A Father's Anguished Journey

On the night of Oct. 18, two men wearing bulletproof vests approached 29-year-old Huey Rich on Chicago's South Side. The men claimed they were cops and said they wanted to ask him some questions. They were lying. Rich caught on, noticing that one man's gold police badge looked phony. He backed away, then bolted down Crandon Avenue. The men chased him around a corner, firing 9 mm pistols. Two bullets punctured major vessels in Rich's right thigh, and he fell to the ground, bleeding. The men tried to drag Rich to their car, authorities said--it looked like an unmarked police cruiser--but dropped him and fled. Surgeons at Christ Hospital repaired Rich's wounds, but his initial blood loss had damaged his vital organs. He died four days later.

It would have been just another Chicago street killing but for one fact: Rich, who used his mother's surname, was the son of Bobby Rush, the onetime "defense minister" of the Black Panther Party in Illinois, who is now serving his fourth term as a U.S. congressman. The death of his son devastated Rush; a month later the lawmaker still breaks into tears trying to explain what could have happened. Watching his son slip away, he said, "I saw the pain. And I felt the pain... We must heal the spiritual wretchedness, or brokenness, that led to the murder of Huey Rich." Rush's pain sheds light on a complicated father-son relationship. The loss has political implications, too, hardening Rush, a religious man who holds a master's degree in theological studies, for his new mission: a rededicated war against the cheap guns and street violence that his fellow young radicals long ago glorified. In a long, anguished talk with NEWSWEEK in his Chicago office, Rush argued as militantly against the urban gun culture as he had once argued for it.

Militant was the word. In the late 1960s Rush led other Black Panthers in berets and leather jackets who raged against "racist ameriKKKa." He counseled young black men to master at least two firearms for self-protection. Rush wasn't among the most aggressive Panthers, but he did spend five months in prison for two firearms misdemeanors. He's lucky to be alive: in 1969 he left a Panther apartment hours before police stormed in and shot legendary Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark to death.

Less than a month before that, Huey Rich was born. In homage to the revolutionary movement, Rush named his son after the Panthers' most admired leader, the late Huey Newton. As Huey grew up, his father moved into the mainstream as a Chicago alderman and, since 1992, as a member of Congress. Rich was brought up in Chicago by an aunt of his mother, Saundra Rich, who now lives in California and who returned, distraught, for his funeral. Rush says he and his son were close, but acknowledges that he was often absent. "I allowed, more than I should have, the relationship to be defined by three words: 'I'm too busy'," Rush says with evident regret. "I didn't sit around and do the homework."

Huey Rich's own youth was never as high profile, or as provocative, as his father's had been. After stints at a military academy in Indiana and college in Atlanta, Rich worked as a clerk and janitor for the Cook County sheriff's department. He enjoyed repairing old cars, learned how to silk-screen and helped a relative run a catering business.

In recent years Rich seemed to be taking his father's earnest advice to set goals and make plans. Last July, Huey graduated from cosmetology school. He was to begin three final weeks of training when he died. He left behind a fiancee and a 3-year-old child. "He was crazy about his daughter," says Betty Clawson, director of Dudley Beauty College. "And he wanted to open the biggest, baddest total spa in Chicago--hair, nails, facials, body wraps." Friends describe Rich as charismatic, dedicated and humble. After his death, fellow students draped his workstation in purple and black, accented with red roses and a teddy bear.

The riddle of Rich's murder only adds to the grief of friends and family. Police have charged five-time felon Leo Foster, 32, as one of the killers; a second suspect remains at large. But details remain murky. Law-enforcement sources say Foster signed a confession admitting his part in the crime. He also allegedly said that Rich had been paid $100,000 to procure drugs for an unidentified third party, but hadn't delivered. (Foster's attorney, Marijane Placek, calls the statement "coerced and unreliable.")

The assailants originally may have intended to collect money or drugs from Rich, police surmise, but not to kill him. But is Foster's alleged claim true? If there is additional evidence that Rich had slipped into a secret life of crime, authorities haven't disclosed it. Rich's friends say they don't believe the charge; some wonder whether the assailants fingered the wrong victim from the start. It appears the crime wasn't random: Rich's apartment was ransacked, investigators say, and his attackers robbed Rich of several hundred dollars. Rush wonders whether the killers mistakenly thought Huey had much more money. Rich was put under court supervision in 1994 for discharging a firearm, but he had no drug convictions. "He was involved in positive--as far as I know--endeavors," Rush says. "As parents, we don't always know." Rush is content to let police and prosecutors unravel his son's death. "[Whether he made] bad choices or not, the pain is still the same," Rush says.

It is his anger with the gun culture, as much as pain, that now drives Rush's search for solutions. He still speaks of his Panther days with pride, but the warlike rhetoric of that era now rings hollow to him. "I'm not stuck there," he says. "I've moved on... Where race or racism predominates, we don't solve the problem by over-emphasizing it." Rush began to split with the radicals on gun control some 20 years ago; back then, he disagreed with black nationalists who said African-Americans should buy guns to keep whites from exterminating them. "Rather than genocide," Rush recalls, "I saw fratricide."

Today he is as concerned about black-on-black violence as he is about white-on-black abuse. Consider, says Rush, how much time young blacks spend at Saturday memorial services. "Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., you'll see more young people gathered at funerals than at any other activity in the black community," he says. "More than at football games, more than at dances. They are burying those killed earlier that week--and most of it is because of guns." In Congress he has already sponsored or cosponsored 31 bills to regulate assault rifles and other firearms. He wants handguns banned, except for those carried by law officers and the military. He is sure to repeat the story of his own loss in House debates. "We have got to do something," he says. "Our responsibility--my responsibility--is to eliminate violence from our neighborhoods, and from our nation."

Rush also has Hollywood in his sights. He's groping for a way beyond the legislative realm to teach young people what really happens after a bullet hits its victim. In television and film dramas, he says, plots often leap too quickly from fictional shootings to more sanitized scenes. "Nobody talks about the children who see someone on the ground bleeding to death, about the paramedics frantically trying to save a life, about the family being notified and rushing to the hospital, not knowing whether their loved one is dead or not," Rush says, tears welling up in his eyes and his normally soft voice rising in anger. "That is the horror that never gets exposed."

Three days after his son was buried, Bobby Rush announced his candidacy for re-election next year. He talked about how short life can be, and how important it is to make each day productive. His subtext was obvious: Congress must do more than talk about ways to stop the killing. He wonders whether something as controversial as prayer in public schools would restore reverence for life. In his own youth, he says, "We had a fear of God that served as an anchor. [Today] violence has replaced God as an object of worship." Rush is open to new solutions, but what he really wants is action. Huey Rich's death will be a total waste, says the father, only if he doesn't help curb the carnage that cost him a son.