When Mayor Harold Washington collapsed at his desk and died last November, he left a political and spiritual vacuum in Chicago`s black community that has created the current, informal and furious power struggle among those who would succeed him.
This fight over political power, currently epitomized by Mayor Eugene Sawyer and Ald. Timothy Evans (4th), began within minutes of the speeding word that Chicago`s first black mayor was dead. It continues through the manipulation of symbols that seek to define ethnicity, morality and the future of the city`s newly predominant political bloc.
The next day, 5,000 people, many of whom had attended the Washington memorial, angrily descended upon City Hall where Sawyer eventually won the support of the Chicago City Council in the early morning hours of Dec. 2. Many of those people had been transported there by Evans` supporters and remnants of the Washington government who were about to lose power.
The image of that crowd-referred to by some as a mob and by others as a people`s crusade-has been the definitive symbol of the power struggle currently being played out in the media, in churches and in neighborhoods and government.
The dominant theme at the time of Sawyer`s election was one of ``No Deals`` offered by Evans` supporters, even while some within that group burned telephone lines seeking accommodations with the enemy. That ``No Deals``
slogan was a symbol designed to obscure a political fact-that anyone with a chance would try to take the job.
Evans, who like Sawyer speaks of seeking broad-based support across the city, cites reports of poll results showing him holding a commanding lead among blacks.
``The last time I looked at a poll I was leading by 70 percent in the black community,`` Evans said, referring to a poll commissioned by former Mayor Jane Byrne in her current campaign for clerk of the Circuit Court.
``You look at something like that and you get the feeling of which way things are going,`` Evans said. ``People know I was close to the mayor and fought for him, and (they) see that I`m carrying the ball.``
Sawyer, who now declines invitations to events where Evans will be present, speaks of the rift as a ``family squabble.``
``It`s a fight within a family,`` Sawyer said, ``and we`ll work it out. But some people who are talking about this mantle of Harold Washington`s are the same people who won`t support the mayor`s political slate. How can you pick and choose?``
One black alderman who supports Sawyer said the new mayor had been crippled by the perception that he had betrayed black Chicago. ``In the black commmunity, this thing is about race, about who is black and who`s not,`` said the alderman.
As Sawyer`s political strategists cast about for means to shore up black support, the new mayor traveled to Alabama and, at his college alma mater in Montgomery, he spoke of spending his college years in the city that had become the focus of the civil rights movement. He recalled guarding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and participating in the black boycott of the city`s bus system.
Last week, he vowed, along with Operation PUSH, to close down the Dan Ryan Expressway renovation unless black contractors and workers receive more contracts and jobs on the most visible public works project ever developed in the black community.
Evans, meanwhile, continues to speak in black churches to loyal followers and has walked through Sawyer`s 6th Ward, ostensibly to register voters in his enemy`s home base. Although claiming to be the rightful Washington heir, Evans has refused to endorse Washington`s March 15 primary slate of blacks and white ethnics.
Perhaps the most debilitating image Sawyer has had to confront is the perception that Ald. Edward Burke (14th), one of Washington`s leading antagonists, had intimidated Sawyer into taking the mayor`s office. Constant rhetoric on local black talk shows centers on whether Sawyer betrayed his ethnicity by allowing white aldermen to vote him in as Washington`s successor. ``The nature of symbols is that it isn`t the detail, the facts, but rather the meaning attached to them that is important,`` said Murray Edelman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist and author of
``Constructing the Political Spectacle.``
``These symbols and slogans, whether they be `black power` or `black ideology` or `black betrayal,` tend to guide people`s thinking, quite apart to the stands on issues and a lot of other complicated events. To create some people as leaders, and others as enemies-that is what is going on in Chicago.``
It is not the first time politicians have tried to succeed a mythic figure by attempting to seize his mantle by the hem and drape it across their own shoulders. When Mayor Richard J. Daley died, both Jane Byrne and Michael Bilandic claimed they represented Daley`s interests.
But their power fight was viewed as a political contest. They did not hope to replace what black activist Lu Palmer calls ``a messiah.``