Black Excellence: Bobby Rush
Bobby L. Rush, U.S. representative for Illinois’ 1st congressional district, has served in Congress for three decades to create jobs, grow the economy and make communities safer for his constituents.
He earned his bachelor’s degree with honors from Roosevelt University and a master’s degree in political science from UIC. He also completed a degree in theological studies at McCormick Theological Seminary.
The politician, activist and pastor was born in Georgia and grew up in Chicago. After serving more than four years in the U.S. Army, he received an honorable discharge. During the 1960s, Rush became a civil rights activist and co-founder of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.
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- 28 Days of Black Excellence: Al Riley
- 28 Days of Black Excellence: Karia Coleman
- 28 Days of Black Excellence: Rasheedah Shahid-Tezak
Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to “Black Excellence” at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to “Black Excellence.”
Aisha El-Amin 0:32
Hello, hello family and friends of UIC. I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, the associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging at UIC. It is my honor to continue the “28 Days of Black Excellence” with inspiring and educative stories about the legacy of black excellence that walk the halls of UIC. And today I am really, truly honored to welcome today, Congressman Bobby Rush, who attended UIC and received his master’s degree in political science many years ago. I know that many of you know who he is because he’s just a beloved champion servant of the community. But, congressman, please tell us what you’ve been up to.
Bobby Rush 1:29
I’ve been up to my neck.
Aisha El-Amin 1:32
Yes, sir. Doing a lot of great things.
Bobby Rush 1:35
And trying to continue knowing that I’m doing it and trying to speak and work on the well-being of so many members of my community, Black people and poor people in general. So I’ve been on the frontline with now, who a lot of times who are actually on the frontline.
Aisha El-Amin 2:12
Bobby Rush 2:18
Some, the old folks, might have said and some of them say, I’ve been up to my knees in alligators.
Aisha El-Amin 2:25
[Laughter] Yes, sir. And I know you’re like me. As we journey through your life a bit — you’re a veteran, a United States Army veteran. I am as well. Can you tell me a little bit about that history?
Bobby Rush 2:40
Oh, yeah. A lot of people don’t realize, I served in the U.S. Army for four years, five months and 28 days. I wasn’t counting. [Laughter] This was from 1963, December 1, 1963, to April 20, 1968. Part of, you know, it was really it served as a bridge for my adolescence years of learning, of trying to find my identity as an African American man, and then to my involvement as an activist in the civil rights movement. When I was a member of the U.S. Army I was stationed here in Chicago. My location where I was stationed, right there on 63rd Street, right across the street from 63rd Street beach, there was the Nike base there and I was stationed in the Nike base. And so, as we know, we had a unique duty call and that was always like having a civilian job. You reported for reveille at 7:30 in the morning. And then at 4:30 KP or some extra duty. Then you were off, you were free. So normally it was like a job so in my off hours when it began about 4:30, I found my way to civil rights meeting and midway through when the civil rights movement and I became an activist in the civil rights movement.
So I was supposed to have been discharged on April 20, and Dr. King was here on April 4. So from, I think it was Friday when Dr. King was here, all the way up until the day before my discharge, I was AWOL. They knew that I was a rebel radical because I would come to school to the basement with Black power buttons on and would come with my mustache. I mean I was a real, you know, fighter. And so, praise be to God, they gave me an honorable discharge. And they wanted to get me out of the service. All right. And because I was growing in my militancy. And I had a top-secret clearance. And we had guided missiles right here on the lakefront, you know, part of the North American early defense system. So, there were guided missiles right here in Jackson Park at 63rd and Hayes Drive, 63rd and South Shore Drive. So they wanted to get me out of there. And ultimately, closed that base down.
So, the military was the place where I accepted my yearning, and my calling to be an activist. I, you know, was affected by my generation. Activism, civil rights and wanting something different, better, and a better way of living, not just for myself in my budding family, but also for my neighbors and my neighbors’ neighbors. So I became in my life a starter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee under the tutelage of a fella by the name of Bob Brown. And I became very close. And Bob Brown, actually was also, he was very close to Sophie Carmichael. So, through Bob Brown I met Sophie Carmichael. And it just happened met and then later in the month of April and this was in 19…well, later that month in April, Sonia was invited to speak in Maywood, Illinois, which we all know is right outside of Chicago. She was invited to speak at the NAACP union rally that they had there in Maywood. And the person who invited him persuaded him and Bob Brown and I accompanied Sonia to Maywood to speak. And that’s why some friends have become very close with so many Carmichaels. Joy was invited to join, and actually joined the National Black Panther Party leadership staff during the Prime Minister back in the party. He invited Huey and Bob Brown and in his core of the Chicago Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee SNCC to become Panther. So when you know to give him a base in the evasive operation and in the national leadership of the Black Panther Party. Well, I was sent out to Oakland in order to make sure all that happened and negotiate the terms of it, and the rest of it is history.
