One key to understanding the complex odyssey of Bobby Rush may be to realize that before he was a Black Panther turned political activist turned regular party honcho turned congressional candidate, he was a Boy Scout.
Growing up poor but loved in the shadow of Chicago’s affluent Gold Coast, he learned to tie all the knots, snap all the salutes, sell all the papers and Christmas cards in the fund-raising drives and recite all the pledges about being trustworthy, loyal, courteous and true.
He was a patrol leader, not a gang member. The only thing Rush ever tooted on was the nickel-plated instrument he blew in the drum and bugle corps.
“I learned a lot in the Boy Scouts,” Rush said. “When people try to snapshot my life in terms of just what I did in the Panthers, they’re really missing the mark because I’m a product of all my experiences.”
So Bobby Rush, at least, finds nothing inherently contradictory in the jagged turns that others might see in his life. From idealistic bookworm to high school dropout. From Army volunteer to black-power advocate spouting: “Off the pigs.” From insurance salesman to political reformer. From anti-machine Chicago City Council member to deputy chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party.
And now, at age 45, the pensive, soft-spoken Rush is on the verge of his biggest twist yet. The onetime head of the Illinois Black Panther chapter is a virtual cinch to become the first 1960s radical leader to earn a seat in Congress, the institution that perhaps most epitomizes the American political Establishment. Not even politically ambitious California Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), an alumnus of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Jane Fonda schools of protest, has made it so far.
Last month’s Illinois Democratic primary produced a number of surprises, most notably when long-shot candidate Carol Moseley Braun upset heavily favored incumbent Sen. Alan J. Dixon and earned a fighting chance to become the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
But overshadowed by the focus on Braun’s feat was that of Rush, who eked out a narrow win over incumbent Rep. Charles A. Hayes in the heavily black and overwhelmingly Democratic 1st House district on Chicago’s South Side--the oldest traditionally black district in Congress. He faces a little-known black Republican in the general election, but the GOP has not won this district since the 1930s and has scant chance of doing so now.
Granted, it is not clear whether Rush’s accomplishment represents some kind of symbolic breakthrough of an end to Vietnam War-era bitterness or is merely a fluke. After all, people are still quibbling in this election year about whether Democratic presidential front-runner Bill Clinton did or did not duck the draft back then.
As for Rush, even he credits his victory to disenchantment with Hayes, who was exposed just days before the vote as a top congressional check-bouncer. And some of the more strident black leaders here contend that Rush has managed to advance primarily because he has jettisoned his radical zeal and cozied up to white party leaders--"a Panther to a pussycat,” in the words of one oft-repeated put-down.
But other prominent blacks see Rush as just an older, smarter version of the committed young Panther who helped organize food banks and shelter programs in the black community, even while toting weapons and spouting hazy rhetoric about armed violence as a legitimate tool of social change.
Rush, insists Cook County Commissioner Danny Davis, has not sold out but simply matured by learning how to more effectively accomplish things through the system. “I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that an individual changes a great deal because one might wear a three-piece suit instead of a dashiki,” Davis said. " . . . Bobby Rush’s basic human instincts, basic drives, basic desires, I don’t think I’d say those are much different from the days (when) he was a member of the Black Panther Party.”
Neither would Bobby Rush. Actually, Rush traces his social and political conscience to his mother, Cora. Rush was born in Albany, Ga., the third of six children. But when he was 7 years old, Cora Rush left her husband and moved the children to Chicago, settling in a run-down neighborhood just west of the all-white strip of lakefront mansions and glitzy apartment houses known as the Gold Coast.
Despite coming from a broken home, Rush’s upbringing was not the kind that one might expect to spawn a fire-breathing militant. His early interactions with whites were by and large positive. He went to an integrated elementary school, joined an integrated Scout troop and even went to a Jewish summer camp.
Called Polite, Quiet
Marie Butler, the mother of Rush’s closest childhood pal, recalls him as a top student and avid reader who was always polite, quiet and anything but a rabble-rouser. Most of all, though, Butler remembers Rush as strongly influenced by his mother, a part-time schoolteacher and beautician. Avidly patriotic, Cora Rush frequently worked as a volunteer in political campaigns.
“She always stressed to her children the importance of education and the importance of learning something about your country and voting and trying to do something yourself and not just leaving it up to the other guy,” Butler said. “That’s the kind of thing Bob and my son were brought up with.”
Nevertheless, money was so short in the Rush household that he dropped out of high school his senior year. Inspired by the late President John F. Kennedy’s call for public service, Rush enlisted in the Army in late 1963, shortly after Kennedy’s assassination. Rush had intended to make it a career and quickly passed high school equivalency courses to get his degree.
But military service was an eye-opener. He never went to Vietnam, but instead was assigned to an anti-missile base along Chicago’s lakefront. His battery commander, Rush said, was an Alabamian with an abiding disdain for black troops. It was Rush’s first brush with racism on a personal level, and it had a profound effect on his outlook.
Hardened by several run-ins with his commander, Rush joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights group headed by black militant Stokely Carmichael. When Chicago’s poverty-stricken West Side erupted in flames after the April, 1968, assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rush went AWOL from his unit. He was discharged from the Army a few weeks later, although honorably.
