The skies were clear over the North American prairie on Saturday, August 14, 2004. A summer sun rose across the blue expanse of Lake Michigan and crept along the city’s sandy beaches until it hit the glittering ridge of skyscrapers downtown and then filtered into the neighborhoods beyond.
Very early that morning, a stream of people began to converge on the city’s South Side, on a tree-lined boulevard that had gone by several names in its long history but was now Martin Luther King Drive.
Some walked, but mostly they came in cars, buses, and on the city’s El trains. They came from all across the metropolitan area and well beyond, from the luxury high-rises dominating Chicago’s coast and the Bungalow Belt neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, from stately homes in the suburbs, and from the housing projects nearby.
A fair number arrived after long journeys from other states, from the South and the West Coast as well as New York and other points east.
By 10:00 a.m., more than a million people had gathered, nearly all of them African American. They filled the fairways, side lanes, lawns, and balconies of King Drive, setting up tents and grills on spots that many families had claimed every year for decades. It was the seventy-fifth year Chicago’s black community had gathered for the Bud Billiken Parade, and everyone knew that this was a day set aside for wholesome fun and remembrance.
The Bud Billiken Parade was the brainchild of Robert Sengstacke Abbott, founder of The Chicago Defender, the newspaper that had chronicled and catalyzed this community’s greatest accomplishments for nearly a century. At the height of the newspaper’s circulation and influence, Abbott had devised the parade to give African American children a sense of pride and dignity, and even three-quarters of a century later, there were still a few old-timers in the crowd who remembered him in his later years when, ravaged by illness but still impeccably dressed, he waved to the crowds from the balcony of his home, a brick-and-stone mansion that still stands on the parade route just south of Forty-Seventh Street.
For decades, the Billiken Parade, named for a long-forgotten figurine plucked at random from an editor’s desk, had attracted black America’s greatest celebrities and athletes, from Duke Ellington to James Brown, from Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali. But along with the food, socializing, and entertainment, the Billiken was also a day for politics. Elected officials and those seeking office from across the nation, white and black, Democrats and Republicans, knew that the parade was a necessary campaign stop, a singular opportunity to make a pitch for Chicago’s all-important black vote, and they lobbied the organizers intensely to secure their place among the marching bands, military units, corporate floats, and neighborhood dance troupes.
Black Chicago’s electorate, politicians knew, was unified, organized, and savvy, fully informed by The Defender. Historically, the community had played a decisive role both as kingmaker and spoiler in innumerable campaigns for mayor, governor, senator, and even president.
It was a political tradition that went back to the days when African Americans voted Republican in honor of Abraham Lincoln, and continued through their conversion into New Deal Democrats. Even in the decades when the African American vote was suppressed in the rest of the country, Chicago’s Bronzeville had elected their own sons and daughters as county officials, state legislators, aldermen, and congressmen. In more recent years, they had elected the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, and Carol Moseley Braun, the nation’s first black woman U.S. senator. On this particular parade day, however, the community would get the chance to inspect a rising star unlike any they had propelled before: Barack Obama, a little-known state legislator and first-time candidate for the U.S. Senate, then just forty-three years old.
Three weeks earlier, Obama had delivered an electrifying keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and even though he had yet to win the upcoming race for the Senate, some were already urging him to seek the presidency. But victory in November would be determined by whether Chicago’s black community would come out en masse to the polls, a reality that made this Billiken Parade nothing less than a crucial test of Obama’s support.
Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, cruised up Martin Luther King Drive on a float surrounded by a phalanx of hundreds of supporters in matching blue-and-white T-shirts, carrying signs emblazoned with OBAMA FOR SENATE. All along the parade route, the crowds roared as the candidate passed. At every point where he stopped to shake hands, the people erupted in chants of “O-Ba-Ma,” flashing homemade banners as well as official campaign signs.
Struck by the crowd’s enthusiasm, a television reporter, a veteran of many Billiken Parades, asked the candidate when he disembarked for an interview, “Where in the world did all these Obama signs come from?”
“We did pretty good on signage today,” Obama answered, smiling cheekily. “We’ve just had wonderful support. This is obviously my home area here.” Then he added, “It’s nice to come back to the South Side.”
Obama’s eventual Republican opponent in the 2004 campaign, the former diplomat Alan Keyes, was also participating in the Billiken, though with decidedly different results. Not from Illinois and seriously underfunded, Keyes had been recruited by desperate Republicans after their first candidate’s implosion following a sex scandal.
To the Billiken crowd, Keyes, who was African American, seemed a cynical choice to run against Obama, with many clearly suspecting that his ethnicity was the operative, if not only, qualification for his selection. If there was one thing this crowd did not like, it was being pandered to. For much of the parade, Keyes remained inside his car, subjected to frequent booing and heckling. On one of the rare moments Keyes did emerge, a woman confronted him and waved a placard in his face, shouting at the top of her lungs, “Obama for President. Obama for President.”
