Boards and commissions matter

Wall of separation influenced the Voting Rights lawsuit

The recent controversy over discrimination in the composition of Springfield city boards and commissions goes well beyond the statement by Alderman Joe McMenamin, who attempted to justify the appointments of west side individuals at the exclusion of those living on the east side. The statement reflects an attitude that has historically prevailed and has been the foundation of systemic power and control based on race and income division within Springfield.

Springfield's history of racial division is well established. The federal court order to desegregate the schools and the Voting Rights lawsuit in 1986 are landmarks in forcing changes of an all-white government that had over many years continued policies of neglect, segregation and domination of Springfield's Black citizens.

After the 1908 racial riot by whites on the Black population, systematic policies excluded Black citizens from virtually all aspects of social and economic life in Springfield. The result was segregation from the cradle to the grave. At the beginning, for example, Black infant mortality was much greater than that of whites and when life ended, Blacks could not be buried with whites in the public cemetery. In between, Blacks were not allowed to purchase houses in white, often middle-class and upper-class, neighborhoods, not allowed to swim with whites in the municipal swimming pool, not allowed to sit with whites in the movie theaters and not allowed to work in downtown stores and restaurants other than in custodial jobs. There are still many Black citizens living in Springfield who had no Black teachers, nor have they seen any Black police or firefighters.

Most importantly, this systemic racism was maintained by a white power structure comprised of those who owned the property, ran the big businesses and through their total control of city government promulgated policies that benefited the white population.

Prior to 1987, under the commission form of government, all five of the city commissioners lived west of Pasfield Street, often residing in the far west side of the city. None lived in, or even near, the five predominantly Black census tracts. In January 1987 the federal court issued a decision forcing the city of Springfield to implement a representative, ward-based government that offered the Black population the opportunity to elect representatives of their choosing. In a city where there had never been a Black city council member, two such representatives, Frank McNeil and Allan Woodson, were elected.

One reason Alderman McMenamin's comments are so unacceptable is that the exclusion of Blacks from boards and commissions was part of the evidence presented to the court to show that the practices by city government were, and evidently still are, based on a wall of separation between its Black and white citizens. According to a report that I presented to the court in 1986: "138 of the 150 members (92%) appointed to the 20 existing boards and commissions lived outside the five predominantly black east side census tracts, while 53% of those appointments resided in seven predominantly white census tracts west of State Street."

The report went on to say: "Taking all this information together, these appointments increase the likelihood that individuals living on the east side of the city have less access and influence on their elected officials and on the public policy of the city."

Representation on public boards and commissions is indicative of the way decision-making is done within Springfield. A close look at the larger structure of power and decision-making will show that the control and distribution of resources that existed prior to the Voting Rights decision has not been fundamentally altered.

It is some 33 years since the federal court in Springfield directed the city to end this stranglehold of systemic racism and income disparity that has been and continues to be at the core of this city's history. Black lives do indeed matter. Let's do more than say it. It is time for the city of Springfield to show it.

Larry Golden of Springfield is an emeritus professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at University of Illinois Springfield. He was an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the case of McNeil, et al. v. City of Springfield for which he authored the Report on Racial Discrimination in Springfield, Illinois.

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