The Replacement: The rise of Roland Burris
In terms of the charges of corruption that have been made against him, a look into his background would seem to suggest that Burris is not your usual politician.
Centralia is roughly on the same latitude as Louisville, and, even after the Second World War, Southern ways prevailed. In 1951 and 1952, the local N.A.A.C.P. tried and failed to integrate the public swimming pool, and the following year the city’s African-Americans decided to try again. This time, Burris’s father, who worked for the Illinois Central and served as the vice-president of the local branch of the N.A.A.C.P., travelled to East St. Louis to hire a lawyer to push the integration effort; the elder Burris laid out a hundred dollars as a retainer, a considerable sum at the time, given that he was making around forty cents an hour. Roland, who was fifteen, was chosen to test the ban with a group of his friends over Memorial Day weekend. “We headed out to the pool; we bought our ticket,” Burris told me, as we sat in his Senate office. “They sold us a ticket, because there was all this build-up before. They knew we were coming. You could see the whites lined up all outside, and here are these five little black kids with two chaperones. And they had to line up on the outside as well. And we went in; we showered; went out; swam in the pool. No incident. No issue.”
For the Burris family, though, the successful effort had an unhappy postscript. The lawyer, an African-American, never showed up in Centralia and disappeared with the retainer. “If we, as a race of people, are going to get anywhere in this society, we’ve got to have lawyers and elected officials who are responsible and responsive—that’s what my dad said, and it resonated with me,” Burris told me. “I was never in any serious trouble, but I’d beat up on people. I was a tough little kid. And I changed my whole attitude. Went back to high school my junior year. I took one of my brother’s suits that he had left home from college, got one of my dad’s white shirts, ’cause I didn’t have a tie, and I went to school my junior year dressed up. I made myself two goals. One, I want to be a lawyer. Number two, I want to be a statewide elected official of Illinois.”