Fifty years ago this week, four little girls were killed in the Birmingham church bombing. My dad took me with his friends from synagogue to a memorial service at the Boston Commons. It was the first time I saw "Negroes" other than our cleaning lady. The first time I was alone with my dad, without my siblings or my mom. The first time I thought about injustice, not as history like the Holocaust, but as alive needing tending to. During these days of Awe; of introspection, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
In 1963, "Negroes" was the politically correct term, "integration" was a progressive goal, and there was no Black Caucus in the Illinois State Legislature.
The history of Illinois black state legislators began in 1876 when John W. E. Thomas, born a slave in Alabama, was elected to the Legislature. However, it wasn't until 1966 when, under the leadership of the State Senator Harold Washington, they began thinking about pulling together the growing number of black legislators into an effective interest group. Three years later, the Black Legislative Caucus was formed.
In 1963, there were 10 black legislators. Today, there are 30. More importantly, in 1963, black legislators controlled 4.2% of the seats in the Illinois legislature. By 2013, this had grown to 16.8% of the Legislature. (The Legislature shrunk in size.)
Black legislators sit in positions of power on Senate and House leadership teams. This means that they have a voice in strategic issues such as the decennial legislative remap process, before the rank-and-file legislators even view proposals. They chair committees, controlling the flow of bills. They are well positioned as inside decision-makers.
However, black legislators also work together as a separate force, independent of their loyalty to the Speaker of the House or the Senate President or the Governor.
When the Black Caucus takes a position, politicians listen. The power of black legislators comes from their solidarity. At the end of session when legislators are eager to wrap it up and go home, if word goes out that the Black Caucus is holding back their votes because of specific demands, some people groan, knowing it could delay and even change the dynamics of who loses and who wins. Advocates for the poor, though, rejoice when the Caucus takes a stand because it is almost always on behalf of low income populations, who are also African-American, and who have little voice on their own.
Caucus demands generally focus on the budget. The ask may be broad, as it was this year, when the Black Caucus wanted specific Medicaid cuts restored because the cuts had hurt black constituents. Or the demands may be specific, as in wanting money earmarked for certain black institutions or minority businesses.
In contrast, the 10 Jewish legislators do not articulate group positions. This is understandable because state issues facing Jews are rarely unique to our community and 10 votes won't be heard. Less understandable is the failure of women legislators, who number 57, to vote as a bloc on issues important to them like child care, child support, and domestic violence.
In the Illinois State Legislature, what has changed is that black legislators as a group are powerful. Partly, this comes from now controlling 16.8% of the seats. It also comes from their group discipline in wielding votes on behalf of their concerns and from being very public about their demands so that they are perceived as formidable. Fifty years has made a difference.
Question is whether the increase in power for black legislators also broke down social barriers with white legislators, as happened historically with other minority groups including Jews? The cocktail receptions, dinners, and bar parties that are the after-hours gatherings in Springfield, are color-blind. But dig down deeper into the question of who shares apartments and who organizes movie outings, TV viewings, and card games, and groups continue to segregate by race, ethnicity, and often gender.
This is not absolute. There are legislators and lobbyists who easily play in both worlds. For example, there were the weekly poker games attended by State Senator Obama. But in general, after-after hours relaxing of friends is done in the company of the familiar.
Fifty years ago, my dad and his friends joining in the memorial service on the Boston Commons, wondered if and hoped that "Negroes" would secure political power equal to other Americans. They did.
But what about the type of social integration which leads to trust? The Springfield scene mirrors the rest of the U.S. society. Neighborhoods still divide along racial lines. If my dad and his friends were still alive, I wonder if they think it will ever change?