When folks think of African-Americans who broke barriers, Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, and of course Barack Obama come to mind. Harold Washington should as well. was the first black Mayor of Chicago, a revered figure a quarter of a century after his death among African-Americans in Chicago. And gradually, to the white population as well.
Washington had served just over a term in Chicago, representing the same district where Barack Obama lives, not to mention the seat the future President would once seek.
During World War II, Washington was a member of the 1887th Engineerng Batallion, before practicing law. Washington had been an Attorney and Alderman, openly feuding with the Daley administration. By 1964, it was off to Springfield, where he would spend the next 16 years in the Illinois Legislature. His 1980 race for Congress was against Bennet Stewart, who had filled the vacancy caused by the death of Bennett Stewart at the last minute two years earlier. Washington beat him big, but reportedly didn’t agree to run until he knew who his Senate successor would be.
Washington began flirting with the Mayorlty in 1982, amid widespread unhappiness with incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne, the city’s first female Mayor. He told supporters to raise $1 million and register 50,00 voters which, looking at the returns when Washington succeed, proved critical. His theme was “Sunrise” and his chief was David Axelrod, who called Washington “the most kinetic personality I have ever seen.”
In the election, Washington not only faced Byrne, but Richard Daley and two others, before he and Byrne made it to the runoff. He beat her 53-47%, prompting him to declare, “I think we have driven the spike of reform right through the heart of this great city.”
But the Republicans, who theretofore had been a non-entity, would not give up, and he would be aided by many Democrats.
State Senator Bernard Epton was the GOP nominee. Adam Doster, in an article chronicling Washington’s administration, recalled Alex Kotlowitz chronicling Epton’s slogan, “Before It’s Too Late.” Epton denied a racial connotation but “the slogan,” Kotlowitz would write, “set a tone for the campaign—the very tone Epton said he didn’t want. Now, it was going to be whites versus blacks, with Epton as the white savior. And soon, anonymous leaflets popped up in white neighborhoods all over the city. One of them read, “Your vote for Mr. Epton will stop contamination of the city hall by a Mr. Baboon.” Still, many white voters would indeed back Epton and the campaign that ensued would be ugly.
Days before the election, Washington was losing. He joked about writing a book, which he’d call, “Barracudas.” He won. In one of the most famous lines ever uttered by a journalist covering Chicago politics, Mike Royko would write, “So I told Uncle Chester: Don’t worry, Harold Washington doesn’t want to marry your sister.” But before you think his win would make his job easier, think again.
In his inaugural address, Washington proclaimed Chicago as “a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-language city. Neighborhood involvement has to take the place of the ancient, decrepit and creaking machine. City government for once in our lifetime must be made equitable and fair.” That led one supporter to quip that But one supporter would say “it was not a vision that the old white machine, that still held a majority in the City Council, was eager to hear.“
Dorothy Tillman, herself a prominent voice as a third district Alderman would say that speech “created the 29-21 split. A lot of [the white aldermen] were scrambling and running and saying, ‘Uh-oh. Fairness is coming. We’ve got to mobilize.” And the “Vrdolyak 29” (a reference to Edward Vrdolyak, with whom he feuded mightily),was determined to stall his progress and they did, often forcing his appointees to wait a year or longer before getting the job. But Washington pressed forward. And Gary Rivlin would write “It was as if there were two distinct reform traditions in Chicago, one white and one black.
Meanwhile, Washington would not let his eight percent showing among whites from deterring his quest to prove he would be Mayor for everyone. “Race relations,” he said, “should be the topic of the future. Not racism but race relations…No one, but no one, in this city will be safe from my fairness.” That extended to inaugural night when an aide said of the band, “I don’t want Latinos who look white. Understand?” His appointments mirrored the city’s racial compilation.
But first, he had to get started and that would prove more herculean than he could have imagined. Washington said when he got his office and proceeded to look through Byrne’s desk, all he found was a single paper clip. “I sat there for ten minutes,” he said, “and laughed.” City departments were in even worse shape, as longtime employees essentially knew nothing. Rivlin recounted him saying that’s what happens when “you grab the tiger by the tail?” We were like the Sandinistas, rolling into town one day and running the government the next.”
It took time, but he would persevere. But Washington didn’t just want to run government. He wanted better government. For everyone. He wanted to eliminate patronage positions and put qualified people in. He created an Ethics office. Morale was a capstone of that. sought public input on the budget, and encouraged festivals. Neighborhood infrastructure, which meant basic repairs, were addressed and Washington led a move to ensure that, as Mayors would come and go, the city would not return to a racial dominance, as he promoted a redistricting plan for the wards that would elect blacks and Latinos. The same went for minority business contracts. He did a Freedom of Information Act.
Washington’s 1987 re-election race was easier. But not by much. Washington avoided a runoff and won a second term with 53% (“I have a feeling it’s a good thing I got your votes before I sang `Chicago, Chicago,’”, he’d say in his victory speech). But he was disappointed to learn that he had only captured 20% of the white vote. Washington avoided a runoff to win a second term with 53%.
Axelrod, who again played a role, recounted Washington was upset because he had spent 80% in white areas. “He kind of smiled wanly and said, ‘Ain’t it a bitch to be a black man in the land of the free and the home of the brave,’ and then he went out to give one of the most joyous and rollicking and brilliant press conferences I’d ever seen.”
The makeup of his council was more favorable. But it would be short lived. The day before Thanksgiving, while sitting at his desk meeting with his press secretary, Washington suffered a massive heart attack. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful. Earlier in the day, he was at the groundbreaking of a low income housing project.He was 65.
The Chicago Tribune wrote that “he embodied the hopes and dreams of those who had twice elected him to office. When the news broke that the mayor had fallen ill, the day before Thanksgiving, residents of the South and West Side spontaneously gathered in Daley Center Plaza. More than 4,000 people an hour filed past the coffin.”
Roosevelt University Political Science Professor Paul Green said “There has never been an African-American politician in the city, including Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson Jr., to capture a moment in a phrase or feeling the way Washington could. He invented words — “hocus pocus dominocus” — but he said them so well. He had that personality, bigger than life. The man was brilliant.”
The barriers Harold Washington broke were tremendous. And the city he left behind is by far a better place.