Bobby Rush Finds Life After the Black Panthers as a Voice for Change
When I heard that Rep. Bobby Rush had decided to call it quits after an impressive three decades of service in Congress, I was reminded — to borrow my favorite line from the Grateful Dead — what a long, strange trip it’s been.
Our career paths first brought us together in the late 1960s when he was vice chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party.
Two decades later, he was vice chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party.
“Only in America,” as my late father liked to say with a sense of satisfaction over how far Black folks had come in his lifetime.
Indeed, I reported on the Illinois Panther chapter before its original chairman Fred Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark died in a 1969 FBI “shootout” that turned out to be more of an assassination, as depicted in the Oscar-nominated “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
Rush moved into Hampton’s position as the organization was in decline, and I found myself covering his first campaign for Chicago City Council — and later his victory in the 1st District congressional race on Chicago’s South Side.
Now his three decades of service are remembered most often as the only politician to beat Barack Obama. That’s probably just as well, since the loss left Obama free to win a Senate seat and the White House.
Asked about that victory over the politically inexperienced Obama, Rush joked, after recounting how rich and famous Obama has since become, “I wonder sometimes who really won that race.”
But the two later became good friends, Rush said, recalling how Obama asked for his advice as to whether he should run for president.
“Go out and do it,” Rush responded, “ ‘If you don’t do it now, you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting it.’ I think that was sound advice.”
Rush, too, has a keen sense of historical significance. He held his news conference in Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, where 14-year-old Emmett Till’s funeral was held more than 60 years ago after he was murdered by racists in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
Rosa Parks would later say that she had Till on her mind when she famously refused to give up her seat in the white section of a Birmingham bus, igniting the civil rights era of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Parks went on to inspire countless others and energize the movement, which would evolve in the 1960s to more militancy and the birth of the Black Panthers.
But after leading the already declining organization to a quiet demise in the early 1970s, Rush turned to establishment politics, first as an alderman, then a congressman who became a voice for a bold progressivism against such familiar issues as police misconduct, child hunger and affordable housing.
He also maintained his flair for the dramatic, such as participating in sit-in protests and his breaking House rules by wearing a hoodie to orate on the House floor about another cause: the death of Trayvon Martin, the Black youth killed by a security guard in Florida. His point: “Just because someone wears a hoodie doesn’t make him a hoodlum.”
In his new role as elder statesman, he honors the past with his activism, calling recently for opening the FBI files on the Hampton and Clark killings — and removing late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s name from FBI headquarters in Washington.
Congress alone is not going to liberate Black people, equalize or create an equal society, he said, “But I learned in the Black Panther Party determination, not limitation.”
Now he has more time to spend with his family and his latest incarnation as an ordained minister, which he calls a “reassignment.” “I’m not retiring,” he said. “I’m returning home.”
Back to his church and his family at age 75 to carry on his life of service.
At the end of the 1960s, many of us wondered where the surviving political activists would turn when the great causes of those times were replaced by new ones. Bobby Rush was one who stayed with activism, but in more conventional ways than those of the Panthers and other similarly radical movements.
With that, he also sends a message to new generations. “The system” can respond to the great grievances of the time — and, whether change comes quickly or with great sacrifice, persistence pays.
(E-mail Clarence Page at email@example.com.)
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