Gus Savage, a six-term Democratic congressman who represented Chicago’s South Side until a sexual misconduct scandal, his firebrand style and accusations of anti-Semitism brought a landslide defeat in 1992, died Oct. 30 at his son’s home in Olympia Fields, Ill.
The son, Thomas Savage, confirmed the death but did not know the specific cause. The former congressman had been celebrating his 90th birthday the night before.
Mr. Savage said he began his career in activist politics and journalism after serving in a segregated Army unit during World War II.
One of his early publications, the American Negro, was a protest magazine that was among the first to print a photograph of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, a Chicago teenager who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. Mr. Savage said he ran the image before Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender, although it was those larger black publications that sparked national outrage over Till’s death.
In 1965, Mr. Savage founded Citizen Newspapers, a small chain of Chicago-area weeklies that railed against the city’s Democratic machine, personified by Mayor Richard J. Daley. With that maverick sensibility, Mr. Savage supported the political rise of Harold Washington, a friend and college classmate who became Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983.
“He was the architect behind the election of a black mayor,” Sidney Ordower, a political activist and Washington aide, told the Chicago Tribune in 1989. “You have to give him credit. He was the acknowledged leader of the independent progressive black political movement.”
Mr. Savage twice ran for Congress unsuccessfully before winning an open seat in 1980. He became the first African American to represent a district that in the 1960s and 1970s had seen a turbulent transition from a white industrial enclave to an area with a working-class black majority.
In office, Mr. Savage served on what is now the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He consistently fought President Ronald Reagan’s defense budgets, arguing that expensive military programs such as the Strategic Defense Initiative — the so-called “Star Wars” missile defense program — were diverting money from programs that benefited the poor.
In 1986, the congressman co-sponsored one of the largest set-aside measures in history, calling for 10 percent of defense contracts to go to minority-owned businesses. The measure would have brought about $20 billion to those businesses, but it was killed in the Senate.
Mr. Savage drew scorn, even from leaders of his own party, for his increasingly combative temperament and his erratic behavior.
In his first term, he compiled one of the worst voting records in the House, which colleagues attributed to the death of his wife, Eunice King, in 1981. He was also repeatedly fined for omitting information from his financial disclosure statements.
In 1989, he was accused of sexually harassing a 28-year-old Peace Corps volunteer while on an official visit to Zaire, now Congo. The House Ethics Committee found him guilty of making “sexual advances” to the woman but declined to punish him, noting that he had written a note of apology to her.
On the hustings, Mr. Savage said the charges were motivated by racism in “the white American mass media” and in Congress. He attacked a frequent opponent, Mel Reynolds, as a man in thrall to Jewish donors. And he drew support from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who called him “our fighter in Congress.”
Mr. Savage alienated himself from his own party by mocking Ronald H. Brown, an African American who was then chairman of the Democratic National Committee, as “Ron Beige” because of his support for white candidates.
“Gus Savage has taken the legitimate pain of racism in our society and trivialized it,” Reynolds, who is black, told the New York Times in 1990. “He uses it as an excuse for everything. We should not tolerate race-baiting by white politicians and we should not tolerate it by black politicians. When blacks use the charge of racism so cavalierly, we run the risk of losing our moral authority as a people.”
Mr. Savage lost his 1992 reelection race to Reynolds, in part because of redistricting that took away some of his base and added middle-class, suburban black neighborhoods.
In perhaps the campaign’s strangest turn, Reynolds suffered minor injuries from shots fired into his campaign car five days before the primary. Mr. Savage’s campaign claimed that the shooting was staged for political gain, and Reynolds blamed Mr. Savage’s rhetoric.
Frequently confronted with accusations that he was race-baiting or anti-Semitic, Mr. Savage gave no ground. “Racism is white,” he said. “There ain’t no black racism.”
Augustus Alexander Savage was born in Detroit on Oct. 30, 1925. He was 5 when his family relocated to Chicago. He graduated in 1951 from what is now Roosevelt University in Chicago and briefly attended law school in the city.
In addition to his son, survivors include a daughter, Emma Savage-Davis of Myrtle Beach, S.C., and three grandchildren.
Two of Mr. Savage’s immediate successors in the 2nd District congressional seat also suffered tawdry political fates. Reynolds resigned in 1995 after a conviction for statutory rape. His successor, Jesse Jackson Jr., finished serving a prison sentence for corruption in June.