Thursday, February 23, 2006

Part III: How East St. Louis Blacks Came to Love Nixon and Percy

[Note: After Chuck Percy picked private citizen Richard M. Nixon to campaign with him in 1964 for governor of Illinois at a time when blacks were alienated by the Goldwater presidential campaign, I was sent to New York to be instructed on the how’s and why’s of campaigning in this state by the future president himself. He told me that I would be called by a wealthy California tool manufacturer who would be flying his own plane to Chicago. This would be, Nixon said, “my guy. You’ll be Percy’s guy, ok.?” But he expressed grave reservations about adding East St. Louis for a pancake breakfast with blacks to the itinerary, saying East St. Louis looked like a bomb went off on it and that he and Percy would be “killed”—I think he meant it politically, but who knows? Whereupon I flew back to Illinois, was told that East St. Louis was definitely on the schedule and that Percy had vetoed it being dropped even after Nixon had called him personally. So much for that. And the show was to go on. The next thing was I got a call from the wealthy tool-maker pilot, to meet him at Pal-Waukee airport for us to take off and run the circuit.]

When I got to Pal-Waukee, I was greeted not by one Nixon guy but two. The wealthy, California tool-making manufacturer pilot and a Ned Sullivan of Yonkers, New York, first cousin to Patricia Ryan (Mrs. Nixon). Sullivan was added to the crew by Nixon in order to bring some sanity to the Percy scheduling and eliminate East St. Louis. But first we had to fly there.

On the plane, I sat next to the pilot with Sullivan kibitzing over our shoulders. “Those Percy people like to party,” the pilot said. “We were up half the night. Do you know Denise on Percy’s staffr?”


Sullivan said “skip it. We were up drinking until the early morning hours, had three hours sleep.:

I began whispering “O, my God, I’m heartily sorry…”

“Don’t worry,” said Sullivan. “We’ve done this before. We’re old advance men. Drink and play all night, work all day. We worked on advances for the vice president for eight years, traveling all over the world. Remember in South America when Nixon got stoned by a mob of Communists? We were there!”

Yes, said the pilot as we shot through the clouds, we got stoned before

Nixon did. Then the talk turned to East St. Louis. “Nixon’s sort of leery about countermanding Chuck,” said Sullivan. “After all, we’ll need him as governor in `68.

Fat chance, thought I: “…for I detest all my sins…”

We’ll give East St. Louis a hard look before we ditch it, said the pilot.

We landed in St. Louis where the arch was still in process of completion. We got a car, got in touch with Bill Stiehl who was ecstatic that Nixon himself had called his name. “That’s another reason why he should be president,” he said. Why, because he knew your name? “That and the fact that he has a steel-trap retentive memory.” East St. Louis did look like a bomb had gone off in it. We found only one acceptable hall, an armory which sat thousands.

“First of all, we’ll make preparations,” said Sullivan, signaling a guard who took us to the manager. Sullivan said a Republican rally was going to be held there in a month.

“A Republican rally?” mumbled the manager. “Here?”

Yes, and we want carpenters to build a small room in the back to hold possibly a hundred people. Who’s going to pay that bill? I asked. “Don’t worry about it,” said Sullivan. “We have contingency. I think we ought to be able to fill it. And I mean the worst—but I still haven’t given up scrubbing the event. Oh, we want your company to donate the pancakes.”

We make Aunt Jemima. The image isn’t--.

“That’ll be the least of our worries. We need the syrup, too.”

The next day after we scouted the suburbs Nixon liked, Sullivan got a commercial flight for Yonkers. “I’m going back to East St. Louis,” said the pilot as we parted. “I’m still worried and Nixon is, too. Every other part of the schedule looks great but not that one.” Midway through the next week, I got a call at Quaker Oats from the pilot.

“I’m still in East St. Louis,” he said. “We got worse problems than I thought. Can’t talk on the phone. I’m heading back now. See you at Pal-Waukee tomorrow at 8 a.m.”

As we flew back to St. Louis, he was taciturn. Why don’t you tell me what’s wrong? I said. “Too complicated to explain. You just have to see it.” We landed, docked the plane, got a car and drove to an awful bar near the armory where we had scheduled the carpenter. Not a word from the tight-lipped pilot. We walked in. The only whites. The patrons eyed his coldly. We went up to the bar. The biggest man I had ever seen up to then came to take our order. The pilot ordered coffee, nodded to me and beckoned the bartender over.

