CHICAGO — George Blakemore will speak his truth to anybody who listens.
On Saturday, Chicago’s “concerned citizen” — known for directing fiery diatribes at officials during public meeting for more than four decades — blew out the candles on his 80th birthday cake, and made his wish.
He wished “that I was a free man off this modern-day plantation,” Blakemore said to his friends, family and fans gathered at the headquarters of Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change in Canaryville.
Blakemore still regularly attends every public meeting he can get to, from City Council to the Chicago Board of Education to the Water Reclamation District. The City Hall mainstay advocates for Black citizens and often blasts officials for running “dog-and-pony shows.” In response, aldermen have labeled Blakemore a political gadfly and instituted three-minute speaking limits commonly known as “The Blakemore Rules.”
At his party, Blakemore celebrated with a far friendlier audience. More than 100 people came to the five-hour festivities filled with pictures, hugs and autographs. Attendees also had the chance to buy Blakemore’s famously colorful jackets and hear him sing a full-slate of musical renditions.
“This is his sixth performance,” said Gregory Sherman Jr., director of community outreach at Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change, as Blakemore belted the lyrics of “Shake A Hand” by Faye Adams while dropping to the floor. “He’s been turning his own damn party up since 2 p.m.”
Blakemore, who has navigated health issues in recent years, was spry as he shimmied, spun and personally greeted everyone who stopped by Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change at 601 W. Root St.
“I have all of me that’s left to give. My time, my energy and my experience,” Blakemore said. “I enjoy entertaining, even though my voice might be off-key, I appreciate people coming out here, recognizing my contribution as a leader and an activist with the Black community.”
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) is no stranger to Blakemore’s wrath, but spent $300 anyway on one of his paint-splattered jackets and stuck around his party for “longer than I had thought I wanted to.”
Sawyer said Blakemore is “not annoying, but enlightening” and “a star in the city of Chicago.”
“I consider George to be the conscience of the council. He’s the guy that makes sure we understand our job is to serve the people,” Sawyer said. “Maybe sometimes they make fun of George, but after George speaks, we all get together and talk about it. Because what he speaks is the truth.”
Blakemore scrupulously inspects the fine print of the most innocuous of briefings and is often the only member of the public at niche meetings that hum along for hours. His self-bestowed life’s work is keeping watch over “corrupt political hacks,” Blakemore said.
“The people need me to go and do what they don’t want to do. I can’t let up,” Blakemore said. “I want them to use me as their voice. I believe that my mission is to make the government a better place. And the aldermen, you know I give them hell.”
Blakemore was an effective nuisance in his efforts to get Harold Washington’s name on the sign of the CTA’s LIbrary-State/Van Buren stop. He collected over 10,000 votes in a run for Cook County Board of Commissioners in 2018. As a street vendor, Blakemore sold his art on Maxwell Street and on the trail of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign.
Tyrone Muhammad, founder of Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change, planned Blakemore’s party and said he was inspired hearing snippets of Blakemore speak on Black liberation through his prison radio. Blakemore has found family at the social advocacy group and receives support and rides to meetings from its members.
“This man made it to 80, and all through the stress and strain of Chicago, fighting for the issues of divestment and disenfranchisement of Black communities,” Muhammad said. “He’s been fighting for Black people for over 50 years, and that’s an accomplishment in itself.
“Throwing him a party was a no-brainer.”
Sawyer broke-in his “little bit stiff” painted jacket dancing alongside Blakemore and Ald. Stephanie Coleman (16th). Supporters in attendance purchased over 20 one-of-a-kind Blakemore art pieces and cheered for encores as their concerned citizen informed the DJ what throwback hit he could sing next.
“Make a request,” Sherman Jr. said. “If he knows it, he’ll sing it.”
“He keeps us entertained at 2 a.m., 5 a.m. — all the time,” friend Tamiko Holt said.
Last year Blakemore got his first iPhone and learned how to go on Facebook Live. The platform has given him the gift City Council won’t: unlimited time to speak his mind.
Blakemore’s public comments now go on for hours, at all times of the day and night.
“Sometimes they say I’m on too long. But then I tell them if I’m on too long, what they can do is click me off,” Blakemore said. “When I play me back, I get so much joy, because I have so much wisdom. That’s my time, and I’m a one-man show. I don’t have a stage hook.”
On a recent Facebook Live, Blakemore let his fans know he hadn’t celebrated his birthday since he was 10 years-old. Tracey Y. Bey, director of operations at Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change, was tuned in.
“It’s fitting that it’s Black History Month, and he’s a part of our city’s Black history, so he deserves to be celebrated,” Bey said. “He speaks for the voiceless, the people who don’t necessarily know or understand bureaucracy. He’s still fighting the good fight. And he’s still dancing.”
Blakemore kept loose with his drink of choice: Whiskey, straight up. Muhammad called Blakemore an “Energizer Bunny” and marveled at his lively spirit for both politics and partying.
“Most don’t have the will, the courage, the energy at that age to still fight. It’s amazing to me,” Muhammad said. “If he’s still annoying, then he should be, and politicians should be too, unless they’re just OK with the status quo for what’s going on with our city’s Black and Brown communities.”
Blakemore grew up picking cotton in Fort Worth, Texas, and went on to work as a high school political science teacher. He migrated to Chicago in the ’70s, joined the frontlines of the social justice movement and found the city to be even more segregated than his native Texas. He said he got his “PhD in civics” from attending city meetings since the ’80s.
“The democratic machine is set up with the white liberals to exploit Black people,” Blakemore said.
Blakemore’s political ideologies are fiercely Black nationalist, and on Saturday he used the spotlight to voice his desire for “a new Black Wall Street in the city of Chicago.” At City Council meetings Sawyer has heard Blakemore’s comments descend into anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rambles.
“George is just really pro-Black, and he is 80 years-old, he’s came up during a time where his name was probably ‘n—–’ for a good portion of his life,” Sawyer said. “He might have older values that we don’t agree with, but what he’s really advocating for is free speech.”
With many public meetings now on Zoom, Blakemore said it’s getting harder to put his two cents in.
“Sometimes they mute me, and then they apologize and say they had technical problems,” Blakemore said. “There’s something about Zoom that makes me not as effective of an orator as when I’m actually there.”
Blakemore lives independently and still sells his artwork in the Gold Coast, where he has resided for over 50 years. For a man often disregarded as aloof and off-beat, Blakemore is well-aware that his life is changing.
“I feel myself slowing down, my thought pattern, my thinking, it’s not as good as it used to be,” Blakemore said. “I used to be young, gifted and Black. Now I’m old, poor and Black. But I’m still blessed to be here, making contributions to the movement. The city isn’t changing, it’s just rearranging.”
Sherman Jr. poured Blakemore another drink and said he’ll always have a second home with the group of reformed convicts. Sherman Jr. said they share in the struggle of a “society that doesn’t give a f— about us.”
“You have a man in front of you, 80 years old, who went from picking cotton all the way to changing things in the City Council,” Sherman Jr. said. “We live in a society that wants to hide his Black greatness, bury Black greatness under white supremacy.”
Blakemore said nobody will ever get him to shut up.
“Why should I be quiet?” Blakemore said. “The people want to silence me, they don’t appreciate me, because I’m calling them out. But they’ll ask, ‘What if he was telling the truth?’”
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