As Democratic ward committeeman for more than twenty years (a position that controlled many patronage jobs), Bill Clay, Sr., was forced to endorse candidates in primary elections, even in the most contentious and divisive contests. This committee post was concurrent with his congressional responsibilities, putting the committeeman-congressman at the epicenter of most local political storms.
Clay recounts his forty-one-year odyssey through a career filled with controversy, conflict, and confrontation. He challenged both the established rule of the white St. Louis power structure and the black “don’t rock the boat” political and civil rights advocates. In the process, he changed the face of a racially discriminatory economic, political, and social system.
Clay’s struggle to gain power and to keep it was not confined to fights with other politicians and business executives, however. It also involved an ongoing fight for his political survival with the media. One daily newspaper waged a publicly declared campaign to ensure his loss in every election. Without compromising his principles or softening his attacks on racists and racism, Clay battled back. He won reelection fifteen consecutive times, and the newspaper eventually folded. In the end, Clay, using his tremendous vote-getting apparatus, became one of Missouri’s most powerful political voices in controlling election-year issues and determining the success of candidates’ campaigns in both citywide and statewide elections.