Cermak was born to a mining family in Kladno, Austria-Hungary (now in the Czech Republic). He emigrated with his parents to the United States in 1874. Cermak grew up in the town of Braidwood, Illinois, southwest of Chicago, and later moved to Chicago. He began his political career as a precinct captain and in 1902 was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. Seven years later, he would take his place as alderman of the 12th Ward. Cermak was elected president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 1922, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party in 1928, and mayor of Chicago in 1931. In 1928 he ran for the United States Senate and was defeated by Republican Otis F. Glenn, receiving 46% of the vote.
His mayoral victory came in the wake of the Great Depression and the deep resentment many Chicagoans had of Prohibition and the increasing violence resulting from organized crime's control of Chicago, typified by the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
The many ethnic groups such as Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Italians, and African Americans that began to settle in Chicago in the early 1900s were mostly detached from the political system, due in part to lack of organization which led to underrepresentation in the City Council. As an immigrant himself, Cermak recognized Chicago's relatively new immigrants as a significant population of disenfranchised voters and a large power base for Cermak and his local Democratic organization. Before Cermak, the Democratic party in Cook County was run by Irish Americans. As Cermak climbed the local political ladder, the resentment of the Party leadership grew. When the bosses rejected his bid to become the mayoral candidate, Cermak swore revenge. He formed his political army from the non-Irish elements, and even persuaded black politician William L. Dawson to switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party. Dawson later became U.S. Representative (from the 1st District) and soon the most powerful black politician in Illinois. Cermak's political and organizational skills helped create one of the most powerful political organizations of his day. With support from Franklin D. Roosevelt on the national level, Cermak gradually wooed members of Chicago's growing black community into the Democratic fold. Walter Wright, the superintendent of parks and aviation for the city of Chicago, also aided Cermak in stepping into office.
When Cermak challenged the incumbent "Big Bill" Thompson in the 1931 mayor's race, Thompson, representative of Chicago's existing power structure, responded with ethnic slurs:I won't take a back seat to that Bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack or whatever his name is.
Tony, Tony, where's your pushcart at?
Can you picture a World's Fair mayor with a name like that?
Cermak replied, "He doesn't like my name... it's true I didn't come over on the Mayflower, but I came over as soon as I could." It was a sentiment to which ethnic Chicagoans could relate and Thompson's slur largely backfired. The flamboyant Thompson's reputation as a buffoon, the voters' disgust with the corruption of his machine, and his inability or unwillingness to clean up organized crime in Chicago, were cited as major factors in Cermak capturing 58% of the vote in the mayoral election on April 6, 1931. Cermak's victory finished Thompson as a political power and largely ended the Republican Party's power in Chicago; indeed, all the mayors of Chicago since 1931 have been members of the Democratic Party. For nearly his entire administration, Cermak had to deal with a major tax revolt. From 1931 to 1933, the Association of Real Estate Taxpayers mounted a "tax strike." At its height, ARET, which was headed by John M. Pratt and James E. Bistor, had over thirty thousand members. Much to Cermak's dismay, it successfully slowed down the collection of real estate taxes through litigation and promoting refusal to pay. In the meantime, the city found it difficult to pay teachers and maintain services. Cermak was obliged to meet President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt to 'mend fences' and get money to fund essential city services.
While shaking hands with President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt at Bayfront Park in Miami, Florida, on February 15, 1933, Cermak was shot in the lung and mortally wounded when Giuseppe Zangara, who at the time was believed to have been engaged in an attempt to assassinate Roosevelt, hit Cermak instead. At the critical moment, Lilian Cross, a woman standing near Zangara, hit Zangara's arm with her purse and spoiled his aim. In addition to Cermak, Zangara hit four other people, one of whom, Mabel Gill, also died of her injuries. Zangara told the police that he hated rich and powerful people, but not Roosevelt personally. Once at the hospital, Cermak reportedly uttered the line that is engraved on his tomb. Speaking to FDR, Cermak allegedly said: "I'm glad it was me instead of you." The Chicago Tribune reported the quote without attributing it to a witness, and most scholars doubt it was ever said.
