Charles Merritts

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Charles Merritts

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He thinks East St. Louis and he both lost in his bid for mayor

 

East St. Louis refuses to die. There'll always be an East St. Louis. It will revive because of its highways, its location near airports, Scott Air Force Base joint use, river gambling, expansion of the Jefferson Memorial and because of the river and the riverfront.

Besides, St. Louis needs some place to dump its bodies.

This is the view of Charles Merritts, 72, the man who wanted so much to be the first black mayor of East St. Louis, the man who trained under Al Fields and John T. English, and Tom Lewis and Esther Saverson, who helped make Leo Dougherty a political boss, and who once ran a cab company in Belleville as probably the first black Belleville businessman, back under Mayor Charles Nichols. He can tell you how the election judges marked the ballots to elect the first black school board member. He knows about the smoke-filled rooms, patronage, and trading promises for votes. He played the political game the old way.

Merritts never got to be mayor. He lost to James Williams in 1972, though he had the support of the white Democrats. He expected to win. He wanted to win so badly he could taste it, and the bitterness of that defeat still lingers. Soon thereafter, a US district attorney prosecuted Merritts for taking kickbacks as president of the School District 189 Board of Education and for putting a contract out to kill Clyde Jordan, a fellow school board member and publisher of the Crusader black weekly newspaper. He was convicted and sent to a federal penitentiary in Texas.

Forty-two days after he started serving his time, Merritts said he was told the federal government had gotten what it wanted; Merritts was an ex-convict who could not hold public office and his name was smeared, so he could go free the next day if he would give evidence to convict his white friend Bob Rice, who had been school board attorney, William Mason, who succeeded Williams as mayor of East St. Louis, Francis Touchette, Centreville Township supervisor and now county board chairman, or school board member Claude Bush, father of Gordon Bush, a black now prominent in county politics. "I told them I didn't know what they were talking about," Merritts said.

Merritts said he was guilty, but the prosecution had no evidence against him. What they brought out were lies. But "Hell yes I wanted him killed," he said of his former friend Clyde Jordan, "I hated the son of a bitch."

Merritts said he accepted donations from contractors doing business with the school district because he needed it for "the organization," but he never had anyone pad a contract, as was charged, in order to pay him a kickback.

Merritts was a strong black politician raised in the "old school." He recalls the mayors Doyle, Harrison, Crowe and Connors, before Al Fields; and he served the political organization under Police Commissioner John T. English, who then lived at 1421 St. Louis Ave., and Street Commissioner Leo Dougherty. He said he sometimes chauffeured English about town at night so he could check on what was going on in the taverns and in the Valley.

White politicians made money, be said. He talks glibly about a safe jammed with so much money that it fell out when you opened the door. The money, he said, came from payoffs on gambling and prostitution, not out of taxes.

Merritts recalls when the blacks were required to live south of Missouri Avenue, and in each precinct the committeeman was king. He could decide who could have slot machines, dice games. "I had two crap games, 20 slots." Merritts said he kept the slots, got part of the proceeds from the crap games.

And Frank "Buster" Wortman oversaw the whole thing," Merritts charged. The gangster was "another police force" who kept other gangsters out of East St. Louis. If they wanted to go to Fairmont City to see the races, they went by way of Granite City unless they had Buster's permission. Buster had his good side, Merrits said: there was organization. Today there is no organization. Today, there is no money from gambling and prostitution to finance the political system. There is even very little patronage as most government bodies are on the verge of bankruptcy.

The white regime would have collapsed years earlier if it had not been for World War II, which kept some of the industry and the packing plants alive, Merritts said. Merritts worked on the fifth story killing floor at Swift's. "Nobody had a fifth story killing floor," he said. Industry was obsolete. The white politicians turned over to the blacks a city laden with old buildings, old debts and no jobs when obsolete heavy industry in the area closed or fled to the Sun Belt states.

