Former U.S. Rep. Gus Savage, a trailblazer marred by controversies, dead at 90

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Rep. Gus Savage (D.-III) hugs Marlene C. Carter. in the 1980s

Former U.S. Rep. Gus Savage — a former newspaper publisher who was a trailblazer for other African-Americans in politics but whose political career was marred by controversy — died Saturday just after turning 90, his family said.

The former Democratic congressman had celebrated his 90th birthday Friday night with family and friends, according to his son, Thomas Savage. He went to bed and was found unresponsive Saturday morning at his son’s home in Olympia Fields.

Savage, a congressman who represented Chicago’s South Side and south suburbs in Washington from 1981 to 1993, was born Oct. 30, 1925, in Detroit. His family moved to the South Side when he was 5. He was raised in poverty, and that drove him to try to become a voice for minorities and the disadvantaged, his family said.

Funeral services set for late U.S. Rep Gus Savage

In 1965, he founded the Citizen Newspapers, which became the largest black-owned chain of weekly community newspapers in the Midwest. He sold the newspapers in 1980, the year he was elected to the U.S. House, representing the 2nd Congressional District.

On Capitol Hill, Savage was known for his criticism of Reagan administration policies, particularly those calling for increased defense spending and cuts in social programs.

“He was among the top leaders of social consciousness,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said Saturday, recalling his calls against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

“He never wavered in the fight for fairness and justice,” said Louanner Peters, his former chief of staff, who went on to become deputy governor of Illinois in 2006, becoming the first African-American woman to hold the post. “His decisions in the political arena were always, always guided and based on principle.”

But after being unseated in 1992, Savage made headlines on election night when he blamed his defeat on the “white racist press and the racist, reactionary Jewish misleaders” and compared himself to Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I had no illusions African Americans would be liberated through Congress,” he said, portraying his defeat as a setback for the civil rights movement and himself as a tragic hero.

During  that final, unsuccessful campaign, Savage assailed his opponent for getting support from Jews.

“He’ll spend five times the money I can raise, most of it coming from Jews,” Savage said, telling supporters the results of the primary against Reynolds would turn on “how you feel about Jews, rather than how you feel about blacks.”

During the same campaign appearance, he accused legislators of remapping his district to include Homewood, Flossmoor and Olympia fields to provide “enough of a Jewish population to make it difficult for me.”

He also said there was a “danger of genocide” facing blacks and that “the Jewish population is contributing to this pending disaster.”

The remarks during and after that campaign were the latest in a series of controversies for Savage, who missed more votes than any other congressman in 1981, in part due to his wife’s illness and death.

Savage’s record also was marred by a House ethics investigation in 1989 that found he made improper sexual advances to a female Peace Corps volunteer while on an official visit to Zaire. The official report on the ethics investigation condemned his behavior but didn’t  recommend any punishment, citing Savage’s effort to apologize to the volunteer.

Mel Reynolds, who defeated Savage in the Democratic primary that ended his political career, ent on to see his own career derailed by a conviction for bank fraud and sexual misconduct.

Savage was a “brilliant writer and social activist,” according to Jackson , who said the former congressman had been a classmate and close friend of former Mayor Harold Washington.

“He was a meaningful force for social justice in Chicago,” the civil rights leader said. “He emerged on the right side of history in his opposition of the war.”He didn’t just follow opinion polls. He had to mold his own opinions at a time when people were just following others. Gus was a change agent.”

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, who said he knew the former congressman for most of his adult life, called Savage “a trailblazer. He had a spirit that was incomparable. He was a tireless worker for human rights and for justice.

“When I was first elected to the city council,” Rush said, “he was right there with me.”

In addition to his son, Savage is survived by his wife, Drella Savage; a daughter, Emma Savage-David; and three grandchildren.

Contributing: Patrick Judge

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