By Glenn Reedus, Chicago Crusader
At 81 years old, former Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones, Jr., is one of the most powerful members who ever occupied a seat in Springfield. His might not be a household name to a generation of millennial voters, but he recently cemented his political legacy with a donation to the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC).
Jones, who retired in 2009 after 36 years as a state representative and state senator, donated papers from his legislative and political life to the university.
“I am not really sure. I just know there are boxes and boxes and boxes of papers,” he replied when asked about how many papers are contained in the donation. The former South Side legislator also said he wasn’t certain how soon the university will let the public have access to those papers. He is only the second African American in Illinois history to serve as Senate president. The first was the late Cecil Partee.
Over the course of his political career, Jones’ name was synonymous with Chicago State University. In the early 70s he galvanized the few Black legislators in Springfield and got them to concur that they should work to ensure CSU received the same level of state benefits as the UIC and University of Illinois, and the directional (Eastern, Western Northern and Southern) universities. Acknowledgement of his valued commitment to CSU is reflected in the fact that the convocation center bears the name of his late wife Patricia, and Jones.
A one-time mentor to President Barack Obama, Jones explained that UIC received his donation because that university already has a vast collection of political papers. “Those papers are very, very important,” he offered. The papers bear tremendous social relevance because Jones’ first term in the legislature coincides with the rise of his former colleague, Harold Washington’s ascent to the mayor’s office in Chicago.
It’s a career Jones said he doesn’t miss.
During his earliest years in the Illinois House, CSU had been operating under that name approximately 10 years, and Jones and other Black legislators saw although it was a state-controlled school, it didn’t have the same level of resources other state universities were receiving. That’s when Jones convinced the Black legislators to make CSU a priority, he shared, adding that there was a lot of horse-trading to achieve their goals. When downstate legislators wanted something special for Southern Illinois University (SIU), the Black Caucus found a way to hold up that legislation, until they had extracted a promise for some improvement or change at CSU. “In the 80s and 90s we were all about power.”
An example closer to home is the University of Illinois-Chicago Medical Center. UIC wanted state funding for the center, but Black legislators withheld their votes, and ultimately when UIC got the $100 million it wanted for its medical center, CSU got a new library and convocation center.
He added that even though there were fewer Black legislators back then compared to today, the ones from the other era “were able to pour all of our power into a project to make it happen.” Jones said that clout went beyond CSU and the lesson he learned was “one’s vision must be bigger than one’s self. If it is going to impact our people you have to look at it in a global nature,” he opined.
Jones indicated he has no plans to pursue public office, but did have advice for anyone who is considering doing so. “Get in at the ground level. Learn the process by volunteering, handing out literature, doing the phone bank. It has to be something you enjoy doing.
“Work for somebody. Do something for somebody. You can’t join the Catholic Church today and want to be Pope tomorrow. Go knock on some doors. You can get more accomplished working for somebody else than just doing for self.
He recalled that he entered politics because he saw “there was always some (public) official who made decisions regarding our lives. I saw the government as a way to bring about change.” There was a wealth of highlights during his four-decade career, and Jones said he is proudest of being the first Black person selected as the Democratic leader, and then being elected State Senate President. “I consider that quite an achievement,” he noted.