Anton Cermak was born on May 9th, 1873 in Kladno, Austria-Hungary, located in the present day Czech Republic near Prague. At the age of three, his family immigrated to the United States, settling in the mining town of Braidwood, Illinois. After three years of elementary school, Cermak joined his father working in the mine, earning $1.50 a day.
Cermak moved to Chicago at the age of 17, and found work as a brakeman with the railroads. After several years, he had enough money to start his own freight business, where he would hall just about anything. He received the nickname "pushcart Tony" from his days hauling freight.
Cermak became increasingly involved in politics, working in his city precinct and reorganizing the local chapter of the United Societies for Local Self-Government. In 1902, he was elected a state legislator, and a Chicago Alderman from the twelfth ward (Bridgeport) in 1909. He founded the Czech Assistance Committee in 1915, in response to the Eastland Disaster. Cermak would often use inside information on upcoming government land purchases to invest in real estate, and gathered over $7 million on these deals.
Cermak made a run for the mayor's office in 1931. He appealed to African-Americans and non-voting immigrants to join and participate in the Democratic Party, laying the groundwork for the Democratic machine that would dominate Chicago politics. He campaigned to end prohibition in Chicago, and to campaign for social reform for immigrants. His opponent was incumbent Republican 'Big' Bill Thompson, who ran a slanderous campaign against Cermak, belittling Cermak's own immigrant status. This tactic backfired on Thompson, as Chicago was (and is) home to thousands of first-generation immigrants. On April 7, 1931 Cermak won the election by 200000 votes, and became the 35th mayor of Chicago.
Cermak made an enemy out of the Chicago gangs almost immediately, by cracking down on gang activities and publicly supporting his friend, labor organizer Roger Touhy. He also ordered the two county sheriffs to shoot Capone gang member Frank Nitti, and make it look like Nitti fired on police first.
On February 15, 1933, Cermak went to Miami to be in a parade with fellow Democrat and then president-elect Franklin Roosevelt. As the motorcade stopped for Roosevelt to deliver a speech, Giuseppe Zangara stepped out of the crowd and fired at the car five times. Cermak was hit in the stomach, and was taken to the hospital in the presidential motorcade. On this trip, it was reported that Cermak told Roosevelt, "I'm glad it was me and not you, Mr. President." However, this statement was later discovered to be a fabrication by Cermak's public relations advisor, John Dienhart. Cermak died from his wounds in a Miami hospital on March 8, 1933. His body was transported back to Chicago, and buried in the Bohemian National Cemetery.
The true reason for his assassination is still unknown. While most people assumed that Zangara was trying to kill Roosevelt and simply missed (Zangara admitted this was his motivation), it is also suspected that Tony Accardo ordered the hit on Cermak in retaliation for the shooting of Frank Nitti. An FBI investigation determined that Zangara was 'mentally deranged', and was not connected to a conspiracy to kill Cermak.
22nd Street in Chicago was renamed after Cermak. His son-in-law, Otto Kerner Jr, would become governor of Illinois in 1961, and head the Kerner Commission on Race Relations.