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Mitchell: Rahm’s parents raised him not to be scared of a good fight

In Mayor Rahm Emanuel's City Hall office he his brother Ezekiel Emanuel  talk about Ezekiel's new book entitled 'Brothers

In Mayor Rahm Emanuel's City Hall office, he and his brother Ezekiel Emanuel talk about Ezekiel's new book entitled "Brothers Emanuel, A Memoir of an American Family" on Friday, April 5, 2013. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 8, 2013 6:58AM

Sometimes to understand where a person is coming from, it helps to know where the person has been.

That’s certainly the case with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who caught many of us by surprise when he swept into the mayor’s office two years ago with a hefty percentage of the black vote despite facing black opponents.

But a contentious school strike and the mayor’s plan to close 54 schools on the South and West sides have led to a lot of grumbling among black supporters.

Indeed, Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union, has publicly labeled the school closings as “racist,” and more than a few clergy are following her lead.

Yet Emanuel, the city’s first Jewish mayor, grew up in a household with a mother who routinely challenged racism and bigotry.

Indeed, the Emanuels were once forced to move out of a North Side apartment when the landlord became upset because blacks and whites involved with the local chapter of CORE were holding meetings in the family’s unit.

On Friday afternoon, I sat down with the mayor and his brother Zeke Emanuel to discuss “Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family,” written by Zeke about the famous brothers. Although most families can boast of having at least one success story, the Emanuels have: Ari, a high-profile Hollywood talent agent; Rahm, the mayor of Chicago, and Zeke, a bioethicist who served as the special adviser for health policy for President Barack Obama.

As the brothers’ careers rose in different fields, people started asking them about the secrets to their personal successes.

First and foremost, the Emanuel story is a story about parents who made their children a top priority and found ways to help them explore their own culture and respect the cultures of others.

“They were devoted to us. They put a lot of pressure and pushed us. They also encouraged us and supported us in all kinds of cockamamie things that we wanted to do and they gave us a lot of freedom,” Zeke said.

The brothers developed a strong bond while growing up on the city’s North Side — and later in Wilmette.

Interestingly, some of Rahm’s earliest excursions on the city’s South Side were with his mother, Marsha Emanuel, as she joined black mothers on the picket lines.

In Chapter One: Born to Protest, Zeke writes:

“From all appearances, my mother was just another homemaker schlepping her kids to a museum or a department store. Many times we actually went to those kinds of places. But on other occasions we went to the Board of Education building on Clark Street to join picket lines or to South Side schools where black parents lay down in the street to block the delivery of temporary classrooms.”

Zeke said: “It wasn’t like lots of middle-class white women were involved in the civil rights movement and were getting arrested.”

“One of the things she communicated to us very clearly is you figure out what’s right and you do it,” he said.

Another example of activism involved Rahm’s father, Benjamin Emanuel, a pediatrician.

“My father fought against lead paint and its harm to kids early on,” Rahm noted.

But if there was any one thing that shaped the Emanuel brothers, it had to be their parents’ decision to invest heavily in their education. While the family pinched pennies when it came to buying clothes and extras, these parents took their children to Europe and to Israel, while most of their wealthy friends went to Florida, according to the book.

“My parents made decisions about schooling and decisions about travel that was also considered education. It wasn’t about leisure. It was about learning,” Zeke said.

At that point in the conversation, Rahm, who had been cracking jokes throughout the interview, turned serious.

“Education is the great equalizer. As my parents told me, if you see an injustice, you see a wrong, you have a responsibility. If you have kids trapped in a school when there is an alternative where they could have a better future, and you didn’t speak out, that would be unacceptable,” the mayor said.

Obviously, he’s made some difficult decisions concerning the Chicago Public Schools. But after reading “Brothers Emanuel,” I can see why.

His mother was one of the 250,000 Americans who listened to Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C., in 1963.

So he grew up believing you have to make change.

“We wouldn’t be here without the knowledge that education could provide,” he said, referring to his brothers.

“ I have to do what I think is the right thing to do,” the mayor added.

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