Aisha El-Amin 9:58
Bobby Rush 10:01
You know, those are the key components of my former entry into the civil rights movement and to like, joining of activism and working on behalf of ordinary common and poor and oppressed people.
Aisha El-Amin 10:22
Wow. What a rich, rich history. As part of the SNCC, what timeframe was this? Was UIC, I’m trying to see where UIC was in kind of your academic timeline.
Bobby Rush 10:42
I became a student, in 1972 I went to Roosevelt University with and undergraduate degree in political science. And then I went to get my master’s degree in political science and that’s when I enrolled in University of Illinois Chicago. And so, then I became a student at the University of Illinois. And we would write everything I had run for mayor, not mayor, alderman of the second ward in 1960…1975. And then, when I lost that race, then I went for my master’s degree, in political science. And so I enrolled in about ’76.
Aisha El-Amin 11:45
So with all of your experience and all of your wisdom from being a veteran, to being part of some absolutely phenomenal civil rights, leadership spaces, why did you select UIC to get your master’s degree?
Bobby Rush 12:01
Well, it was challenging. I thought the curriculum was challenging. I didn’t want to get a master’s from Roosevelt. So I want to enlarge my territory. So I went to UIC and I’m so glad I did. It was so rewarding. I had some very provocative professors. Strong professors. Rakove and many other professors. I became a teaching assistant to some of these professors there. So I help them when they’re preparing for their classwork, their curriculum. I did a lot of grading papers for them. And then other things that teaching assistants did at the time. And I also met some people I still am in relationship with, but continued at U of I. I think that Dr. Rakove come to mind and be very prominent because he and I discussed Chicago politics a lot, a lot. And Mayor Richard Daley and the Daley machine.
And that was the thing, I introduced Dr. Rakove to one of my close friends who is a former member of Bill Dawson’s organization. The Dawson machine, and in more than Dr. Rakove’s book, he talks about this. He interviews this friend of mine and includes him in his book on the Daley machine. I think it’s called “Don’t make no waves…don’t back no losers.” No, so I mean, I became a teaching assistant and a student, you know, and someone who was intellectually diligent, you know, from my relationship in the party, I was curious about mankind and the mind of mankind Newman philosophy. And I learned all this stuff. Huey helped me grow and mentored in me when I was living in Black Panther Party.
Some people might not know that Huey Newton right after he left the Panther Party, he continued his studies at the University of California. And he actually has a PhD in philosophy, but he was always a person who would intellectually curious and in devote strength in analysis and was very well-read, and he shared that with members of the party. We were inspired to read Hegel and Nietzsche, and Assad and so many other because we were, we knew, we wanted to know human theory and so we could apply it to social practice That was Huey and that was the party, you know theory and social practice.
Aisha El-Amin 16:07
As you think back on that time, what were some challenges that you faced and how did you overcome them? We have students that will look at this and be inspired by all that you’ve done, and maybe going through some challenges and if you could offer some advice to them.
Bobby Rush 16:26
I would just say if you have love for people and love for making a difference…aspiring to make your life a difference. You want to be an introspective person, live a committed life then your love for people will endure the challenges that life presents to you in order to meet the challenge and swing more to a better opportunity for you and for those who you love. So I’m a lover of humanity. You know, I like to think of myself as being a humanist. All right? And so I’m always interested in how can we solve the problem? How can we make life better for humankind? And not just in a limited sum, absorbent of only me. Therefore, I know how it can he made it better for everyone else. I make that kind of commitment. If you make that kind of commitment, all of the challenges, they become less of a challenge. They become less cumbersome. They become, as they say, they might interrupt but they don’t stagnate your pursuit. As a matter of fact, they may light a fire under you. You know, with me, some of my early talks were, how can I live an effective life. I wanted to be like some of my early heroes in reading books. And books is what really made a difference in my life. Reading. My love for reading.
