By Hermene D. Hartman
Dr. Leon Finney Jr. was a dear friend. I first met him as a college student, working with Reverends Jesse Jackson and Willie Barrow at Operation Breadbasket, now known as Rainbow PUSH. My ex-husband, David Wallace, and I would deliver press releases to him on Saturdays when he was the publisher of The Woodlawn Observer. He was a mentor, a teacher and throughout the years, we became fast friends. We experienced life in its multiple variations, – marriage, divorce, illness and even death.
Leon was a Renaissance man – dashing, handsome and dapper at all times. Even when he was most casual, he was pressed down sharp with his bucks and bow ties. He fought the good fight with boundless energy. He was about the business of empowerment, power and business. He was a stalwart of the Black community; he was the go-to guy. He wore many hats – entrepreneur, community organizer, real estate developer and civic leader.
Leon was a strategic fighter, trained and mentored by the late Saul Alinsky, Bishop Arthur Brazier and Bill Berry. He was the guy you wanted with you in the back room. He was focused and a hard worker from sun up to sun down. He was resourceful; he was connected to city hall and to the state house. There were countless politicians Black and white, local and national that he embraced. While working their campaigns, he made a difference and perhaps helped them win. He had clout and he used it well.
Leon was a former United States Marine. I don’t know what position he served while in the Marines, but I suspect it was drill sergeant. He exercised discipline, razor-sharp focus, was goal orientated and yielded results, like a real solider. Often overbearing when trying to get things done, he always succeeded and always performed his best.
Leon could spot talent and he enjoyed working with young people. He loved to mold and train their sharp minds. He had been such a student and he paid it forward when he could. Leon also liked working with women. He said they had a sixth sense and saw things men did not. He was respectful of a woman’s perspective and often asked for it. He might have disagreed, but he valued the viewpoint.
The Wonders of Campaigning. . . .
During the mayoral campaign of Harold Washington, Leon was with Jane Byrne. He was loyal. Professor Bob Starks chaired the Task Force for Black Political Empowerment and single handily forced Leon to join
the Washington campaign. Bob was Harold’s guy and he had orders to bring Leon into Washington’s camp. It was a big fight that Bob eventually won. When Finney saw the overwhelming support for Washington, he quickly got on board and began to organize. Bob used Finney’s tactics on him. The reason Finney opposed Harold was business. He had vested interest in the Taste of Chicago, that the Black community was boycotting with his father’s Leon’s Barbeque. He was going to lose significant dollars with the boycott.
Leon argued a lot. He would make his point and challenge you to do the same. Sometimes you agreed and often you didn’t. He enjoyed a good political campaign. He made a difference in the Carol Mosley Braun campaign. He convinced everyone that she could win. He went into organizing mode on her behalf from fundraising to precinct work and produced a historic win with America’s first and only Black female Senator for the State of Illinois. Black women were in the forefront.
He was the Illinois Field Director for Jesse Jackson during his presidential campaign. While in the office discussing fundraising during Jesse’s campaign, we were very concerned about funding and Leon was fussing about the mail bags on the floor. We ignored the mail bags and they were piling up in the corner. Leon said, “Hermene open up those bags and let’s answer the mail.” I began to open the mail and we found more than $6 million dollars from all over the country in small bills. We were receiving contributions from churches, ladies’ clubs, students, and Black organizations in small denominations. Leon and I stayed up all night and opened every single envelope. The funding we were looking for, was right in front of our eyes. We were certain to open the bags of mail daily going forward. I got a new job for a while.
Leon worked tirelessly for the Barack Obama ‘presidential campaign in Indiana. He was determined that the busloads of people he took to Indiana with a Chicago brand of politics could deliver Indiana. He was right. Out of all the hard work that he did for Obama, he was never invited to the White House.
In most campaigns I was with the Finney brand, but not all. The 2019 mayoral campaign between Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle, Leon and I had a good fight. I was with the Lightfoot camp and he was with Preckwinkle’s. He could not convince me to be with Toni, because she was so experienced, prepared and ready to assume the fifth floor. He called me every morning to discuss and fuss. We debated, argued, cussed and slam phones down. I told him “Leon you will lose this one, because you are running a poor campaign and your old tactics are dated and you won’t win.” Toni’s campaign was about her resume. Lori was a fresh face and she talked about the future. He persuaded the who’s who of Black Chicago to his way.
I argued and argued to no avail, but I stood my Lightfoot ground. He had others call me to discuss Preckwinkle and I wouldn’t back down. I lost a few friends, until the campaign was over. The business organization, Black Leadership Council, of which Leon was a part, would not meet with candidate Lightfoot. I called several times for a candidate meeting and Lori called them six times. The meeting was not granted, and Leon and I argued fiercely on how unfair that was.
