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The Man, the Voice, the Legend – Cliff Kelley

By Sharon Fountain

It is often said, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” For Clifford P. Kelley, a picture was worth a thousand memories as the radio talk show personality thumbed through his file at the Chicago Crusader during a recent interview. “It reminds me of things I had forgotten about and if you were to ask me some things in the absence of these photos, I would have just left them out of the conversation,” said Kelley.

Cliff Kelley is a Chicago native, a veteran and attorney who has proven himself to be a distinguished popular talk show host. For more than 30 years, Kelley has been a prominent figure in the ever-interesting and always controversial arena of Chicago’s political stage.

Cliff Kelley
Cliff Kelley in the 70s.

Kelley’s expertise was honed through 16 years as a member of the City Council and has made him a much sought-after commentator, speaker and analyst, not only locally, but on national and international issue-oriented television and talk-radio programs.

Over the years, Kelley helped to establish and launch the careers of countless individuals including presidents, senators, governors, congressmen, and business leaders. He glances at a photo of himself and several other politicians at a committee meeting. They remind him of the two significant experiences he cherishes that launched his own political career. They are important to Kelley. It’s what he wanted people to know.

Kelley said he got involved in politics in a strange way during the time when precinct captains and the committeemen were considered the gods of the area. Kelley was relentless in his pursuit for results when challenged with an issue then and now. This is a permanent characteristic of Kelley that has served him well. He gave his precinct captain a hard time because there were things going on he thought the Party was not addressing.

Since he was one of the better precinct captains, he told the alderman, who was also the committeeman—Kenneth Campbell. Alderman Campbell invited Kelley to speak with him in person. “We got along very well, and he understood my questions and the problems I was having with the situation and political circumstances at that time,” Kelley said.

The meeting led to the alderman suggesting Kelley reestablish the 20th Ward Young Democrats—he asked Kelley to be the president, which he accepted.  For Kelley, it meant building an organization that would be recognized as the best in the county. It is an unforgettable and very important part of his career.

Kelley went on to become the first Black to serve as the vice president of the Young Democrats of Illinois, the national organization. He also participated in the Young Democratic Club of America.

The importance of these organizations is that they nurture future political leaders and professional relationships, like Kelley knowing Steny Hoyer and Harold Washington. Kelley said he met Hoyer at one of the conventions. Steny Hoyer (D-MD, 5th District), who was at that time the head of the Young Democrats of Maryland, is currently the number two man in the U.S. Congress.

Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, was the President of the Young Democrats of the 3rd Ward. Kelley said, “In other words, everybody who was in politics came up through those organizations.”

Through his activities Kelley was elected to the Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1970. This Kelley said is the second most important experience in his political career. It was the convention that voted a new constitution for the State of Illinois.

There were 116 delegates from the whole state, which included 13 African Americans. Cliff said it was a great experience for him being the second from the youngest of the 116 delegates. Kelley said, “The thing that really got me was that of the 13 Blacks that were at Con Con—as we called the Constitution Convention—12 were from Cook County and one was from downstate St. Clair County—East St. Louis.” In his opinion, what he learned through that experience was nothing short of great. The group met a number of times before the convention even started and read over the legislation that the Illinois General Assembly passed that allowed the convention to take place.

The group decided exactly what they wanted. They went to the Democratic leader and asked for one of the five offices. The offices were president, three vice presidents and a secretary. The group knew they could not get the office of the presidency. “The guy who got it deserved it—a delegate named Samuel Witwer from Evanston, who had pushed for the new convention,” said Kelley.

The three vice presidents really didn’t have much power, but everything that came out of the convention was signed by the president and the secretary. The Black delegates decided the secretary’s position would be a great spot for a Black delegate and they had a great candidate within the 13—Odas Nicholson. Kelley said, “Nicholson was extremely bright. In fact, she later became a judge.”

The delegates approached the Democratic leader with the person they sought to be the secretary. He told them he would see what he could do but returned saying the Party was unable to deliver their request. Rather than accepting “no” the 13 Black delegates came up with a strategy.

On the first day of the convention, they nominated one of their delegates. It was not for the secretary’s position, it was for the presidency. Kelley chuckles several times as the memories of the expressions on the Party member’s faces comes to mind. Kelley said, “Tom Hunter was my running mate and they told me that I was going to nominate him on the floor. I thought, I’m a kid. You want me to do this? They said yeah because he is your running mate,” said Kelley.

The day the convention started all the television cameras were there. It was at noon. The Secretary of State gave everyone their certificates of election. When the convention was asked if there were any motions from the floor, Kelley said he stood up. The Secretary of State asked, “Delegate Kelley for what reason do you rise?” With confidence and no hesitation, Kelley replied, “To nominate my running mate Tom Hunter as the President of the 6th Illinois Constitutional Convention.” They had thrown a bomb in the whole thing.  Kelley proceeds to tell the convention how great Tom Hunter will be as the convention president and to elaborate on how well he knows him, “our Democratic leader comes over and puts a note down as I am speaking,” said Kelley.  It reads, “we can handle that spot for Ms. Nicholson.” Hunter, who had also been notified, stands up and thanks Kelley, but Hunter does not accept the nomination.

Kelley said, “So, we forced it and Nicholson was elected Secretary without any votes against her.”

It just shows what 13 Black folks can do out of 116 people if we stick together and do the right thing. She was great in that role.

We immediately contacted the Black newspaper in Springfield and also some other places to make sure everything we were doing was made knowledgeable to the Black community. It was also so they could let us know if there was something they thought we should be doing that we were not.

Kelley has not been limited to politics. One of the other things Kelley is so proud of, which still exists today is being one of the people that help create the South Side Community Federal Credit Union. It is a federal credit union ran by Black people. It was prompted by the exorbitant fees and the way they treated Black people. A number of prominent Black people got together and decided to do something about it. The board was all Black and they recently celebrated an anniversary. “You wouldn’t believe the hurdles we had to jump over. It took a long time but today it has been extremely successful,” said Kelley.

Fast forward to 2018 as we move into 2019 and Kelley is the host of the America’s Heroes Group. It was started a little over two years ago to engage, empower, and connect the Armed Forces and veterans. As a veteran, Kelley says he knows what many have gone through and that is why the primary goal of the group is to address many of those challenges. The show is hosted by Cliff Kelley every Saturday from 4-5 p.m. and includes guest speakers and a roundtable of panelists.

Kelley said, “They have all types of problems relative to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They have been unable to get jobs notwithstanding the fact they have served their country under extremely adverse circumstances. The military is prejudiced, we know that. It shouldn’t be, but it is because of the people in many of the positions. We have done this to be able to help many veterans in the process. It is working well, and we will continue to do this. We have been hooked up with the Veterans Administration (VA). The VA has been very responsive and the people that come on our show take calls and give out information, as well as phone numbers.”

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