"When I lost the election for mayor, East St. Louis lost," Merritts said. He wanted to give the city an honest administration, one politically oriented, because it takes a good business head and political connections to run a city. "I think I had both," he said, as well as a dream to make good as the first black mayor of East St. Louis.

I expected to win," he said. He said Congresssman Melvin Price took him to McDonnell Douglas Aircraft and asked as a favor to Price for the big defense corporation to set up a small plant employing perhaps 100 men in East St. Louis and teach them to build carburetors and fuel pumps. McDonell agreed, he said. But when Merritts was defeated, nothing happened.

When Merritts was sent to prison, a phone call to Price won him a reassignment to a "country club" prison in Texas. He hit a speaking circuit before church men's groups. "You had to have an appointment to see me." But many East St. Louisans made the trek, including at least one bank president. Some said he ran his businesses and politics by telephone. He admits to long telephone conversations with his son Charles Jr. and his wife. But he made the calls at night out of courtesy to his fellow prisoners, since there weren't very many phones. However, he had his stereo and TV, and he ordered how he wanted his eggs cooked in the morning. When his wife visited, he got a pass to town and a motel. "I told my wife," be said, "if I didn't know what this place was, I'd pay to take a vacation here."

As a child, Merritts picked up spilled coal along the railroad tracks and sold it for money. He worked at Hogan's Grocery at 15th and Piggott for 35 cents a day raised to 50 cents when he started going to St. Louis and buying the produce. He worked at American Steel for $3.69 for a nine-hour day until he signed up for the CIO union and was fired. By 1970 he owned a fleet of taxicabs, a string of liquor stores, a night club and a construction company, and was earning $75,000 to $100,000 a year in addition to the money he accepted for his political organization."

Today, the people of East St. Louis have given up, he said. They think their lot is the best they will have. They think their vote is worthless and they let others run their town. Only by leaving the city can they expect to do better. Teachers do not live in the city. People with ambition and skills move away from the city. Merritts said were it not that he owns so much rental property, and cannot sell it because the banks and savings and loans won't make loans in East St. Louis, have "red-lined" the city, he too would be gone.

(He gets in his 36-foot motor home and travels away from the city frequently. He likes to leave without a destination and let his whims guide him.)

As a result of the people accepting their fate as the best they can have, since the death of Clyde Jordan there is no leadership in East St. Louis, he said. And there is no organization, and no order. Drug usage and crime are rampant. "We kill enough of each other," he said, but most crime comes from St. Louis and St. Louis uses East St. Louis as a place to dump its bodies.

Twenty-seventh street is "drug alley," and you can drive down the street and get curb service, Merritts said. He said mothers send their children to take orders from motorists, to deliver the drugs - police can't send the children to prison. The church at the comer of 27th Street and State, the old Winstanley Baptist Church, held a prayer meeting in the street over drugs. Gov. Jim Thompson sent a representative.

He called his longtime foe Mayor Carl Officer "the problem" with East St. Louis, and says the city cannot recover with him as mayor. He said he doesn't think Officer is taking money as mayor, but that he is careless and doesn't realize those around him take payoffs. But he predicted that somehow, Officer will be removed. He expects to see Officer indicted over his preacher friend charged with using his church to launder drug money. If the power structure wants Officer out, they will find a way, is Merritts' view.

Meanwhile, speculators are buying up property in East St. Louis. He said he sought to buy a vacant lot next to a liquor store to add to his parking, and the St. Louis owner said no, that he was going to call Merritts to buy his property as an investment.

Right now, you can't buy a lot between 15th Street and the riverfront, he said - not unless you want to pay three prices. The property has been bought up by speculators, including a lot of whites.

Will the blacks flee the city and the whites return to take over? Will we have the white flight in reverse? There are those who believe the whites are sitting by waiting for East St. Louis to crash so they can take over the valuable site so close to the Arch, the riverfront, downtown St. Louis. There are those who think the bailout plan was part of such a scheme, and that it will be followed by heavy investments in city property.

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Merritts is watching. If he were mayor, he is sure he could handle it, turn it to the city's advantage.

 

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