The day after the election, I called him early morning to say, “Lightfoot won every ward.” I called that afternoon to say, “Lightfoot won every single ward.” I called that evening to say “call me when you would like to talk about winning.” I called him every four hours with a smart remark to say I told you so. He would not take my calls.
The next morning he called to ask what happened. I said, it’s simple; it’s a lesson I learned from you a long time ago. Elections are bottom up not top down. You were not listening to the ground swell. You were not listening to the women. You missed it and your smart-ass crew missed it too. We analyzed the election for days. He was angry and hurt to be wrong. He loved politics but most of all he loved being right. His student beat him at his very own game. Many times after we had a good go at it, he would call to say, how about dinner tonight? My answer was only if I could pick the restaurant. Every dinner entailed another battle that always ended well.
Leon The Minister. . . .
Finney was quite the guy. When he became career restless, he went to Bishop Brazier seeking counsel. He wanted to go back to school to become a minister or a lawyer. Brazier convinced him that he could do much more from the pulpit.
When the historic Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church was threatening foreclosure, he stepped up with passion. He recognized the historical value of the church built in 1890. It was one of the places, where A. Phillip Randolph organized the Pullman Porters. It’s the place where the likes of Marian Anderson and Paul Roberson performed when they couldn’t go downtown, because of segregation. It’s the church where Eleanor Roosevelt and Thurgood Marshall visited. He went on a crusade to save and rebuild the church and he did. He made the church stand for something; it became a community-gathering place in addition to Sunday church services.
Leon went back to school, receiving a double masters degree in Economic and Urban Community Development and a double doctorate degree in Theology and Public Administration. He became a professor and joined the staff of McCormick Theological Seminary as a professor of African American Leadership Studies. This effort brought forth degrees for about 300 ministers under his tutelage. Leon was a proud member of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.
Leon was perhaps one of the best community organizers in the country. He was resourceful and he knew the hot buttons. He was a powerhouse. He fought for housing and for political control in his community – the Woodlawn community. He fought the University of Chicago from taking over Woodlawn and he also fought the gangs and stopped the crime that was crippling the community.
He was strategic and for the most part he won. He was the mayor of Woodlawn, no matter who was the mayor downtown. He helped to build the organization, The Woodlawn Organization, TWO. He invited many to join him. He knew how to mobilize. He knew when to demonstrate and when to march. He knew how to persuade and how to convince. He played the power game to the hilt.
In his last year of life, we had very long talks, mostly at his hospital bedside. I was his little sister and he was still telling me what to do and how to do it. I was encouraging him to write a book with guidelines to community organization. Many talk it, but few are doing it. He was a real-life activist. I told Leon to use Woodlawn as a case study but give the do’s and don’ts and the lessons on how to do it. I got him a book deal. We talked about a podcast, that we would call “The Woodlawn Way.” He got the outline complete for it’s first few chapters. I don’t know how much he wrote. We talked about doing a Facebook master class on community organizing. That was the last project we were working on, until he became too ill to continue.
Leon Finney Jr. was a Chicago treasure. He made Chicago a better place. He was an essential worker. He also had his share of battles. When most Black leaders fight for social change or get too much power, money, or property, the white media are on them like wild attack dogs. The media was unmerciful and mean spirited to Leon. He brought forth a PR team to fight back. The team was Marilyn Katz, Jerry Thomas and myself. He was threatened but his team fought a brave and good fight. He was concerned that his good deeds would be overshadowed by accusation of wrongdoings.
The case is now over. Leon died at 82 years, having lived a good responsible life. He lived life on his own terms, and he did it his way. There was no doubt that he helped many. He used his voice for good. He created his power. He had multiple careers and excelled in all of them. His wonderful daughter, Kristin Finney-Cooke and his three grandchildren and three sisters and brother, survive him. He will be remembered with Finney tales, with words of wisdom and most of all with love by friend and foe. If you were even in a fight with Leon, you learned lessons and you will remember the dispute.
Leon Finney Jr. was a leader. He made an imprint in Chicago politics, locally and nationally, He will be missed. Chicago will be a lonely place without his face, but his spirit lives, as does his work for years to come. He was a shining light, not to tarnish as he says good night and farewell.
Dr. Leon Finney will lie in state on Friday, September 25 at Metropolitan Apostolic Church, 41st and King Drive. He will be funeralized on September 26 at the Apostolic Faith Church, 3823 South Indiana. Visitation is from 9 to 10 am. The funeral is at 10 am. Dr. Horace Smith, presiding.