Rush, Bobby 1946–
Bobby Rush 1946–
A leader of the militant Black Panther Party in the 1960s who narrowly escaped with his life after a notorious police raid on the party’s Chicago headquarters, Bobby Rush became part of the city’s political establishment, winning election to the city council and then to the U.S. House of Representatives. In the process, he moderated some of his militant beliefs. The former gun-toting radical emerged as a leading spokesman for gun control after the murder of his son in 1999 and, as a Congressman, supported the positions of the Illinois business community on several key issues. Yet Rush saw no total metamorphosis in his evolution from community activist to mainstream politician. “I am consistent in working on behalf of [black] people,” he told Black Enterprise, “and my move into politics was gradual.”
Rush was born in Albany, Georgia, on November 23, 1946, but grew up in Chicago. Although the venerable African American community of the city’s South Side would later become his political base, Rush grew up on the city’s North Side. He was a member of the Boy Scouts, and got an early introduction to politics from his mother, who ironically was a precinct-level organizer for the Republican Party. When Rush won election to Congress in 1992, it was from one of the most Democratic-leaning districts in the entire United States.
After dropping out of high school, Rush joined the U.S. Army in 1963 and became involved in the great civil-rights struggles of the 1960s. He worked in civil-disobedience campaigns in the South, and founded the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers in 1967. His son, Huey, was named after Panther leader Huey Newton. “We were reacting to police brutality, to the historical relationship between African-Americans and recalcitrant racist whites,” Rush later told People. “We needed to arm ourselves.” Indeed, Rush might have felt his suspicions justified when Chicago police raided a Panther meeting in 1969, killing two local party leaders. One of them was a young organizer, Fred Hampton, whom Rush himself had recruited. Rush could easily have been killed in the same hail of police bullets, but he survived.
Although he was imprisoned for six months in 1972 on a weapons charge, Rush also worked energetically on the non-violent projects that built support for the
At a Glance…
Born in Albany, Georgia, on November 23, 1946; raised in Chicago. Married, wife’s name Carolyn. Education: Roosevelt University, Chicago, B.A. with honors, 1973; University of Illinois, M.A, 1994; Mc- Cormick Seminary, M.A, 1998. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1963-68. Religion: Baptist
Career: United States Congressional Representative, First District of Illinois. JoinedStudent Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, 1966; worked on civil-disobedience campaigns in the southern United States; founded Chicago chapter, Black Panther Party, 1967; directed Panther-funded low-income medical clinic 1970-73; worked in insurance sales; elected Chicago city alderman from Second Ward, 1983; elected to U.S. House, 1992; ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Chicago, 1999.
Addresses: Office— U.S. House of Representatives, 131 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515.
Panthers in African American communities. He coordinated a medical clinic that offered sickle-cell anemia testing on an unprecedented scale. Rush returned to school and graduated with honors from Chicago’s Roosevelt University in 1973. A year later he left the Panthers, who were already in decline. “We started glorifying thuggery and drugs,” he told People. That was distasteful to the deeply religious Rush, who in the 1990s resumed his education at McCormick Seminary and received a master’s degree in theology.
Rush sold insurance for a time in the 1970s, and ran for a seat on Chicago’s city council in 1974. The first of several black militants who later sought political office, he was defeated. In the early 1980s, however, Chicago’s political life was transformed by the ascendancy of U.S. Representative Harold Washington, a brilliant orator and a charismatic figure who united the city’s African American community. Washington was elected mayor of Chicago in 1983, ending decades of control by the city’s white-ethnic political machine. That year, Rush was elected alderman from the Second Ward on Chicago’s South Side.
A strong supporter of Washington, Rush showed himself to be as effective an organizer in the political arena as he had been on the streets with the Black Panthers. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he amassed an army of loyal precinct workers who could deliver large voter turnouts not only for his own campaigns, but also for those of other politicians he supported. As a result, Rush began to forge larger alliances not only within African American political circles but across racial lines. After Washington died suddenly while in office, the mayoralty reverted to Irish-American Richard Daley, son of the city’s mayor from 1955 to 1978. Despite his previous ties to Washington, Rush worked effectively with Daley as well.
In 1992, Rush challenged incumbent Representative Charles Hayes for the Congressional seat in the Illinois First District, which included the heart of the South Side African American community plus a smattering of predominantly Irish-American wards to the southwest. Aided by a check-overdraft scandal that embroiled Hayes, Rush won the primary in March by a three-percentage-point margin, gaining white support thanks to the endorsement of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. He waltzed to victory in November in this overwhelmingly Democratic area.
Rush took liberal positions in Congress, offering especially strong criticism of President Bill Clinton’s welfare cuts in 1996. He was quoted in the Almanac of American Politics as saying that requiring public housing residents to perform community service amounted to “involuntary servitude.” Because of his seat on the powerful Commerce committee, Rush also played host to numerous members of the Illinois business community. He became an astute negotiator: “When they come to sit down and discuss their interests with me,” he told Black Enterprise, “I reach into my pocket and bring out my list [of pet projects]. Then we see where there are areas of mutual support and agreement.”
“Only when African Americans own businesses, be they ma and pa shops or megasize companies,” Rush continued in Black Enterprise, “will they be able to withstand the winds of [political] change that sweep periodically across America.” Rush continued to focus on gaining more and more political influence. Observing Rush’s South Side organization and the increasing number of races elsewhere in Chicago in which Rush became involved, Chicago magazine noted that “a politician who does all that ain’t playin’ beanbag.”
After considering a mayoral run in 1995, Rush jumped into the 1999 race for mayor against Richard Daley. Rush charged that Daley was neglecting the city’s neighborhoods in favor of its glittering downtown core. Rush tried to rally the same coalition of African Americans and white liberals that had elected Washington, but his campaign against Daley was hampered by a lack of funds and by Daley’s own wide popularity. Daley’s administration had been much more inclusive of minorities than had that of his famous father. In the election of February 1999, Daley won by a 72-to-28 percent margin, taking 45 percent of the African American vote and dealing Rush his first electoral defeat in many years.
Rush’s 29-year-old son, Huey, was murdered by alleged robbers in front of his South Side home in October of 1999. Rush was devastated by his son’s death. “I always thought it was going to be me who wouldn’t get to 30,” he told People. He stepped up his legislative efforts in favor of handgun control, telling People that “I’m committed to making sure that his life was not given in vain.” Rush has sponsored or co-sponsored over 30 gun-control measures in Congress. After running for mayor and facing publicity over past unpaid taxes, he attracted opposition in the Democratic primary of April 2000, but triumphed over two opponents. “I’m going to get back to work,” Rush told Jet. “We’ve got a lot we have to accomplish in these next few days, next few weeks, few months, few years.”
Barone, Michael, and Grant Ujifusa, The Almanac of American Politics 2000, National Journal, 1999.
Black Enterprise, November 1995, p. 28.
Crain’s Chicago Business, November 30, 1998, p. 1.
Chicago, June 1994, p. 24.
Ebony, August 1996, p. 108.
Jet, April 10, 2000.
People, May 22, 2000, p. 115.
—James M. Manheim
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