In 1993, Bobby Rush took office as the Illinois First District's representative in Congress. In so doing, he became the eighth straight African American to hold the seat since Oscar DePriest was elected to it in 1929.
Rush was born on November 23, 1946, in Albany, Georgia. His father, Jimmy, worked odd jobs, and his mother, Cora, was a beautician. At age seven, his parents separated, and he moved with his mother and siblings to Chicago, Illinois, where he grew up. In 1963, at age 17, he dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Army. During part of his enlistment, he was stationed in Alabama, where he became involved in the Civil Rights movement. In 1966, he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and participated in a number of demonstrations in the Deep South. He eventually went AWOL to work for the movement full-time; rather than prosecute him as a deserter, and in the process risk blackening its own eye, the army gave him an honorable discharge.
In 1967, Rush founded the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. This group of African-American militants was originally founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, as a means of protecting that city's black residents from police brutality. As they spread to other cities, the Black Panthers began espousing Marxist revolutionary theory and advocating that black people arm themselves for the coming struggle with racist whites. As the Black Panthers' defense minister, Rush devoted himself full-time to the group's activities. He narrowly missed being assassinated during a police raid of a party "safe house" in 1969, during which two Black Panthers were shot and killed.
Following the raid, Rush directed the party into more peaceful projects such as the Free Breakfast for Children and the Free Medical Clinic. The clinic tested African Americans for sickle-cell anemia; it also drew the health care community's attention to the problem, which led to a national research program into sickle-cell anemia's causes, effects, and solutions. Meanwhile, he enrolled in Chicago's Roosevelt University. His classwork was interrupted briefly in 1972 when he was jailed for six months on a weapons charge, but the following year he received a B.A. in general studies. He took a job selling life insurance and gradually distanced himself from the Black Panthers, quitting the group for good in 1974.
Despite leaving the Black Panthers, Rush still wanted to effect positive change for Chicago's blacks. In 1974, he ran for a seat on the city board of aldermen but was defeated. He remained interested in politics nevertheless and gradually drifted into the camp of Harold Washington. At the time, Washington was an Illinois state senator, and he had also worked to end police brutality in Chicago. Rush helped get out the vote for Washington when he ran successfully for Congress in 1980. Rush also helped Washington get elected mayor of Chicago in 1983, at the same time getting himself elected alderman from the Second Ward. He served in this position for nine years while also serving as a ward committeeman for the Democratic Party. These two positions allowed him to build up a large and loyal following, thus making him an influential figure in local politics.
In 1992, Rush challenged Charles Hayes for his seat in Congress. Hayes was vulnerable because of his involvement in the House banking scandal, during which hundreds of congresspeople had overdrawn their House checking accounts, in effect taking out interest-free loans at taxpayer expense. Rush narrowly defeated Hayes in the Democratic primary and then breezed to victory in the general election. He took his seat in 1993 and was assigned to the committees on banking/finance/urban affairs and government operations.
As a congressman, Rush continued to work primarily for the interests of the African-American community. He got the Justice Department to investigate charges that the Chicago police department routinely violated the civil rights of the city's black residents. His idea to establish federally funded community banks to foster economic development in inner-city neighborhoods was eventually incorporated into the Community Development and Regulatory Act. He introduced a bill to establish a coordinated attack against cockroaches, a major cause of asthma in inner-city children. He supported the implementation of the earned income tax credit for low-income families. Reassigned to the committee on energy and commerce, he introduced the Program for Investment in Microentrepreneurs (PRIME) Act that provided funding for training and technical assistance for small business owners.
While serving in Congress, Rush continued to grow and evolve. He received an M.A. in political science from the University of Illinois in Chicago in 1994, an M.A. in theological studies from McCormick Seminary in 1998, and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1999. That same year, he ran for mayor of Chicago but was soundly beaten by the incumbent, Richard M. Daley. In 1999, Rush's son was shot to death by robbers outside his Chicago home; afterward, Rush became a proponent of gun control, a complete but understandable turnabout from the way he had thought as a Black Panther. In addition to working to reduce violent crime, Rush has also become an important critic of human rights abuses in Sudan and an advocate for increasing access to technology. In 2012 he was reelected to an 11th term in Congress. He and his wife Carolyn have five children.
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. "Rush, Bobby L., 1946– ." Available online. URL: http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=R000515. Downloaded April 15, 2009.
Congressman Bobby L. Rush, Official Web Site. Available online. URL: http://www.house.gov/rush. Downloaded April 23, 2009.
Idani, Michaeljulius. "Rush, Bobby." In African American National Biography, vol. 7, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 35–36.
Krauss, Clifford. "The Hard Journey of Bobby Rush." Gentlemen's Quarterly 63 (August 1993): 162–170.
McCormick, John, and Peter Annin. "A Father's Anguished Journey." Newsweek 134, no. 22 (November 29, 1999): 52–53.
Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):
Carey, Charles W., Jr., and Liz Sonneborn. "Rush, Bobby." African-American Political Leaders, Revised Edition, A to Z of African Americans. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2011. (Updated 2012.) African-American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?
ItemID=WE01&iPin=AAPL0151&SingleRecord=True (accessed September 16, 2014).
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