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Decades after helping elect Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Edward Gardner pushing for diversity on job sites

Eddie Reed (left) Edward Gardner Bishop Tavis Grant stnewly poured concrete Monday halt work constructisite 92nd Western until more black

Eddie Reed (left), Edward Gardner and Bishop Tavis Grant stand in newly poured concrete Monday to halt work at a construction site at 92nd and Western until more black workers are hired. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 26, 2012 2:23PM

What do you if an 87-year-old African-American man in a dingy nylon windbreaker and pink ball cap hobbles onto your construction site with the aid of his cane, parks himself in the middle of traffic and declares he wants all the work stopped until more black workers are hired?

If the man is named Edward Gardner and you’re trying to do business on the South Side, then you at least slow things down enough to figure out your next step.

That’s what happened Monday when Gardner, the founder of Soft Sheen Products, led an impromptu protest at a job site at 92nd and Western in Evergreen Park, where new Meijer and Menards stores are being built on the site of the old Evergreen Country Club.

Gardner’s name may not be quite as well-known as when he helped lead and finance the movement that made Harold Washington this city’s first black mayor in 1983 and later served as a key member of Washington’s kitchen cabinet.

But Gardner’s place as a business and political icon in the Afri­can-American community is firmly enough established that his soft-spoken voice still carries a certain gravity when he chooses to raise it.

That’s what made this more than your garden-variety demonstration when Gardner — rarely heard from in recent years — announced he would disrupt a city sidewalk construction project along 95th Street on Monday morning to express his disgust over seeing no African-American workers on the job when he drove past last week.

What also made this protest stand out from the norm is that Gardner, a self-made millionaire who still lives at 91st and Michigan, was not working any kind of an angle. This was no shakedown by a politician or community activist looking to be bought off with a well-placed contribution. This was righteous anger from an elderly man wanting to correct what he sees as a terrible wrong — a lack of job opportunities fueling the crime in black neighborhoods.

And those who scrambled to join his demonstration wondered aloud if this could be the start of something bigger — a real effort to make sure African Americans get their fair share of construction jobs in Chicago, a longtime sore point that never seems to change no matter how much elected officials fiddle with minority set-aside laws.

A strange thing happened when Gardner showed up at the city sidewalk project mid-morning with the express intent of tromping through the wet concrete. The work stopped, and the work crews drifted away.

Undeterred, Gardner headed around the corner to the shopping center construction site at the urging of his fellow protesters, apparently unaware at first that he’d crossed over the city border into Evergreen Park or that this was a private construction job.

“Where is our mayor, our so-called mayor? Where is our alderman?” Gardner growled outside the gate.

Once he found out, though, he didn’t lose any steam.

“They’ve got a responsibility, too,” he said. “There’s no blacks working here. Why?”

Then some men who routinely protest outside this job site and others in support of getting more blacks hired opened the gate for themselves and Gardner led a gaggle of two dozen demonstrators and news media — including me — onto the dusty acreage.

“I don’t care where we are. We’re in America,” Gardner told me. “I was in the Philippines during World War II. I’m 87, and I’m not going to stand for this.”

At first the construction workers didn’t know what to make of the interruption and tried to carry on as Gardner led the group into the path of a truck — noticeably driven by one of the few African Americans visible on the job site. (I counted four, maybe five, out of the dozens of workers I saw during the four hours we were there.)

Evergreen Park Police arrived and tried to slow him down, but Gardner spotted a Prairie Material truck preparing to pour and marched right behind the chute and stuck his cane in a newly dumped but unfinished pile of concrete though he stopped short of wading in with his Mephisto loafers.

Work was brought to a halt in that area, although the contractors — who declined to press charges — seemed to shift their effort to other sections of the sprawling project.

Gardner stayed on the job site until 3 p.m., occasionally speaking with representatives for the developers by phone, and vowed to take up his fight again Tuesday.

“Not only here, but in other areas of Chicago,” he promised, which should set off alarm bells in City Hall.

A spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel touted the mayor’s efforts to protect the city’s minority- and women-owned business programs and said a top aide has “reached out to Mr. Gardner.”

The mayor might want to consider making that call personally.

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