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Gene Parks: One against the system
For Gene Parks, leadership and controversy go hand in hand

Gene Parks is angry. "All of a sudden the focus is on me. All of a sudden, I'm the problem," he says. "Now they're censoring me down on the fourth floor, or trying to. they won't let me distribute what I just gave you."

Photocopied on the handout are two anonymous letters received by the city's outspoken affirmative action officer. One is an obscene cartoon with a scribbled dedication to Parks; the other is a reprint of a photograph of Parks with the typewritten caption, "I am Madison's official nigger and I am going to sue."

The mayor's office prevented Parks from using its media folders to distribute the handout. Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner confirms it is the first time in memory a public official has been thus restricted. For Parks, the episode is emblematic of the tensions that have attended not only his very visible role in recent weeks but also his entire public career in Madison.

"I'm speaking for the system and the system doesn't like it," he says. "No matter what I do, I have continuously been told by the system: You are unwelcome. You are unwanted...because you're serious about change."

Parks and "the system" have never gotten along. Indeed, his ethic of leadership seems to require that he fight against the status quo. It is part of the struggle he says constitutes his life.

"I perceive myself as part of a worldwide movement -- literally. I think of [South African activist] Nelson Mandela every morning. I figure that if Nelson Mandela is willing to sit in somebody's jail for 20-some years, I'm certainly willing to risk my job if necessary. And frankly, in terms of these issues, I'm willing to put my life on the line."

Power structure

On the walls of Gene Parks' office are what he calls "reminders" -- dozens of newspaper clippings about racism, war, injustice. A portrait of Martin Luther King hangs on one wall. On another is a photograph of a 1930 lynching of two black men by a crowd of festive whites.

It is Parks' constant reflection upon such reminders that fuels his commitment. "My history is very vivid," he says. "I know that people struggled and gave their life so that I could be here.... What drives me is the pain and suffering that other people endure. It hurts me."

As Parks sees it, the city's white power structure has no sense of this history. Thus, it has been too slow and too timid in its response to recent racist incidents -- including the spray-painting of the words "Niggers Suck" on his father's tavern, the assault of a black UW student and the disruptions of classes by members of a fraternity.

"When leaders do not respond aggressively to racism, it is because they are limited by their racist tradition," says Parks. "Because they don't perceive racism like, for example, people of color perceive it. When they see a black woman assaulted, they see a white man with mental problems. I see a black woman assaulted. When they see white boys invading classes on campus, they see pranks. I see terrorism."

Parks' own response has been anything but timid. He has blasted the district attorney for not pressing charges of attempted murder against the man accused of the assault. He has called in the FBI to investigate the disruptions at the university, as well as helped initiate a private lawsuit against the fraternity involved.

"I'm providing the appropriate kind of leadership that government officials should be providing," he says. "Madison should be glad that it's got a public official that helps mold opinion like this."

But at least some of Parks' opinion molding has not been appreciated -- especially his comments regarding the Feb. 11 death of Rene Campos in the Dane County Jail. As he sees it, the finding of two autopsies that Campos committed suicide by stuffing a T-shirt down his throat is simply not credible.

"Either Rene Campos was executed or else the autopsy was inaccurate," says Parks. "I am never going to believe that a man could voluntarily swallow two-thirds of a T-shirt."

Replies Dane County Coroner Ray Wosepka, "If Mr. Parks knows something I don't know he should come forward with the information." Dr. Billy Bauman, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, say similar suicides have happened before. But, he asserts, "Parks is not interested in facts. He's only interested in rhetoric and getting his name in the paper."

In other areas, there is also a feeling that Parks has gone too far. The mayor has indicated disapproval with some of Parks' remarks. In a recent Channel 3 survey, 85% of respondents felt that Parks was hurting rather than helping race relations in Madison.

To Parks, such expressions underscore the depth of racist sentiment in Madison. "What am I saying that's so unreasonable?" he asks. "That there should be a community for all of us? That justice should be given for everybody? That it's time to get tough with racist criminals? What am I doing that's so wrong other than fighting racism?

"Well, it's because racism is fighting back."

Natural leader

According to Richard Harris, affirmative action officer for the Madison Area Technical College, "Parks has 100% of the black community supporting him." But Parks' support transcends color lines. Among his friends and fans is Bob Brennan, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce.

"I don't know anybody who really cares -- really and truly cares -- about Madison like Gene does," says Brennan. "He is a real spokesperson for the people in some parts of the community. And those of us who eat at the Madison Club -- I should be careful here -- sometimes we need people like Gene to remind us of those sectors of the community."

"Gene is a natural leader in this community where his natural constituency is not enough to elect him dogcatcher," says James E. Jones Jr., a law professor at the UW. "He's an effective politician. Whether you agree with what he says or not, the system has to pay attention."