Later, rumors circulated that Cermak, not Roosevelt, had been the intended target, as his promise to clean up Chicago's rampant lawlessness posed a threat to Al Capone and the Chicago organized crime syndicate. According to Roosevelt biographer Jean Edward Smith, there is no proof for this theory. One of the first people to suggest the organized crime theory was reporter Walter Winchell, who happened to be in Miami the evening of the shooting. Long-time Chicago newsman Len O'Connor offers a different view of the events surrounding the mayor's assassination. He has written that aldermen "Paddy" Bauler and Charlie Weber informed him that relations between Cermak and FDR were strained because Cermak fought FDR's nomination at the Democratic convention in Chicago. Author Ronald Humble offers another view as to why Cermak was killed. In his book Frank Nitti: The True Story of Chicago's Notorious Enforcer, Humble contends that Cermak was as corrupt as Thompson and that the Chicago Outfit hired Zangara to kill Cermak in retaliation for Cermak's attempt to murder Frank Nitti.
Cermak died at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami on March 6, partly because of his wounds. On March 30, however, his personal physician, Dr. Karl A. Meyer, said that the primary cause of Cermak's death was ulcerative colitis, commenting, "The mayor would have recovered from the bullet wound had it not been for the complication of colitis. The autopsy disclosed the wound had healed ... the other complications were not directly due to the bullet wound."
Cermak was interred in a mausoleum at Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago. The mayor's death was followed by a struggle for succession to his party chairmanship and to the mayor's office. A plaque honoring Cermak still lies at the site of the assassination in Miami's Bayfront Park. It is inscribed with Cermak's alleged words to FDR after he was shot, "I'm glad it was me instead of you." Following Cermak's death, 22nd Street, a major east-west artery that traversed Chicago's West Side and the close-in suburbs of Cicero and Berwyn, areas with a significant Czech population, was renamed Cermak Road. Zangara was electrocuted in Florida's electric chair on March 20, 1933, for he could not be charged with murder until Cermak died. In 1943, a Liberty ship, the SS A. J. Cermak was named in Cermak's honor. It was scrapped in 1964.
Cermak's son-in-law, Otto Kerner Jr., served as the 33rd Governor of Illinois, and as a federal circuit judge. His grandson, Frank J. Jirka, Jr., who was with him in Miami when he was assassinated, later became a highly decorated UDT naval officer. He was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions during the Battle of Iwo Jima; the wounds he suffered led to the amputation of both legs below the knee. After WWII, he became a physician, and in 1983 president of the American Medical Association. Cermak's great niece, Kajon Cermak, is a broadcaster for a Southern California radio station. His daughter Lillian was married to Richey V. Graham who served in the Illinois General Assembly.A hastily produced movie about Cermak, The Man Who Dared, was released within months of his death.
There was a made-for-TV movie, The Gun of Zangara, about Cermak's assassination. It was originally a two-part episode of The Untouchables, where it had the title "The Unhired Assassin." Cermak has a major role in the story as an honest man and was played by Robert Middleton.
Cermak is mentioned in Stephen Sondheim's play Assassins during the song "How I Saved Roosevelt."
Cermak and his rise to the mayoralty has also been mentioned in Jeffrey Archer's novel Kane and Abel.
Part of the episode "Objects in Motion" of the television series Babylon 5 is based on the circumstances of Cermak's death.
Cermak is referenced by Kelsey Grammer's Chicago mayor Tom Kane in several episodes of the Starz TV series Boss.
In "Red Team III," the seventh episode in the second season of HBO's The Newsroom, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) references Anton Cermak.
The history-based crime novel True Detective, the first in Max Allan Collins' Nathan Heller series, includes a fictionalized account of the Cermak slaying.
In the first episode of the second season of the Netflix cartoon sitcom "F is for Family", the fictional school of Anton Cermak Tech is mentioned during a broadcast.