and became a politically active student as well. He headed a group that exposed discriminatory practices among Carbondale merchants toward African American students, and spent a year in Hamburg, Germany, studying international law. In 1963, Burris earned his law degree from Howard University, and worked for a short time as a federal bank examiner. In 1964, he was hired by Continental
At a Glance…
Born August 3, 1937, in Centralia, IL; son of Earl (a railroad laborer and grocery-store proprietor) and Emma Burris; married to Berlean Miller (a college administrator); children: Rolanda Sue, Roland II. Education: Southern Illinois University, B.A., 1959; earned law degree from Howard University, 1963. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Federal bank examiner, c. 1963–64; began at Continental Illinois National Bank, Chicago, IL, 1964, left in 1973 as vice president; Illinois State Department of General Services, director, 1973–76; elected state comptroller for Illinois, 1978, re-elected twice; elected Illinoisattorney general, 1990–94, Jones, Ware & Grenard (law firm), Chicago, managing partner; Buford & Peters (law firm), Chicago, of counsel; adjunct professor, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, 1995-.
Awards: African American Hall of Fame; Howard University Alumni of the Year; Distinguished Public Service Award, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
Member: Democratic National Committee; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Boy Scouts of America; Southern Illinois University Alumni Association;Financial Accounting Foundation (trustee, 1992–95), Howard University, School of Law Board of Directors; Mental Health Association of Greater Chicago; Chicago Urban League; CookCounty Bar Association.
Addresses: Office— Buford & Peters, LLC, 111 W. Washington St., Suite 1861, Chicago, IL 60602.
Illinois National Bank, where he rose to the post of vice president in less than a decade. In his management position, Burris worked to help more minority businesses obtain loans at a time when financial institutions practiced unofficial discrimination in their commercial lending policies.
Burris ran for a seat in the Illinois state legislature in 1968, but finished in last place among the five candidates. “That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he later told the Chicago Tribune about his unsuccessful campaign. “I’ m very religious, so I figure it was divine intervention that I lost. The Lord not only saw to it that I lost, but that I came in last.” He vowed to work harder at cultivating a base of political support. After working at Continental Illinois National Bank during the day, Burris would devote his evenings to political activities, becoming involved in several local organizations on Chicago’s South Side.
Illinois politics, at both the state and local level, is dominated by the Democratic Party organization. Dissatisfaction with this state of affairs led Burris to campaign for Dan Walker, who successfully ran for governor as an independent Democrat in 1973. In return, Walker named Burris to head the state’s Department of General Services. When Walker ran again in 1976, Burris ran for comptroller on the same ticket, but lost. Two years later, Burris won election to the comptroller’s office, and became the first African American to achieve a statewide electoral victory in Illinois.
Burris was reelected comptroller twice, and for a time even served as national executive director for the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s influential Chicago-based organization, Operation PUSH. In 1984 Burris decided to run for one of Illinois’s seats in U.S. Senate. He came in second in the Democratic primary to Paul Simon, who would make a bid for the White House several years later. In 1990, Burris became Illinois’s first African American attorney general. During his four years in office, he enjoyed a high public profile and oversaw an aggressive office that meted out pollution fines, investigated consumer fraud cases, battled nursing-home problems, and used a grand jury law to prosecute drug dealers.
In the 1980s, Burris’s name was discussed as a possible candidate for Chicago mayor, but he initially shied away from entering into this particularly contentious arena of political combat. In 1993, however, he announced his bid for the governorship of Illinois as a Democrat. Early reports predicted that Burris, with his extensive public-service background, had an excellent chance to win the job. The Reverend Jesse Jackson called Burris “a sturdy, non-flashy bridge-builder,” according to a Chicago Tribune report by Thomas Hardy. “He has a comfort level with all groups because he has pretty much found the common denominator,” Jackson told the newspaper. “In political life, if you can find middle C on the piano, it is the same note in all languages and in all places.”
Burris lost the Democratic primary by less than 100,000 votes. In 1995, he made a bid for Chicago mayor, but ran against popular incumbent Democrat Richard Daley, who some political analysts noted may have alienated some members of the Democratic Party. Burris once again entered the governor’s race in 1998, but once more faced formidable challenges from fellow Democratic candidates. Although he had solid support among African American voters, “downstate” Democrats around his native Centralia, and wide name recognition, Burris did not have enough in his campaign coffers to buy even one television ad. Had he won, it “would have marked the first time any state had nominated a black candidate for governor and U.S. senator,” observed New York Times writer Dirk Johnson. But as Johnson also noted, “it had been no secret that some Democratic leaders were fearful that a victory by Burris would convey the impression of an almost all-black Democratic ticket.”
Burris, who became a partner with the Chicago law firm Jones, Ware & Grenard before joining the downtown Chicago attorneys’ offices of Buford & Peters, also teaches at his alma mater, Southern Illinois University, as an adjunct professor. He and his wife live in a South Side home that was once owned by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. His long career in public service is not likely at an end, although Burris rejects the race-politics connection. “I don’t run as a black man,” he told Hardy in the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “I run for office as an individual with an answer to the problems of all citizens. Certainly there is a degree of sensitivity to the plight of my people because of the racist structure of society, but I have been able to bridge that because of my upbringing and ability to interact with people.”
Chicago, February 1994, p. 74.
Chicago Tribune, November 8, 1993.
Jet, April 4, 1994, p. 5.
New York Times, March 13, 1998, p. A13; March 19, 1998.
Washington Post, March 17, 1998, p. A4.
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