Parks' entire life is a testament to his ability to lead and force the system to pay attention. But if the system has at times treated Parks unfairly, Parks certainly has never cut the system any slack. Among the people he has accused of racist intrigue against him is a former mayoral aide whose wife is black.

Indeed, there is a paranoid ring to some of Parks' pronouncements. For instance, when Sensenbrenner recently stated that he had no plans to fire Parks or ask for his resignation, Parks took it as having exactly the opposite import. "Now they're talking about firing me," he exclaimed to a caller on the phone. "I thought I had a five-year appointment."

But those who know him best say Parks' use of rhetoric is always purposeful: He stirs people up to bring them together. "Gene does not intentionally set out to hurt, regardless of how others interpret his words," says the Rev. Charles Garel, president of the Madison branch of the NAACP. "If [what he says] is accurate and it hurts, we look to him to heal our wounds."

Garel recalls that in the early 1970s some of the teenage girls he helped shelter would occasionally show up at the bar Parks was then managing for his father. Parks made sure the girls came to no harm. "These were not all black girls," notes Garel. "He was concerned about them because they were girls in a community that was not very accepting to them."

More recently, when writer David Blaska, The Capital Times' resident right-wing writer, attacked Parks in print, derisively tagging him Eugene "H. Rap" Parks, Parks used the moniker to invite David "Oral Roberts" Blaska on a walking tour of south-side Madison neighborhoods. Parks says the two had a good time, but he made sure Blaska learned from the experience.

Arriving at a private club, Parks challenged Blaska to walk in without having a membership card as the rules require. Parks says he and a black Capital Times reporter were not allowed to enter without cards. But Blaska, a white man, was able to enter and drink without being questioned.

Early years

Eugene Parks was born in Madison April 7, 1947, along with his twin sister, Irma. "I am," he says, "what you call a native son." His parents, Roger and Pearlean, had recently migrated to the area from rural Georgia. "They came here looking for opportunity. And what they found was discrimination."

For a while, the family shared a small apartment with his aunt and uncle. Forced to move, they could not find another place in Madison to live. Gene's mother and the children had to return to Georgia while his father sought housing. Eventually he found a place -- a basement ("not a house, a damp basement") off Williamson Street.

Roger Parks worked at Oscar Mayer and also held part-time jobs. He would get young Gene up at 3 and 4 in the morning to help him clean the Kollege Klub tavern before Gene went to school and he went to work.

Gene's father was always involved in the community. He managed an all-black baseball team and became the first black union steward at Oscar Mayer. It was from his parents, Parks says, that he learned to be a leader -- and to demand respect. When a shoe store refused to let Gene use an X-ray foot machine because he was black, Gene's father "raised hell." When his sixth-grade teacher picked a student to collect the milk money by counting, "Eenie meenie, minnie moe, catch a nigger by the toe," Gene's mother raised it again.

Often, the family drove through white neighborhoods looking at houses with "For Sale" signs. "We had no intention of trying to buy the house," recalls Parks, "But we got a kick out of the reaction." When the family eventually did buy a home in an all-white east-side neighborhood, "For Sale" signs went up for blocks around. "That was our welcome," says Parks. "But after we were there awhile, things worked out fine."

By age 16 Parks made his first foray into Madison's consciousness, writing a letter to the Wisconsin State Journal in which he vowed to move when he was older to someplace where his children would be treated equal. The letter drew a barrage of mail, much positive but also some calling him a "nigger." Concluded young Gene: "It's better to stay here and fight."

Parks attended the UW-Madison for two years and served as acting director of the Afro-American Center on campus. At age 20, he made his first (unsuccessful) bid for public office, mounting a respectable write-in campaign for sheriff. A year later, in 1969, he became the first black elected to the Madison Common Council -- indeed, "the first person of color in the history of the city or Dane County to be elected to public office.

Double standard

As an alderman, Parks began to clash with the system in earnest. In May 1969 he was arrested for unlawful assembly at the student power disturbances on Mifflin Street. Parks argued that he was merely trying to preserve order in his official capacity as alderman, and was later acquitted. For the next five years he fought to have the city pay his legal bills. The Common Council approved the $3,361 payment, but it was blocked by the mayor and city attorney. "I recognized it for what it was and raised hell," says Parks.

In August 1969, it was discovered that Parks had moved out of his district, apparently unwittingly. Almost immediately he was ousted from his council seat, then reinstated. Parks is angered that no one had the courtesy to tell him of his error before embarrassing him about it on the council floor. Furthermore, he charges, "Since then there have been a number of aldermen that the system knows weren't living in their district and they weren't removed."

Alderman Parks was known for his hot temper, on at least two occasions storming out of the council chamber in protest. But he was also a dynamic politician, leading the charge against the city's questionable purchase of the Capitol Theatre, passing an ordinance that banned the use of lie-detector tests in city workplaces, and introducing the resolution that led to the creation of the Affirmative Action Office, which he now heads.