“You were telling me last night,” he said, “that you’re the head of a civil rights organization—is it the largest one in town?”

Yeah, said the bartender. CORE. Congress of Racial Equality.’

“And when I told you that we’re planning on having a rally at the armory what did you respond?”

I said that we’re going to have a sit-in, a lay-in—even a piss-in because CORE will not allow a group of Goldwater Republicans to hold a meeting in this town.

The pilot looked meaningfully to me and I said, “Well, that’s it. I’m going to call Percy and tell them it’s over. Either that or I’m not responsible for what will happen.”

At this point, I remind my kids and grandchildren: In those days there were no cell-phones. I walked over to a phone booth and, using the rotary phone, started to twirl a phone number. I was waiting for the call to go through when the pilot tapped on the glass door and beckoned me to come out. I said I was waiting for the call. He shook his head negatively and signaled me to come out. Cancel the call.

“What’s up?”

The scenario just changed, he said. Walk back with me to the bar. We ordered more coffee. The bartender this time seemed eager to accommodate. He said it was on the house.

While you were in the booth, said the pilot, I said to our friend here that it was a shame that a person couldn’t have a rally in this town, the land of the free, after all, where free speech is sacrosanct without having a demonstration. And this man agreed.

The bartender nodded. “I said he’s right. This is a country where there should be free speech. My only problem is that as the head of CORE I got money invested in signs, placards and banners—money that came from our treasury. So we’re obligated to hold the demonstration.

And the pilot said: you say if somebody picks up the cost of the materials, the demonstration could be cancelled.

“No problem. We got enough to do for civil rights without getting into that.”

How much would the banners and placards cost? I shook my head: I don’t like it.

The bartender jotted down figures from his memory. “Oh, about $500 but then there are other considerations.”

Such as?

Handbills--$500. But more important is the reputation of CORE.

How much is that?

As the bartender started calculating, the pilot said to me: We’d like to talk. Nothing personal.

I looked out the window.

After a time the pilot said: Now I got to use the phone. Does the one in the booth work?

“I got a house phone right here,” said the bartender. “On us.”

On the way home, I told the pilot: I don’t like this.

“Why not? East St. Louis is no problem now.”

I figure you gave him $1,000 to call off the picket but we still don’t have anybody coming.


What’s wrong?

“Our contingency’s giving him a lot more than that. Now CORE is chairman of the event, recognizing Nixon for what he’s done for civil rights. You ever hear of Roy Innis?

He’s the national head of CORE. Wait a minute: this guy who was leading the picket is now the chairman of the Nixon-Percy event?

“Marvelous, isn’t it? ”

Nixon will be furious.

He smiled. “Let us say he isn’t worried about East St. Louis anymore. Nor should you.”

I tell you these folks won’t show up!

“Oh yes, they will,” he said. “Anticipation is everything.”

You’re not paying until after a successful event.

“That’s the principle of capitalism.”

The rally was a success and Charles H. Percy, his blond hair glistening in the klieg lights, his eyes beaming with excitement pronounced that a new day is dawning, intoning: “I’m proud to be an American! I’m proud to be a Republican! And I’m proud to be here today!” Nixon gave an enthusiastic speech, hailing Percy as a new national leader, one who draws people of all races, colors and ethnicities together. He and Nixon waved to the crowd as a band leader, reportedly the brother of the bartender played “When the saints come marching in.” I had to admit it was quite a rally. Percy was ecstatic about his reception and clapped me on the back while the pilot stood next to the wall, filing his nails.

“I’m told you put on the rally of the year for Chuck!” reported Percy’s campaign manager, “and I’m reporting all this to Quaker Oats!” He added meaningfully: “Someone there will be enthusiastic!”

I said truthfully: it was nothing.

On election night, Percy held off conceding to Otto Kerner until the returns came in from East St. Louis.

Then, as soon as East St., Louis came in, Percy conceded. I’m not sure he ever figured it out.

1 comment:

  1. Tom keep posting this stuff. I don't care if it is just for your grandkids. It is great to read about this political history.