He then drifted into the Illinois chapter of the Panthers, at that time headed by a fiery orator named Fred Hampton. Eventually, Rush became the Panthers’ Illinois defense minister, a title that--in the arcane superstructure of the group--technically left him in charge of preparations for “war” with the system.
The pivotal moment in Rush’s life took place on Dec. 4, 1969. The previous morning, several Panther leaders gathered for an all-day meeting in Hampton’s West Side apartment. They did not know it, but an informer in their midst had tipped authorities to the gathering.
Late that night, Rush and a few others--including the informer, subsequently identified as William O’Neal--left. But most of the others bedded down at Hampton’s place. At 4:45 the next morning, a squad of 14 Chicago police officers, armed with a search warrant and working under the direction of then-Cook County State’s Atty. Edward V. Hanrahan, blasted their way into Hampton’s apartment and killed him in his bed. Another party leader was shot dead in the living room, and four others were wounded. In all, nearly 100 shots were fired, all but one by the police, it was later determined.
Police raided Rush’s apartment too, but by then he had heard about the earlier raid and had gone into hiding.
The Hampton raid marked a turning point in Chicago politics. It outraged and energized the black community, which by and large had provided a passive and obedient voting bloc for Mayor Richard J. Daley’s machine. Several prominent black Democrats, among them a state lawmaker named Harold Washington who would later become the city’s first black mayor, broke with the organization after white leaders refused to condemn Hanrahan.
Criminal charges were brought against the lawmen involved in the raid, but none were ever found guilty. In the wake of a lengthy civil lawsuit, however, federal, city and county agencies agreed a decade later to pay $1.85 million to the survivors of the raid as well as to relatives of those killed.
Meanwhile, Rush inherited control of the Panther chapter eventually serving a brief jail stint on a weapons charge. Under his leadership, however, the radical aspects of the organization slowly gave way to an emphasis on such things as free breakfast programs and medical clinics. Still, with Hampton gone, members became dispirited and gradually drifted away. By 1974, Rush had also quit and enrolled in Chicago’s Roosevelt University, where he earned a political science degree.
Soon, he switched gears to politics, mounting unsuccessful insurgent campaigns against machine candidates for City Council and the state Legislature. To pay his bills, the erstwhile revolutionary traded in his weapon for a briefcase and began peddling insurance.
When Washington was elected mayor in 1983, Rush rode his coattails to victory in a race for the City Council seat from the Second Ward, a symbolically significant subdivision that elected the first black to the City Council in 1915 and for decades was the cultural and political heart of the black community.
On the council, Rush became a key member of the so-called “progressive” bloc of Washington loyalists that fought a bitter, racially tinged power struggle with machine forces in what was known here as “council wars.” But he also ventured into less headline-grabbing legislative pursuits that were not high on the black reformist agenda.
As head of the council’s environmental committee, he spearheaded efforts to crack down on toxic waste dumpers. The former Panther defense czar even championed a citywide ban on automatic and semiautomatic weapons and helped public housing officials coordinate drug and weapons sweeps in crime-ridden facilities they operated.
“He’s not a TV hog like some people in this chamber,” said Ed Eisendrath, a City Council member politically linked to the current mayor, Richard M. Daley. “He’s been committed to his community. He works hard. He knows who he represents; he knows the lives his constituents lead every day.”
Whites like Eisendrath have nothing but praise for Rush these days, but criticisms come largely from old allies in the black-power movement who abandoned the Democrats in the wake of political turmoil that followed Washington’s sudden death in 1987. They formed their own political party and named it after the late mayor.
Rush, instead, threw in with regular Democrats and has since been rewarded with the deputy chairmanship of the state party. In that capacity, he infuriated Harold Washington Party leaders by spurning their candidates for local offices and, on occasion, backing white Democrats instead.
“His loyalties now appear to be more to what I consider to be a racist political party,” complained Lu Palmer, an influential black political activist. " . . . I presume it’s a factor of ambition. I can’t see any other reason behind it.”
As expected, Rush bristles at any suggestion that he has become a traitor to the cause. “I think their criticism is based either on political expediency or jealousy,” he said. " . . . Some people have deliberately promoted this politics of victimization to such an extreme that it’s not operational to be positive anymore.”
His boosters agree, arguing that the changes they have seen in Rush may rankle a small portion of the black community but reflect the political maturity of a much broader group that rejects separatism.
Peggy Salmon, a local radio producer and campaign volunteer, said she was a teen-ager when she first heard of Rush in the early 1970s and has admired him ever since. “I used to look up to the Black Panthers as a kid because I was anti-government, anti-system,” Salmon said. “As you get older, you realize you have to work through the system to get things done. I see myself in him. I made the same change.”
Rush says he does not repudiate a thing he has done in previous incarnations but sees his transformation as part of a natural evolution. “I volunteered to go into the Army right after John Kennedy was killed, and the idealism that erupted within me then is the idealism that is present within me now,” he said. “I think that idealism really kind of transcended my whole life. It’s only been somewhat offset by practicalities. Now, I look at the world as a 45-year-old black man rather than as a 22-year-old black man.”
Indeed, during a campaign for reelection to the City Council last year, Rush sought to blunt criticism of his involvement with regular Democrats by promoting his past. A huge billboard in the center of his district displayed side-by-side portraits of Rush as both a young Panther and an older politician. “Effective leadership, then and now,” was the slogan.
Times researcher Tracy Shryer contributed to this article.