CHICAGO – The city’s first African American fire commissioner in the 150-year history of the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) was appointed April 1 after weeks of mounting protest against a series of racist slurs on the CFD’s radio frequency.

“We’re entering a new era,” said Cortez Trotter, who assumes office May 1 and who pledged to increase efforts to diversify the work force. Presently, 68 percent of firefighters are white in a city that is 63 percent African American and Latino.

Mayor Richard Daley and outgoing CFD Commissioner James Joyce were facing increasing public criticism for allowing the situation to fester. In addition, over 200 people, including firefighters, clergy and elected officials rallied March 23 at the Chicago Fire Fighters Union offices to denounce union President James McNally, who blamed African American firefighters for the use of the racist slurs.

“McNally is unable to represent all firefighters and should resign,” said Father Michael Pfleger from St. Sabina’s Church.

McNally has a history of making such comments. Pfleger urged white firefighters to step forward and denounce the racism. Many believe a majority of white firefighters are also embarrassed by the remarks.

The multiracial crowd carried signs that read “We condemn all forms of racism,” “We are united in love not hate,” “Extinguish the racial slurs,” and “McNally, stop blaming the victims.”

“We are working on a petition asking the 5,000 union members for a vote of ‘no confidence,’” Battalion Chief Nicholas Russell, representing the African American Fire Fighters Association, told the World. Russell has been the object of death threats in the past few weeks. He concluded the best way to unite the firefighters is for McNally to resign.

Disunity in the union, an early endorser of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, only hurts the effort to defeat Bush. Registered nurse Elissa Curry told the World “when Bush opposes affirmative action he is encouraging those who feel that they can openly express their racist views.” She said Bush must be defeated in November.

Alderman Rey Colon of the city’s 35th Ward connected the war in Iraq and racism when he said, “We are looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But, the WMDs (racism) are right here at home. This problem has to be resolved.”

Affordable Power to the People (APP), a group fighting gas shutoffs, was present. Maria Majic vowed to fight the transfer of one firefighter caught using racial slurs to her Bridgeport neighborhood after he completes a 30-day suspension. “This is disrespectful to the people in our neighborhood. We won’t tolerate it,” she said.

APP is part of a coalition, Bridgeport Against Racism, that wrote a letter to Daley demanding the dismissal of Joyce and asking that the suspended firefighter not be reassigned to a Bridgeport fire station. Bridgeport is a predominantly white community with a history of racist assaults and the home of the Daley machine. The group held a press conference at the site where Lenard Clark, a 12-year-old African American, was savagely beaten in 1997.

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Lance Cohn
Lance Cohn


Retired Chicago Public School music teacher, leader in the Chicago Teachers Union, and activist for fair housing,