A who’s who of politicians, politicos and activists across Chicago recently mourned the passing of Richard Barnett, the towering West Side activist and political strategist who died in December at 88.
Congressman Danny K. Davis called him “a leader of the independent political movement in Chicago, not just the blacks who would run for office but the white independents as well,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Political commentator Maze Jackson called him a “Black political guru” and the “Godfather of independent Black politics.”
The Chicago Reader’s Ben Joravsky called Barnett, who lived in North Lawndale, a “teacher, with a specialty in helping young and naive rookie reporters learn a thing or two about Chicago politics. Oh, he was an excellent teacher for guys like that. I should know — I was one of his students.”
According to an obituary released by Isaac Lewis Jr., the founding CEO and publisher of the North Lawndale Community News, Barnett was born in Chicago on March 27, 1931 — the seventh of 14 children. He attended Wendell Phillips High School, where he met Grace, his eventual wife and the mother of their three kids: Annitria, Genera and Jarmel.
Barnett worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 35 years, which allowed him to purchase a four-flat building in the 3800 block of 18th Street — the building that would “later become his ad hoc community headquarters.” In the family home, Barnett convened young people he coached on his Jaguars Little League and Pony League teams, tutored in math and grammar, and led in the Boy Scouts.
“My mother Grace was also the den mother,” Annitria, the Barnetts’ oldest daughter, told Lewis.
“A lot of people can’t say this about their dad,” said Jarmel. “He is the kindest man I’ve ever known. He took all the boys in the neighborhood under his wing. I grew up not knowing what it was not to have a brother. There were always 15 to 20 boys in the house. Every boy in the neighborhood knew him.”
Barnett’s political progeny includes former Jaguars Appellate Court Justice Marcus Salone, retired judge Lawrence Terrell and retired state representative Arthur Turner, among others.
Barnett got his start in politics in 1957, when he helped attorney Arthur Hamilton run against incumbent Ben Lewis, the first African American alderman of the 24th Ward. Hamilton, who later became president judge of the Cook County Juvenile Court, lost the race, but the campaign was the prelude to a lifetime of activism for Barnett.
Barnett was partially responsible for the careers of many reform politicians like Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and his predecessor, former Rep. Luis Gutierrez, according to the Sun-Times. Many of those people were cultivated during the tenure of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor and another beneficiary of Barnett’s political activism.
Davis, who was elected alderman in the 29th Ward in 1979, said that Barnett “assisted more African Americans to be elected judge of the circuit court than any single person we know.”
Barnett is survived by his three children and a host of family, friends, neighbors and mentees. Grace, Barnett’s wife of 56 years, died in 2006.