Embarrassing low Black turnout at speech in Bronzeville a warning for Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg
By Erick Johnson
“Welcome to Bronzeville,” the young Black woman said.
So began an evening with Pete Buttigieg. The rising Democratic presidential candidate of the 2020 race on Tuesday, August 20, appeared on stage in Black Chicago, at a prominent Black venue named after the city’s first Black mayor, on a street named after the world’s most famous Civil Rights leader, in a predominately Black neighborhood.
But inside the Harold Washington Cultural Center on King Drive in Bronzeville sat very few Blacks. The facility’s auditorium holds 1,000 people. Out of the packed, standing room-only crowd, I counted 13 Blacks. Oh wait, it was 14. One was 25 minutes late.
The predominately white crowd traveled across one of the most segregated cities in the country, past the de facto ethnic border of Roosevelt Road, to hear a young, white mayor from a small town speak about his blueprint to change America.
Their visit to the South Side showed the power and magic of Buttigieg, but the gross lack of Blacks made an even bigger statement, one that sent him a warning as the campaign season heats up.
Despite his progressive campaign message, youthful energy, and Harvard and Oxford degrees, Black America isn’t coming to his rallies or even worse, buying into his message.
And Chicago’s South Side, the mecca for Black achievement and home of America’s first Black president, showed how serious Buttigieg’s problem is, in getting Black voters to listen. Many stayed in their homes or on the streets instead of walking to the facility that is yards away from the historic mansions and apartments along King Drive.
For all the speech making and applause, it was an embarrassing night for Buttigieg in terms of spreading his gospel to Black voters.
His main goal at the Harold Washington Cultural Center was to discuss racism and boost his negative image among Black voters with his Douglass Plan, which Buttigieg said, would end “systemic racism.”
“We’re going to invest in the knowledge that the American Black experience might as well put you in a different country, and we cannot allow that to persist,” Buttigieg said. “You cannot allow to just replace hundreds of years of racist police with a neutral police policy and say ‘Ok, should be good to go now, and expect inequity will work itself out in the system.”
Great words, but getting this message to Black South Siders was a missed opportunity for Buttigieg. Why the dismal low Black turnout?
Maybe it was poor communication. There was little notice of Buttigieg’s visit to Bronzeville.
The Crusader didn’t get any email about it. This reporter learned of the fundraiser after reading a sentence that was buried in a story in the Chicago Sun-Times about Buttigieg being in Chicago for fundraisers. (The Bronzeville visit was described as a “low dollar” fundraiser.)
The Crusader fired off several emails in the early afternoon, to Buttigieg’s campaign staff before getting a response at 4:59, one hour before the doors opened at the Harold Washington Center. No other journalist representing Chicago’s Black Press, including the Chicago Defender, which is located less than two blocks from where Buttigieg spoke, was present.
Perhaps Buttigieg should have been at the same spot in Bronzeville two weeks earlier. He would have come in touch with thousands of Blacks viewing the 90th annual Bud Billiken Parade, the oldest and largest Black parade in the country. It was another missed opportunity.
Of all the 14 plus Democratic candidates, Buttigieg has the closest ties to Chicago. He is mayor of South Bend, a city just 95 miles away. He lived here twice, and interned at NBC5 under Rene Ferguson, a former Emmy-Award winning Black reporter.
In June Buttigieg attended Reverend Jesse Jackson’s annual scholarship banquet at the Hyatt on Wacker Drive. His speech at that event drew applause, but the banquet was attended by a more diverse crowd. Earlier this year, Buttigieg in New York met with Reverend Al Sharpton at the legendary Sylvia’s Soul Food restaurant, in Harlem.
Buttigieg made these moves after his poor relations with Black residents in South Bend exploded on the national stage.
As a young mayor, Buttigieg fired Darryl Boykins, the city’s first Black police chief, in 2012, after several white officers filed an invasion of privacy lawsuit after their alleged racist comments on the telephone were recorded without them knowing it.
Past police chiefs recorded phone conversations of officers as standard procedure.
The FBI conducted an investigation but nothing came of it. Boykins was still fired and replaced with a white police chief.
While South Bend’s downtown flourished with new companies and jobs, Black neighborhoods suffered with unemployment and poverty.
In June, two weeks before his appearance at Jesse Jackson’s banquet in Chicago, a white police officer in South Bend shot and killed Eric Logan, a 54-year-old Black man and tore open old wounds caused by the termination of Boykins.
Buttigieg drew heavy criticism when he did not attend a vigil for Logan held by his relatives. In fact, as Buttigieg spoke Tuesday in Bronzeville, residents in his home town were participating in a town hall meeting on the police use of force, without their mayor present.
At Buttigieg’s speech at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, the evening also felt like the twilight zone. Never before had Black residents in Bronzeville seen so many whites walking down King Drive on a Tuesday in Chicago. They stopped traffic and turned heads as they passed the statue of Harold Washington at the corner of 47th Street and King Drive.
This was probably the first time they had been to the Cultural Center or even to the South Side’s “low end.”
The white vendors and supporters selling and buying Buttigieg T-Shirts and buttons was the precursor to what felt like a white political rally for the liberal elite. Once inside, they took their seats in the auditorium and sat motionless as the Black DJ played thumping hip hop tunes. Not even Stevie Wonder’s classic, “Sir Duke,” inspired them to bust a move.
The auditorium came alive when Chrystal Harris sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and injected a heavy dose of soul into “The Star Spangled Banner.” When her father, Pastor Chris Harris of Bright Star Church got the crowd to dance to “September” by the famous Chicago group, Earth Wind and Fire, the energy boiled.
“Now that’s how you have a party in the Black neighborhood,” Harris said.
Then Pastor Harris told the crowd, “Next time we have this kind of event, especially in Bronzeville – clap if you agree – we need some more Black faces. You can’t leave your Black and brown friends at home.”
At the end of his speech, Buttigieg said, “Find the people who don’t look like most of you in this room and let them know they have the chance not to just support this campaign, but to shape it.”