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Wednesday, June 7, 2006 10:06 am

Springfield’s race history haunts City Hall

The city is still fighting, tooth and nail

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Last week’s panel discussion of race relations in Springfield was well under way when Mayor Tim Davlin slipped into the room and sat in the back row, but he was there for the best part. That was when two of the panelists brought history home to the present. University of Illinois at Springfield emeritus professor Larry Golden went off on the current city administration for refusing to settle the police lawsuit. He said that this is reminiscent of the way in which Springfield’s establishment fought the 1970s lawsuit to desegregate the schools: “The white community fought it tooth and nail.” The 1980s voting-rights lawsuit to ensure proportional representation for blacks on the City Council met a similar reaction. Those events set the tone, and Springfield is still fighting with teeth and toenails. “There is continuing resistance on the part of the city to deal with race relations,” Golden said. “It’s atrocious how the city government responds to these challenges. We deserve better.” Lately the administration has waged its legal battle with selective leaks of dirt it has collected on one of the suing black officers. “Stop it,” Golden demanded, his voice rising above the usual panel-polite tone. “Knock it off! Knock off the character assassination!” By way of objection, former Mayor Karen Hasara, the next panelist to speak, saw the glass as half full: “I hate for us to leave here on so many negative notes. A lot of hearts have been changed. There have been some attempts to do good things.” The May 31 panel, sponsored by the Citizens Club of Springfield, was the second in a three-part series on race relations. Then it was Ald. Frank McNeil’s turn. The current City Council’s only black member, who has long been at the heart of the struggle for racial justice, pounded away on the theme that too little has changed in the last 50 years. “The culture that exists in our police department — both then and now — is unacceptable,” he said. “The police union has been recalcitrant. They have been part of the problem.” The police union has battled McNeil over the powers of his citizen police-review commission and has resisted efforts to change testing requirements for police recruits. “If we want a diverse police department, we need a pass/fail test,” McNeil said. “It’s about good policemen who make good decisions, not about how high their test score was. We should be able to go there without the union threatening us all the time.” Panelists Willis Logan, the former Springfield Housing Authority director, and Doris Turner, Sangamon County Board Democratic leader, grew up in Springfield. They recalled the bad old days of segregation in the 1950s and ’60s, when hotels and downtown restaurants were off-limits to blacks. So was the municipal swimming pool, except on Thursdays, and movie theaters had a special section where blacks had to sit. But they remembered some good things, too. Though housing discrimination forced African-Americans to live on the east side of town, nearly all there owned their own homes, making the neighborhoods stable. Springfield had an industrial base then, and “there were lots of jobs,” Logan said. Turner’s father worked at the Allis-Chalmers plant. “It was the only job he ever had,” she said. Because black legislators from Chicago couldn’t stay in whites-only hotels, they stayed with friends on the east side. “We ran with Charlie Chew and Dick Newhouse and Harold Washington,” Logan recalled. “They were our neighbors.” Barnes & Noble will never quite measure up to the African-American bookstore Turner knew as a kid. Panelists agreed that freedom of opportunity hasn’t fully replaced that richness of community some experienced in segregated Springfield. “We can’t get back what I had growing up,” Logan said. The discussion closed with an impromptu, but much-deserved, tribute to McNeil, who won election to the City Council in 1987 after being a plaintiff in the successful voting-rights suit and who leaves office next spring after five terms. Panel moderator Kenley Wade read a question from the audience: What improvements in race relations can you point to? McNeil tossed off, “You’ve had to listen to Frank McNeil for the last 18 years,” but Golden picked up the theme more seriously and placed it in historical context. “You’re looking at the first African-American to be elected to the City Council in the history of Springfield,” he said. “Frank McNeil has been able to give a voice to people who had never had a voice.”
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