Retiring Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White reveals the racism that shaped his legacy

White’s life has also been shaped immeasurably by his race and by the racism of others. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin calls White a “legend in Illinois politics.”

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Former Secretary of State Jesse White, shown last year, called Paul Vallas “a bright star.”

Retiring Secretary of State Jesse White at his office in the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Democrat Jesse White is leaving office next month as Illinois’ longest-serving and first African American secretary of state.

The 88-year-old may be soon ending his six-decade political career, but the fire that propelled him into power is still as intense as ever.

“When it comes to Jesse White, when you say I cannot achieve, my response is, ‘Watch me,’” he said during an interview in his Chicago office.

White’s legacy extends well beyond politics. He’s in his 63rd year heading the tumbling team that bears his name, and he came within an eyelash of being a Chicago Cub.

His life has also been shaped immeasurably by his race and by the racism of others.

As a college student at Alabama State in the 1950s, White attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s church in Montgomery, Alabama. King was a regular at White’s college basketball games and slipped him money because he knew White came from a poor Chicago family.

When King announced plans to desegregate Montgomery’s bus system through a nonviolent boycott, White recalled his younger headstrong self’s doubt the concept would work, and told King so. King assured White that if they would “follow the script,” they’d prevail. And King and his followers did. But racism would follow White for decades.

White played for seven years in minor league baseball, including within the Chicago Cubs’ farm system. But he was heckled by fans for the color of his skin in Texas. And in Minnesota, he defended himself in a fist fight against a white man unhappy he joined teammates at a restaurant.

In 1963, White was playing for the Cubs’ AAA affiliate in Salt Lake City. He put up respectable numbers that year: a .285 batting average, 35 stolen bases, seven triples.

After White had hit his first and only home run that season, a female reporter asked to have lunch with him at a local diner, he recalled. In walked an influential coach for the Cubs organization, who confronted White when the meal was over, he recalled.

“He said, ‘You were having lunch with a white woman,’” White remembered. “I said, ‘That was a reporter.’

“‘No, don’t BS me. No, that was your girlfriend,’” he recalled the coach telling him. 

The coach told White he had been on a shortlist to be called up to the Cubs. But after seeing the two together, that wasn’t going to happen.

“As it turned out, I never had a chance to make the majors,” White said.

Tom Ricketts, the current Cubs owner, told WBEZ he’d never heard that “poignant story of racism” from White. 

“It makes me admire him even more,” Ricketts said. “It saddens me that the Cubs, the team Jesse and I love, were involved in this incident.”

Last year, the team honored White with a one-day major league contract.

“As far as the Cubs are concerned, he retires as a Cub for life,” Ricketts said.

Fast forward to White’s time as secretary of state. White and his tumbling team were pelted by debris from racist revelers at the South Side Irish Parade, prompting him never to partake in the St. Patrick’s Day event again.

And in 2018, during the midst of a heated gubernatorial campaign, secret government recordings of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and J.B. Pritzker surfaced from 2008. The two were discussing potential African Americans whom Blagojevich could appoint to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy being left by Barack Obama.

In the call, Pritzker described White as “the least offensive” choice, igniting a racial firestorm. But Pritzker and White, together, snuffed out the controversy.

“That fell on deaf ears because I know where his heart is,” White said of Pritzker. “I know what a fine gentleman he is.”

For his part, Pritzker today said White deserves honor and represents “a tremendous example for all of us in public service.”

Despite all of the racial indignities White has endured, he said he never has felt anger or distrust for white people.

“I don’t dislike anyone because of how they came to this world,” White said. 

Four times, White was the leading vote-getter on the ballot as a statewide candidate. Once, he won all 102 of Illinois’ counties, something no governor has done in at least 100 years.

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin calls White a “legend in Illinois politics.”

“You have to wonder in this time of political division how one man can be so universally loved and respected as Jesse White is,” Durbin said.

But it wasn’t always so for White. In 1998, the year he first ran for secretary of state, White says then-powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan double-crossed him.

Then Cook County’s recorder of deeds, White sought Madigan’s support for a secretary of state bid. But White says the ex-speaker told him he wanted a downstate Democrat for the office, to give the party geographic advantage — not someone from Cook County. But Madigan, in fact, was helping then-Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy mount a bid.

White recalls later confronting Madigan, who could not be reached for comment on the incident. 

Madigan “says, ‘Let me say this to you: ‘I believe Tim McCarthy will bring more to the party than you,’” White recalled.

White proved him wrong, thrashing McCarthy in the primary and defeating Republican Al Salvi that fall. Today, Salvi considers White a friend.

“I just wish there were more Jesse Whites, in a way, in both parties,” he said. “I think Jesse White is sort of a model of what both parties should aspire to.”

As secretary of state, White helped tighten seat-belt and anti-drunk-driving laws, secured more stringent licensing requirements for teen drivers and promoted organ donations. Using a cell phone and texting while driving is illegal now because of him.

And then there’s his public service. More than 18,000 kids came up through his Jesse White Tumbling Team, sometimes from impoverished homes.

Angela Spears was raised by her mom and joined the tumblers in the early 2000s. She’s now a lawyer and views White as a father figure whose mantra — “doing something good for someone everyday” — shaped her life. 

“It is something I really have instilled in my own practice, and it’s how I live my life,” Spears said.

White said he still intends to remain active in public life and with his tumbling team, and wants to be remembered as someone who helped people, believed in ethical and efficient government and lived up to his word.

“I was determined to always obey the rules of good government. It’s also based on how I run my life,” he said. “I was raised to be honest, to be fair, and to not only take on a job but the responsibility that goes with it — and that always my word be paramount.”

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ.

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