February is Black History Month, and February 6 would have been the 89th birthday of Arthur “Chink” Washington. Chink’s active political career spanned 60 years and touched multiple generations of St. Louis and Missouri political actors, black and white.
For those of us who knew him, worked with him and loved him, his passing was of note. Those of you reading this today should know Chink Washington as either the 21st Ward Democratic committeeman or as a political elder in his emeritus role as the former committeeman of the 21st Ward.
I’m not an academic expert on the political history of black St. Louis, but I’ll admit to being more than casual observer. Chink Washington was a part of what I believe was arguably the most important and impactful black political generation in St. Louis political history. But that importance and impact happened before any of today’s political practitioners were yet born.
If you were to visit a mythical Valhalla (or if we had a Black Political Hall of Fame), along with Chink Washington here are some of the men and women you would meet: TD McNeal, David M. Grant, Fred Weathers, Benjamin Goins, Jackie Butler, LeRoy Tyus, Pal Troupe, Franklin Paine, JB Banks, DeVern Calloway, Fred Williams, Louis Ford, Gwen Giles, Pearle Evans, Eugene Bradley, Lawrence Woodson and Joe Clark.
These are some of the men and women I consider part of the avant-garde who led the black political charge in the late 1950s and early ‘60s that changed the black political footprint in and the political calculus of St. Louis and Missouri. What this generation did, and how they did it, defined the political possibilities for black and white Democratic politicians in St Louis and Missouri for most of the second half of the 20th century.
If you’re a black elected official elected in St. Louis anytime in the last 50 years, your political career is built on this foundation. If you were a white Democratic politician interested in citywide or statewide office, you had to come see them. With the notable exception of former Congressman William L. Clay, they’re all just about gone.
Chink also was a significant contributor to that history. He was a founding member and the beating heart for more than 40 years of what was at one time arguably one of the most powerful political organizations in the city or state: the 21st Ward Regular Democratic Organization. He was an unelected political interlocker between the black community and black elected officials. These unelected political players were the bridge that facilitated the exchange of influence and support between the community and elected officials. Don’t get it twisted, there was always intramural competition and regularly high levels of tension, but to borrow a phrase, none of it was personal, it was always business.
Chink’s passing kind of closed the book on a chapter of St. Louis black political history that we’ve never really noted and certainly never appreciated.
As I write this, I feel like an old black jazz musician talking about improvisation to young black musicians who have never heard of or listened to Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bouchet.
Fish probably never consider the presence of water until it’s removed. The same is too often true of people in our lives. I also had a personal relationship with Chink Washington. I’d known Chink for 62 of my almost 70 years. He was a ubiquitous part of my political life for over 40 years. The importance of friendships with anyone a generation or more ahead of you is not what they teach you, but what you learn from them. I’m a politician writing about politics, so what did I learn from my 40-plus-year political relationship with Arthur “Chink” Washington?
Long before HBO’s “The Wire” was the best serial drama ever on television, I learned the game is the game. I also learned something even more important: you can’t change the game, but you don’t have to let the game change you (too much).
“To thine own self be true....and you can’t be false to any man.” This quote from Shakespeare captures the essence of what I learned from Chink about authenticity and consistency in this political space. No matter who you were or where he was, he was always Chink Washington. He was as consistent as the sun rising in the east.
The only advice he ever gave me was at the beginning of my political adventure, and I’ll share it with this generation. He told me, “To get some ass, you got to bring some ass. Nobody get any if they leave theirs at home.”
It was a great run, Dr. Washington. R.I.P.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association, and in 2018 he was awarded Best Serious Columnist in the nation by the National Newspapers Association.