White, Jesse 1934–
Jesse White 1934–
On November 3, 1998, Jesse White became the first African-American to be elected secretary of state for the state of Illinois. White had begun his political career by serving for 16 years in the Illinois General Assembly, representing the most culturally, economically, and racially diverse district in the state. In 1992, he was elected Cook County recorder of deeds, a position previously held by Carol Moseley Braun, who went on to become a US Senator for Illinois. White Won reelection as recorder in 1996, resigning two years later to become secretary of state.
While White has had a long and distinguished career in state politics, outside Illinois he is better known as the founder and coach of the Jesse White Tumbling Team. The team, which White established in 1959, was designed to provide a positive alternative for children growing up in tough inner-city neighborhoods. According to John Blades, writing in the Chicago Tribune, “White’s aggressive efforts to provide his boys and girls with a way of escape from the crippling, often fatal effects of ghetto life have brought him…national attention.”
“The youngsters who live in housing projects are some of the most talented and nicest kids you’ 11 find anywhere,” White was quoted as saying in the Tribune. “But they’re right on the cutting edge—they could go either way. You have to work with them, guide them, and mold them like a piece of clay.”
White was born in on June 23, 1934, in Alton, Illinois. When he was four years old, his family moved to Chicago, settling on the near north side—a neighborhood where he lived most of his life, and where he still lives today. At the time, the area was called Little Italy, and, as White recalled, it had none of the problems typically associated with urban neighborhoods . “There was a large number of Italians living here,” White told Norma Libman of the Chicago Tribune. “There were also some blacks, some Irish, some Germans. We gotalong well. We never had problems with gangs, drugs, or alcohol.”
White’s family was poor, and had to rely on public assistance for about ten years. “I’ve never looked down on anyone who uses the system, but I believe that it’s a temporary station in life and that we should all work toward getting off it. And once we get off it, we should pay back to that system,” he told Libman of the Chicago
Born jesse C White, June 23, 1934, Alton, IL; divorced, education: Alabama State College, B.S.; postgraduate work, North Texas State University, 1966, politicS: Democrat Military Service: US Army, 101st Airborne, 1957-59; National Guard, 1973-75,
Career: Teacher, Jenner School, 1959-63; Schiller Elementary School, beginning 1963, Founder, Jesse White Tumblers, 1959. Representative, Illinois General Assembly, 1975-77, 1979-93; Cook County Recorder of Deeds, 1993-98; Secretary of State for Illinois, 1998-;
Selected awards: Most Dedicated Teacher, Citizen’s School Committee, 1969; Excellence in Education, Superintendent of Public Instruction, 1974; Partner in BuHdlng BitterComniunities,Gov. James R. Thompson, 1985; Inducted into Southwestern Athletic Conference Hall of Fame 1995, and Chicago Public League Basket;ball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, 1995.
Address: home chicogo IL Office—213 State Capitol, Springfield, IL, 62756.
Tribune. White sees his 33 years as a teacher and administrator in Chicago public schools, as well as his 40 years as coach of the tumbling team, as an attempt to repay this early investment. “What I’m doing right now, particularly through the Tumblers, where I have never taken a salary, is giving back to Chicago all that it gave to me when I was growing up.”
As a young man, White excelled at several sports. “I was not a good student; I was an average student,” White told Libman of the Tribune. “In order to play basketball and baseball, I had to go to school every day. And so I was pretty good in terms of attending school.” As a basketball star at Waller High School (now Lincoln Park Academy), he once scored 69 points in a single game—an accomplishment that earned him a headline in the sports section of the Tribune. White was offered a basketball and baseball scholarship to Alabama State College (now Alabama State University), where his record as all-time basketball scoring leader has stood since the mid-1950s.
In 1956, White signed a contract to play with the Chicago Cubs, but he was drafted into the army before he could report to spring training. From 1957 to 1959 he served with the 101st Airborne as a paratrooper. He then returned to Chicago, taking a job as a physical education teacher at Jenner Elementary; four years later, he transferred to Schiller Elementary, where as a child he had attended school. “After being away at college and in the Army, I never considered living anywhere else. I loved Chicago then, and I love Chicago now,” White told Norma Libman of the Chicago Tribune.
In 1959, while working with the Chicago Park District, White was asked to stage a gymnastics show. He recruited some talented youngsters, and drained his own savings account to buy uniforms. Eventually,” the word spread and we started getting requests from parks, YMCAs, block clubs, art festivals, schools, the Cubs” to put on performances, White was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune.
In the forty years since then, more than 3500 children have performed with the Jesse White Tumblers, most of them residents of public housing projects in Chicago. To remain on the team, tumblers must stay in school and maintain average grades; stay away from drugs, alcohol, and gangs; and stay out of trouble with the law. Fewer than 100 have been kicked off the team for violating the rules, White told the Chicago Tribune.
The Jesse White Tumblers perform more than 500 shows a year, in Chicago and around the world. The team has been featured on “Good Morning America” and “The David Letterman Show,” and made an appearance in the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. White’s team even inspired a children’s book,” I am a Jesse White Tumbler,” written from the perspective of Kenyon Conner, a young team member.
“What Jesse White has done is to use his athletic skills and help teach children to do extraordinary things,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson was quoted as saying in the Sun-Times. “Jesse has gone into a side of town that is often stereotyped and has taken the rejected stones and made them into cornerstones….He has turned pain into power.” Members of his team have gone on to attend major colleges and universities. Some of them became lawyers, teachers, police officers, or electricians; one became a fashion designer.