In 1974 Parks ran for secretary of state, losing to Douglas La Follette. The following year, he lost his council seat to challenger Roney Sorensen. He worked as an aide to state Sen. Monroe Swan from 1975 to 1978. In 1979, Madison Fire Chief Ed Durkin named Parks as his administrative assistant.

The choice prompted instant controversy. A number of Fire Department employees, some of whom had competed for the position and lost, signed a petition opposing the appointment. Then, three months after Parks was on the job, the city personnel officer, prodded by Assistant City Attorney Larry O'Brien, ruled that Parks should not have been appointed at the top pay level, and unilaterally reduced his pay, even demanding the return of wages.

Parks is still furious. "Nobody in city government history has ever been treated like that," he says. Durkin, who notes that starting people at the highest pay level was "quite common" at the time, agrees "there was absolutely no rational reason for what they did." Parks contested the salary adjustment and eventually prevailed.

Durkin credits Parks with a number of innovations in the department "that probably nobody else would have been able to get accomplished." But the former fire chief also points to several embarrassments -- Parks' arrest for drunk driving, his jailing on a parking warrant after being spotted urinating in public and an incident in which he damaged Durkin's city car late at night outside a bar.

"If I averaged it, Gene was a very good administrative assistant," says Durkin. "But I don't want to use the word average when talking about Gene Parks."

'Race conspiracy'

In June 1985, Mayor Sensenbrenner asked Parks to become acting affirmative action officer. Parks agreed, leaving his Fire Department job. Later, Parks' former post was eliminated.

"They did this without even telling me," fumes Parks. "I'm up here at their request and they go ahead and take my job without even so much as asking me whether I wanted to stay here or go back there."

After a year as acting officer, Parks was tapped for a five-year appointment to the managerial post. But here too was a snafu. His nomination papers were not forwarded to the Common Council in time and the appointment was delayed. This, as Parks sees it, was no accident.

"We're talking about a conspiracy, a race conspiracy," he says. "The design was to get rid of me. Just like the design right now is to get rid of me." The only reason he was in fact appointed to the affirmative action post, he says, is that he publicly forced the issue: "It wasn't the decision they wanted to make."

"That's ridiculous," says Sensenbrenner. "It was my intention to have him be part of my administrative advance the cause of affirmative action and equal employment opportunity. To characterize it as anything other than a principled decision to hire the person is selling himself short."

Billy Feitlinger, a former Madison alderman, also doesn't think Parks' interpretation makes sense. Contrary to Parks' assertion that he was "the first person in the history of the city" to have his nomination papers lost, Feitlinger recalls two or three similar cases. Furthermore, he notes, it was Parks who single-handedly forged a difficult compromise on a troublesome affirmative action plan -- an accomplishment the mayor should have been eager to reward.

As affirmative action officer, Parks is generally in his office by 6:30 a.m. "There's no job that's more difficult to do than what we do in this office," he says, noting that pressure comes from two sources: those who feel the office is pushing too hard and those who think it is not doing enough. "Controversy is a constant part of this job if you're doing it the way it should be done."

Parks is proud of his department's record. He says that 30% of the city's workforce are women and 9% people of color, compared to 15% and just over 2%, respectively, when the Affirmative Action Office was created in 1973. But he contends that women and people of color are still underrepresented in leadership positions, and that job discrimination continues to occur.

"The elimination of discriminatory practices," he says, "is one that requires constant vigilance and pressure."

Agent of change

For Parks, the struggle against racism and injustice is not just a matter of principle. It is a matter of survival. The world, he notes, stands on the brink of catastrophe -- economic, nuclear, environmental. To confront these larger issues nationally, he says, the battle against racism must first be won at home.

"We have to start telling people the truth," he says. "We need to start understanding that we need each other. All of us. We need each other. Diversity is the theme of the next century. Bigotry and prejudice have no place."

It is this sense of urgency that drives Parks. At times it drives him further than people care to see him go, and sometimes it causes him to lose perspective. But his commitment and his compassion are very real.

"All of my life I've been involved in this community's life," says Parks, who is married and has four children. "I love this community. I care for it. I want it to be a model. I'm committed to justice and equal opportunity and human rights. That's the very core of me as a person."

Parks does not shy from controversy because he sees it as an agent of change. "We've got 35 or 40 city managers," he says. "Is it too much for the system to have one that is aggressive for justice and equal opportunity?

"It may be controversial, but is that too much for this city to pay, given the historical nature of discrimination? It may be painful. It may be embarrassing. But isn't our city better off for having this open discussion? We've still got one of the finest places to live in the country. So you know, I think I'm doing my job."

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