This weekend, we lost someone dear to me, the Honorable Augustus A. Savage, the retired Congressman from the 2nd District of Illinois. Gus, as he was more familiarly known, passed away quietly in his sleep early Saturday morning at the Olympia Fields home of his son, Thomas, my close friend of over 40 years.
When I met this remarkable man, I was a college student at Northwestern University in the early 1970s. Tommy Savage and I became friends, and his parents, Gus and his wife, the late Eunice K. Savage, welcomed me into their hearth, treating me like another family member. That’s how they were. That’s the man I knew.
Gus Savage loved family and community. He fought tirelessly for the common man and against racial inequality. Before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Gus and Eunice Savage established Citizen Newspapers, which became the largest Black-owned chain of weekly community newspapers in the Midwest.
They were married for 34 years, but Eunice died shortly after Gus was elected to Congress in 1980. I watched him rebound from this blow. Though, they were partners in business and community service, he now had to carry on without her. It was hard on the family, but they persisted in the dream. Ironically, it was this period of dealing with her long illness, and the subsequent grief, that many of Congressman Savage’s opponents point to when he was assailed for missing votes in Congress.
Representing a predominantly Black district on the South Side of Chicago and bordering suburbs, such as Riverdale, Dolton, Harvey, Phoenix, Dixmoor, Posen, and Markham, Gus Savage fought for the issues of the working, middle class. He was a strong supporter of labor. This made sense because this district was home to a heavy industrial base. Many of the bungalow communities in the district were formed during the heyday of a vibrant steel manufacturing environment. As the steel mills declined, so did the economic vitality of this area. Many of these South Side neighborhoods and suburbs fell into a downward spiral.
The man I knew, Congressman Gus Savage, understood his role in bringing attention to these conditions and he took that fight into several arenas. He made sure that the federal and state environmental protection agencies acknowledged their responsibilities in addressing air and ground pollution, remnants of the now absent industries. This was over 30 years ago, and this was when I first understood the term environmental racism, and I met the “mother of environmental justice,” Hazel Johnson.
He championed efforts to support the establishment and growth of local businesses. In 1987, a significant bill he co-sponsored was signed in federal law. Public Law 99-661 (The National Defense Authorization Act of 1987), specified that a goal of 5% of the entire Defense budget be allocated towards minority business firms and institutions.
He was also instrumental in the authorization for building a third federal building in Chicago. He successfully pushed to have the building named after former Congressman Ralph Metcalfe, and to include that a significant portion of the construction contracts be awarded to minority firms.
You should also know that in 1992, when a new federal building was authorized and under construction in lower Manhattan, it was Congressman Gus Savage who ordered that the operation be halted when remains of mostly enslaved Africans were discovered during excavation. The General Services Administration was then required to do a full archaeological review, and eventually, to establish a memorial which is now operated by the National Park Service at that site.
Much has been said about how Congressman Gus Savage dealt with the media and his critics. He was clearly outspoken and never backed down from a fight. However, his motives were easily discerned. He was reelected five times because the majority of his district believed that he was able to say things they were not able to say. He was fearless that way, and he attracted quite a few opponents. His eventual defeat in 1992 came only when the 2nd Congressional District was racially diluted by a remapping which included majority white suburbs further south from the previous district boundaries.
Whether you loved him, or not, he will be remembered by many, and especially by me.