After more than ten years as a coach and educator, White decided to expand his activism to the state legislature. In 1974, he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives for the 8th district, a diverse area that includes some of Chicago’s richest and poorest residents. White became only the second African-American in Illinois history to be elected from a majority-white district.
He served in the state legislature from 1975 to 1977, then again from 1979 to 1993. During his 16 years as a legislator, White developed a solid record for anti-crime and education initiatives. He chaired the Human Services Committee, which oversees all state social programs; he was also an active member of the Elementary Education Committee and the Select Committee on Aging.
After the 1990 census, when the boundaries of White’s district were changed to reflect population changes, he decided to run for Cook County recorder of deeds, winning election in 1992. One of his major accomplishments, according to an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times, was to “transform an outmoded paper-and-pen operation” into an up-to-date computerized office. “White earned the gratitude of real estate agents, lawyers and homeowners for reducing from six to two weeks the time it takes to record a document and return it to the customer,” the Sun-Times editorial continued. As a result, White saved county taxpayers $4 million annually and generated record levels of revenue for the county.
During his campaign, White had promised to transform the recorder’s position from an elected to an appointed office. After a few years in the job, however, he changed his mind: “Once you get in there involved with administering a large budget, hundreds of employees and major projects, you have to be accountable to the taxpayers and voters,” he told the Chicago Tribune. In 1996, White was elected for a second term.
In 1998, White declared himself a candidate for Illinois secretary of state, a high-profile position often seen as a stepping-stone to a run for governor. The responsibilities of the secretary of state’s office include a wide range of activities: issuing vehicle license plates and titles, maintaining driver records, registering corporations, enforcing the Illinois Securities Act, overseeing state library and literacy programs, and keeping archival records of legal or historic value. The office provides direct service to more Illinois citizens than any other public agency.
On March 17, 1998, White defeated his opponent, Tim McCarthy, to win the Democratic nomination for secretary of state; he then went on to challenge Republican nominee Al Salvi. In his campaign, White promised to make the office more accessible to working people by opening earlier on weekdays, and by adding express lines for senior citizens and the disabled. He also proposed “a workable plan,” according to a Sun-Times editorial, to provide new license plates at no additional cost to Illinois motorists. “White has the know-how to lobby the legislature to approve these changes,” the editorial noted.
While the functions of the secretary of state’s office are fairly routine, the circumstances as the election approached were not: the office was under federal investigation for accepting bribes to issue commercial driver’s licenses. “It needs a tough administrator who can quickly reassure the public that there will be zero tolerance for corruption,” the Sun-Times editorial stated. “Our endorsement goes to Jesse White.” Even the Republican candidate for governor, George Ryan, endorsed White rather than fellow Republican Salvi: “(White) has probably spent a little more time in state government.. .and has, I think, a better idea of how the secretary of state’s office functions.”
“A genial, competent Cook County recorder of deeds, White reshaped his office after the chaos left by Carol Moseley-Braun…,” Tom Roeser wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. (Moseley-Braun later became the first African American woman to be a US senator.) “The likely defeat of Moseley-Braun (in her bid for re-election as senator) would make him the most influential African American in state politics.”
While many former secretaries of state have gone on to run for Illinois governor, White stated many times during his campaign that he does not have that in mind. “I’m not going to seek an office any higher than this or lower than this…,” White was quoted as saying in the Sun-Times. “I don’t care what it is—I will not seek another office.”
On November 4, 1998, White was elected secretary of state. While opponent Salvi carried many downstate counties, White was the overwhelming winner in Chicago and its suburbs. He became the first Democrat since 1981, as well as the first African American in Illinois history, to win that powerful office.
One of White’s responsibilities as secretary of state is to maintain driver records, and to revoke drivers’ licenses if necessary. White’s office made headlines in March of 1999, after an Illinois commercial truck driver collided with an Amtrak train, killing 11 passengers and injuring more than 100. Later, it was discovered that, over the last 30 years, the driver had racked up 13 driving-related convictions and had been involved in nine accidents—but had managed to keep his commercial driver’s license.
In response to the tragedy, White formed a task force to examine the Illinois Motor Vehicle Code, in order to eliminate loopholes such as the one that allowed the driver on the road. “My intent is to toughen the standards for commercial driver’s licenses and for all drivers as well, especially being concerned about drivers who have had problems in the past,” White wrote in a letter to the Chicago Sun-Times. “My goal is for Illinois to have the safest roads and strongest traffic safety laws in the country. I believe that our task force, which will include nationally known experts in the field of road safety, is an important step in that direction.”
Despite the demands of his position as secretary of state, White continues to work closely with the tumbling team that bears his name. In his dual roles as politician and coach, White “likes to flavor his speech with locker- and classroom proverbs,” according to John Blades of the Chicago Tribune, “such as ’A quitter never wins, and a winner never quits.’” It is an adage that White also demonstrates by example.
African-American Biographies, by Walter J. Hawkins, Mc Farland&Co., 1992.
Am a Jesse White Tumbler, by Diane Schmidt, Albert Whitman and Company, 1990.
Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 4, 1998, p. 4; Oct. 16, 1998, p. 39; Oct. 16, 1998, p. 37; Oct. 14, 1998, p. 9; Oct. 6, 1998, p. 9; Sept. 26, 1998, p. 3; March 18, 1998, p. 5.
Chicago Tribune, June 15, 1994, p. 5; March 21, 1993, p. 8; February 1, 1990, p. 1.
“The Honorable Jesse White,” short biography supplied by Illinois Secretary of State’s Office, 1999.
"White, Jesse 1934–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/white-jesse-1934
"White, Jesse 1934–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved March 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/white-jesse-1934
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