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Mitchell: Gardner must sustain momentum he built at rally for black contractors

Retired businessman multimillionaire Ed Gardner 87 (center) leads march demequal opportunity constructijobs. The group marched north Western  from 95th

Retired businessman and multimillionaire Ed Gardner, 87 (center), leads a march to demand equal opportunity in construction jobs. The group marched north on Western from 95th Street. to 91st Street. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 5, 2012 11:46AM

Because Ed Gardner built a successful black business in Chicago that employed hundreds of people in its heyday, he knows what it takes to close a deal.

The challenge he faces now is sustaining the momentum that rallied nearly 1,000 last Sunday in the Beverly/Evergreen Park area.

“Essentially black people are saying there is a robust correlation between the lack of work for black people, and black males in particular, and all the violence that is going on in the inner city,” said Aldon Morris, professor of sociology at Northwestern University, and an expert in African-American studies and social movements.

“It is clear that Mr. Gardner is the symbolic leader of the protest and people are willing to rally behind him,” Morris said. “At the same time, right now the protest appears to be leaderless. Until the protest becomes better organized and focuses on what the issues and the demands are, it is in jeopardy of fading.”

Gardner will try to keep that from happening on Thursday, when he meets with Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton and representatives of two of the major stores under construction at 92nd and Western, the site of a huge protest rally last Sunday.

“The meeting is going to address the issues of more blacks working at the Evergreen Plaza site, and the site where Mejier and Menards are building stores,” Gardner told me.

“Mayor Sexton has agreed to a face-to-face meeting. He was at the march on Sunday but couldn’t get close enough to meet with me because of the large crowd,” Gardner said.

Sexton, who suffered a bout of West Nile virus in August, was unavailable to confirm the meeting on Wednesday.

But Gardner said Sexton has been “cooperative” and has assured him that jobs will be created.

While Gardner has met with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s deputy chief of staff, Felicia Davis, and members of the city’s procurement department, he has yet to sit down with the mayor.

They spoke Wednesday morning by phone.

In that conversation, the mayor apparently told Gardner that no African-American contracting companies had bid on the cement-laying project at the 95th and Western.

“Mr. Gardner was shocked to learn that and agreed to help the mayor get the word out to different African-American businesses regarding contracting opportunities,” a mayoral spokesman said.

The mayor agreed to sit down with Gardner and talk face-to-face at a later date.

The protest over the lack of blacks working on construction sites in Chicago and the suburbs comes at an awkward moment for the mayor.

A high-profile supporter of President Barack Obama, Emanuel spoke at the Democratic National Convention and was Obama’s chief of staff before returning to Chicago to run for mayor.

Although Emanuel has made the recruitment of black participation in the upcoming Red Line reconstruction project a priority, the mayor has to be concerned that any criticism of him in this situation could rub off on the president.

“Republicans are very smart, and someone is going to ask how come the former chief of staff is having problems with the black community in Chicago,” Gardner said.

Meanwhile, the unrest over the lack of black workers on infrastructure projects is growing.

Gardner, 87, is fielding calls about the lack of black workers on construction sites throughout the city and suburbs.

Morris is hopeful that the opportunity to confront this injustice is not squandered.

He watched the protest grow from about 40 protesters to a sea of people right from the windows of his home.

“They are chanting that they want work. They don’t want handouts. They are very clearly targeting the mayor and they are also targeting the unions,” Morris observed.

“I’ve lived here 30 years and I’ve never seen Western shut down before. There is great empathy for the lack of work in the black community and the protests we are seeing have great potential,” Morris noted.

“But unless it is better organized, unless there are demands, it runs the risk of not being sustained,” he said.

Gardner’s activism is the answer to a downtrodden community’s prayer.

I pray young men and women of good character step up to help him carry the burden of this cause.

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