By 2004, the Billiken Parade was the most enduring part of Robert Abbott’s legacy, though once upon a time he had built his newspaper’s circulation into the hundreds of thousands, with fiery editorials under giant red headlines that chastised southern whites for lynching and other atrocities. In the 1920s and ’30s he was even dubbed the Moses of Black America for the role The Defender played in motivating the multitudes to leave Dixie for the Promised Land of America’s northern cities. Some sixty thousand came to Chicago during World War I alone, doubling the city’s black population and ensuring that The Defender’s hometown would become the nation’s center of African American politics, culture, and commerce. Ultimately, what Abbott referred to as the “Great Northern Drive” would live on in the nation’s consciousness as the Great Migration.
The early twentieth century was an era even more color-conscious than our own, and Abbott’s dark complexion caused not only whites but many blacks to underestimate him. He met such racist assumptions head-on, with a keen intellect he had sharpened at Hampton College, the alma mater of Booker T. Washington, where he became a “race man,” part of a generation of activists who infused unwavering patriotism into their struggle for civil rights. Abbott preached and exemplified the American values of self-reliance and capitalist success, along with the constitutional gospel of freedom of speech and legal equality. Ignoring death threats and circumventing southern authorities who tried to ban his young newspaper, he drafted Pullman porters, the famed valets of the interstate train system, to smuggle bundles across the Mason-Dixon Line and sell subscriptions.
Abbott died in 1940 and was succeeded by his nephew John H. Sengstacke, who took The Defender to even greater heights during his five decades in command. During World War II, Sengstacke staffed the newspaper with an international, interracial roster of writers that included poet Langston Hughes and public intellectual W.E.B. DuBois, turning it into a journalistic champion of universal human rights. In 1956 Sengstacke made The Defender a daily, competing with white-owned newspapers and broadcast media for coverage of the “race beat,” just as Martin Luther King Jr. was shifting the civil rights movement into high gear.
In 1960 Sengstacke dispatched his protégé Louis Martin to the campaign of John F. Kennedy and then worked closely with Martin and the black press to energize the African American electorate around the country. It was Martin who suggested that JFK call Coretta Scott King during one of Dr. King’s incarcerations, a gesture of support that swayed the black vote in the days leading up to the election and proved decisive to the victory over Richard M. Nixon.
In the ’70s, The Defender lost circulation and influence, pinched on one side by a black power movement that saw the newspaper as too accommodating to the white establishment, and on the other by the large daily newspapers and television stations suddenly embracing integration, which to them meant siphoning off black journalists as well as black readers. Sengstacke maintained the symbolic power of The Defender as long as he lived, but after his death in 1997 the paper’s influence ebbed, a process that accelerated after it was sold in 2002.
By 2004, the year Obama ran for the U.S. Senate, many of those who had played key roles at The Defender for decades had moved their focus to the Billiken Parade. Eugene Scott, a distant relative of the Abbott-Sengstacke clan who had served as publisher of The Defender until the sale, had become president of the Chicago Defender Charities, with overall responsibility for organizing the parade.
Called “Colonel” by most of the parade staff, Scott had served two tours in Vietnam and was a U.S. Army base commander before he came to The Defender. He was the calm center in the chaotic storm of the day’s events. From his command post in the reviewing stand at the entrance of Washington Park, the Colonel could see much of the parade route down the slight incline on King Drive, and he could not help but notice the wave of enthusiasm as Obama’s float approached. He knew the Billiken crowd was not supporting Obama simply because he was black; after all, in the 1950s and ’60s, they cheered for Mayor Richard J. Daley, just as they now cheered for his son, Mayor Richard M. Daley. Billiken crowds would even cheer for a Republican, if he or she made sincere outreach efforts to the black community, while those who had not done so could expect to be booed or heckled.
Having seen many politicians come and go, the Colonel was reserved in his expectations where Obama was concerned. Still, he could not help being proud of the role he and The Defender had played in the candidate’s ascent. During his tenure at the “Oracle of the Black Community,” as he called the newspaper, he had seen to it that Obama’s activities were thoroughly covered by reporters, while the editorial page provided forceful endorsements as well as critical assessments at key junctures.
Ethan is an award-winning author, publisher and journalist based in Chicago. He was a copy editor and investigative reporter at the Chicago Daily Defender from 1991 to 1996. He left The Defender to found the Residents’ Journal, a magazine written and produced by the tenants of Chicago’s public housing developments, and an affiliated not-for-profit organization, We The People Media. Residents’ Journal/We The People Media won national awards for its journalism and for its programs training youths and adults in the skills of modern journalism. In addition to The Defender, Ethan’s work has been published by Oxford University Press, the Nation, the Forward, In These Times and the Chicago Tribune, among other venues.