Sunday, January 27, 2008

Former Mayor Eugene Sawyer paved road back to civility, mourners recall

From today's Trib, let's focus in on his sister contesting popular opinion that Mayor Sawyer was a puppet for white aldermen...
The funeral for the city's second black mayor, who served from 1987-89, was attended by local and state officials, including Secretary of State Jesse White, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, U.S. Reps. Bobby Rush and Danny Davis and many current and past aldermen.

Sawyer, 73, died Jan. 19 after suffering a series of strokes this month.

"He was a gentleman," said White, who also knew Sawyer from his days as a basketball star at Alabama State University. "He taught us how to get along with one another and the art of compromise."

The state's political elite had gathered earlier in the week for the funeral for John Stroger, the first black president of the Cook County Board, who rose through Chicago politics at the same time as Sawyer. Stroger died the day before Sawyer, on Jan. 18.

"These men were trailblazers and door-openers who knocked down barriers for African-Americans," said Ald. Freddrenna Lyle, who now represents Sawyer's 6th Ward.

Todd Stroger, who replaced his father as board president, called Sawyer a man with "character and perseverance." Both John Stroger and Sawyer grew up in the segregated South and were inspired to enter politics because of the discrimination they faced, family members said.

"My father used to say they were some of the last cotton pickers," Todd Stroger said. "It came with a certain fire."

Roland Burris, former comptroller and attorney general of Illinois, told the story of how he sought the powerful alderman's support when he considered running for office. Sawyer quickly went about assembling the coalition together, said Burris, who went on to become the first African-American elected to Illinois statewide office.

On a personal level, Sawyer was a religious man who served as a leader and Sunday school teacher at his church. He enjoyed fine dining, live music and playing poker.

The soft-spoken Sawyer was mayor for just 16 months after being voted in by the City Council in 1987, filling the gap between two larger-than-life mayors: Washington and Daley. The controversial vote that put him into office ignited a racially charged debate because many black aldermen favored Timothy Evans, now Cook County's chief judge.

Sawyer lost the 1989 Democratic primary for mayor to Daley. Sawyer's son Shedrick Sawyer thanked Daley on Saturday for running a clean campaign against his father.

Before his stint as mayor, Sawyer served as alderman for the 6th Ward, a predominantly middle-class African-American neighborhood. That was where he was most comfortable, working as an advocate for his community and turning voters out to elections, his colleagues said.

Sawyer was raised in Greensboro, Ala., as the son of a self-employed mortician and home-repair contractor. After graduating from Alabama State, he was a math teacher in Mississippi before moving to Chicago for better opportunities.

He worked his way up the local Democratic Party ranks, becoming alderman in 1971 and holding the post for 16 years.

The funeral included songs sung by his daughter Sheryl McGill, head of the city's Department of Human Services. The service was followed by a special salute by police and fire officials outside the church. Sawyer was buried at the nearby Oak Woods Cemetery at 1035 E. 67th St.

During the funeral, Sawyer's sister disputed characterizations by some that he was a puppet for other politicians or reluctant to lead.

"For a city that was incited to protest, my brother brought calm," Shirley Sawyer said. "Harold Washington put ideas out there, and my brother carried them out."

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