Harold Washington, mayor of the city of Chicago, on 12/14/86 in Chicago, Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)
CHICAGO – As Chicagoans marked the 30thanniversary of its first African-American mayor, Harold Washington’s, inauguration on April 29, the effects of his rule and the movement that put him in office could still be felt across the country, although rarely celebrated or vaguely remembered on the façades of buildings in the city.
The son of a lawyer and Chicago precinct captain, Washington was essentially born into local politics. But even operating in a political climate harshly adverse to him, he had a strong commitment to fairness and affecting change for the good of all Chicagoans, from the inside out.
Before becoming mayor, Washington served in the Illinois legislature as a congressman and senator. After he unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1977, a group of community organizers who were upset with the rule of then-mayor Jane Byrne asked him to run in 1983. He did so under two conditions: that the group registered 50,000 African-Americans to vote and raised $250,000 for his campaign.
All ethnic groups involved
“It was the first thing Chicago had ever seen like that before. You had all ethnic groups involved,” said Josie Childs, who worked within Washington’s campaign, administration and now leads a local campaign commemorating Washington’s legacy.
The grassroots effort registered more than 100,000 black voters and raised about half a million dollars for Washington’s campaign, “so it almost put Harold in a position that he couldn’t say no,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was part of both of Washington’s campaigns for mayor.
Robert T. Starks, emeritus professor of political science and inner city studies at Northeastern Illinois University notes that now-President “Barack Obama admits that he was inspired to come to Chicago as a result of Harold Washington’s victory, and he came and became a community organizer out in Roseland as a result of the Washington victory.”
Starks is also the chairman of the task force of Black Political Empowerment formed in 1983, when Washington announced that he was running for mayor. According to him, that time instilled a sense of pride into Chicagoans that carried across the United States.
Harold Washington’s blueprint for victory
“A lot of people around the country saw what he did and duplicated it, because this was the most entrenched political machine in the country. Anybody who wanted to run for anything had to bow down to Richard J. Daley. And for Harold to come along and bust that machine open and became a winner was a miracle,” Starks said.
Jackson describes the “political machine,” way Chicago politics ran then after years of control under Mayor Richard J. Daley and Byrne, as a “system that put control and order over creativity and growth.” He recalls, “You could not be a (voting) judge unless a committeeman recommended you. You could not be a police sergeant or captain unless you were politically connected to that machine,” Jackson said. By winning the mayoral race in 1983, Jackson said Washington “broke up machine control. That was a big systemic blow.”
But actually gaining control took time. When Washington was elected, a group of 29 City Council members, the majority, blocked nearly every proposal he presented, but years in, he was able to gain control of the council by “servicing his adversaries,” Jackson said.
Fairness was his hallmark
According to Cook County Clerk David Orr, who was Washington’s vice mayor and part of the coalition of 21 City Council members who supported Washington’s proposals, fairness was his hallmark.
Washington brought a true sense of diversity and opportunity to the city of Chicago, Orr says. “This was the first time there were a lot of African-Americans, Latinos and women appointed to key positions in government. Even though it was only 5.5 years, the successes just kind of go on and on, and yet, they’re missed out there.”
His strong, non-invasive, non-bullying leadership would eventually prevail, gaining his supporting coalition control over the City Council by 1987, just before he passed.
“Against enormous opposition, most of it very serious racial opposition, he was able to do great things for the city. Even kind of a cultural democracy. People voted when he was mayor. People participated. People were listened to,” Orr said.
Chicago becomes an ‘open city’
Known widely as an advocate of reform, Washington would make significant changes in Chicago government. Starks says his most instrumental contribution to Chicago was making it an “open city.” He signed the city’s first Freedom of Information Act. Washington opened the city budget process to allow for public input. He also instituted reform in the Chicago Public School system, creating local school councils that would be responsible for hiring principals, officials and making basic decisions about local education policy.
Additionally, Starks says Washington was the first mayor to make Chicago a “sanctuary city,” allowing undocumented persons to travel to and live in the city without being arrested. He was also an advocate for women’s and gay rights.
But Starks, Orr and other politicos fear that Washington’s life and legacy could be lost in later descriptions of those times. “A lot of people kind of looked at that time as a dark time, as a bad time, and true, there was great political battle, but great political battle was not Harold’s fault. He was seeking change and those who had controlled things before weren’t going to give it up easily,” Orr said.
Harold Washington Day
“A lot of people inside Chicago forget about it,” said Childs about Washington’s legacy. “We were losing it, so I thought we needed to do something to keep it alive.”
According to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who worked with Washington, he offered Chicago inclusion, transparency and reform. “He really changed how people look at city government, and if you were black or brown, you looked at it as more of an inclusive operation. He made a real effort to be more transparent than had been the case in the past,” she said.
Current Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel declared April 15th as Harold Washington Day in the city. “Mayor Washington brought this city together in a broad new coalition that endures to this day because it represented Chicago at its very best. His election as mayor proved the strength of the coalition he forged as well as the moral mettle of this great city,” Emanuel told theGrio.
As he unintentionally ushered in a new era of democracy that would reverberate around the country, Washington held a special place in his heart for Chicago. “He was a mayor who loved the city of Chicago,” said Starks, “and who believed that all people, regardless of race, class and ethnicity, should be involved in the operation of the City of Chicago, and participating in the city.”
article by Renita D. Young via thegrio.com