I can read even though I was born on a farm in Georgia and lived a life, a poor life. I was raised by my mother when we left Georgia to come to Chicago. I never would allow my spirit to be poor. I always loved to read and I can expand enough to dream and I can imagine. And so that’s really how…you know, really heroes, you know, and most of them weren’t, as I look back, you couldn’t find any stories about them in the school library. Only one Black in school library is when they might of had one about George Washington Carver. And he was really the only one that I can remember reading about in my early years. But I just had this drive to try to have, I was attracted, turned on to the horizon of humankind. What did it mean that I want to make a difference? I wanted to, you know, sometimes as a young man I can remember thinking to myself that I was born in the wrong path. Everything seemed to have been discovered already. I mean isn’t, so can you imagine as a young man I’m getting angry because I was, you know, didn’t think about the internet and technology and space travel. I thought that everything had been discovered.
So I was going down the wrong path. Never really understanding that the main frontier of life rather than the nexus between the mind and the heart is our greatest mission. The greatest landscape and the greatest challenge for all of us, that distance, the geography between the heart and the mind. So I’m at a point now where that’s where I’m holding my years I have remaining, how do we change hearts and change minds? I saw it happen. I saw in the Black community under the installation of Malcolm X diary and many others. I saw that Black people were becoming more conscious about who they were. How they live, their contribution not only to United States, but the world, to culture, to science, to mathematics, to geography, to medicine, needs civilization, intellectual development of the world. How dark skin, certain African, North African, how they all contribute to progress. And how they actually were the springboard to the so-called civilization of Europe. How it all began in Africa, sub-Sahara Africa, spread up to northern Africa and then crossed the Mediterranean all the way into Europe. And how near the effect that it had on each other, the European involvement.
So, I mean, I saw in some sense, integration in an unprecedented time when Black is beautiful became not just a mantra but a way of thinking. And so, so that was actually a change. But then the mass media came in and its influence on the Black community kind of switch in the world, post ’60s, became the more divided, some part of the us generation, and some part of the me generation. And it became in the Black community, it became more about the individual and became more of the survival of the fittest. It became me versus the world. And a lot of that was highlighted or exemplified by that movie “Superfly.” See “Superfly” especially for young brother, especially young women in urban areas, “Superfly” became changed the whole consciousness of young Black men whose Friday night movie was wearing dashikis and medallions and big naturals then “Superfly” came out and they started pressing their hair, their long hair, and the shoulder and started wearing the high heel boots.
Aisha El-Amin 25:25
Platform shoes, yes.
Bobby Rush 25:26
Platform shoes and so almost within the twinkling of an eye they changed. The consciousness changed — the mink coat icons and the gangster on the corner became more prominent. Well, we’ve seen how that has affected us. So now I’m at a point where when I really been blessed to live a little longer to see the beginning of the turning away from that culture. You had the Black is beautiful and the athetizes of that in the sinful Black culture. So, from all of that I am looking for the sentiments of this. And I think that sentiment is, we understand the power of the individual, but we know that the power of the individual has to be expressed in the power of community. Right? Where there is beauty and love. So, I right now, I’m at a point where I believe that the horizon that we must face and that we must — how do we reconstruct the Black family? All right. And when individuals haven’t been placed in the context of family, and when you have strong family you have strong community, you have strong economy, you have strong institutions—There is strength is family. Somehow families have been deemphasized the destruction on the Black family is almost never in discussion.
Aisha El-Amin 25:27
Bobby Rush 25:34
There’s never a call, never a command, never a yearning, never a movement to talk about families. I mean, I am with the Black Lives Matter movement. But I think the greater movement it is that those lives have to be lived within a family structure.
Aisha El-Amin 28:21
Bobby Rush 28:21
All right. And to rebuild that family structure it’s paramount, as far as the survival of the people.
Aisha El-Amin 28:29
You have both given us words of inspiration, words of encouragement and some charges. We, you know, as a focus with the Black family. I love your statement of the heart and the mind the geographic distance between the heart and the mind and really close in that distance. I appreciate you dearly. I know many, many, many people that appreciate all the great work that you’ve done as a servant to the community and for sharing this history with us and for being part of this series. I’m indebted to you. I’m indebted for your work that you’ve done for the Black community and for many communities. And thank you. I just want to thank you for being part of this.
Bobby Rush 29:18
Thank you so very much. God bless you now.
Aisha El-Amin 29:27
God bless you as well.
Tariq El-Amin 29:29
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.