Chicago, Illinois, has long been viewed as the epitome of political corruption in America, and for good reason, as blatant corruption has plagued the city almost since its founding in the early 1800s.
That is why eyebrows were raised in shock when former first lady Michelle Obama seemingly praised the manner in which Chicago politics operates, albeit for a legitimate and non-corrupt reason in an interview with ABC News.
Murder of Emmett Till
Obama’s remarks were made in reference to the 1955 racist murder of a Black Chicago boy named Emmett Till in Mississippi, and how local Chicago politicians had helped Till’s mother recover his body and highlight the injustice of his death.
According to History, the 14-year-old Till had been visiting family in Mississippi when he allegedly flirted with a married white woman — she later recanted her accusations after his death — which led to her husband and his brother kidnapping and brutally mutilating and murdering the boy before dumping his body in a river.
Unfortunately, those two white men were ultimately acquitted of the murder by an all-white jury, and the obvious injustice of the horrific case served as a prominent spark that helped launch the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s.
Michelle Obama spoke to ABC in an interview for the network’s documentary special titled Let the World See about the efforts of Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s mother, to have her dead son’s body returned to Chicago from Mississippi so she could expose what had been done to him — an effort that required the help of local Chicago politicians and media.
“Politics was a thing everybody was engaged in. Chicago was a political animal. It was a force,” Obama said of her home city at that time. “Your alderman represented your neighborhood — that represented you in the City Council. So you knew who your alderman was.”
“That was one of my first direct experiences with politics because my father was a precinct captain, and that meant that he worked in a ward for an alderman,” she added. Likewise, Till-Mobley almost certainly worked with her local precinct captain and alderman to gain the broader political assistance necessary to recover her son’s body, which Mississippi authorities had sought to bury quickly in that state.
History of corruption
To be sure, by all appearances this looks to be a good thing that was accomplished by Chicago’s “political animal,” but such instances are few and far between.
ABC affiliate WLS reported in Feb. 2020 that “crooked” Illinois had, once again, been ranked as the most corrupt state, with Chicago also again taking the top dishonor of being the most corrupt American city. That report noted that “thousands” of city officials and business people had been convicted of corruption since the first trial for such a crime in 1869, and counted 891 convictions just between 2000-2019.
In August 2020, local affiliate WTTW provided a “short history of corruption” in the state and city that largely focused on a slew of corruption charges and trials in recent years but also pointed out that between 1970-2010, there were at least 1,500 public corruption convictions, including at least 30 Chicago aldermen, the local political figures Obama had praised.
There is a reason that Chicago and “the Chicago Way” are often the butt of jokes about public corruption, and while some Chicago politicians have undoubtedly done some good things — such as helping recover Till’s body — praising the Chicago system of politics for even that seems a bit of a reach.