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...a man from Hyde Park made history by winning an election over a politically experienced woman and the scion of a political dynasty.

That man's name was Harold Washington.  I lived in his neighborhood, and though I appreciated the historical nature of his win at the time, it was in the months and years that followed that I realized the full significance of his achievement.

Harold Washington won election to the House of Representatives (IL-01) in 1980.  He had reached the apex of a black politician's career in the state of Illinois.  Illinois (and Chicago in particular) did not lack for black politicians, but you could not do better than representing the First District for the predominately African-American South Side.  Notable representatives from the past included Oscar De Priest in the 1930s and William Dawson from World War II to his death in 1970.  Illinois's African-American congressmen accomplished some important things (De Priest, for example, wrote an amendment that made certain the Civilian Conservation Corps would not discriminate based on race, and Dawson stymied the Winstead Amendment which would have allowed military personnel to opt out of serving in racially integrated units during World War II), but could not -- or would not -- challenge the white power structure that made racial discrimination a fact of life in Chicago, least of all the mayors -- the invariably white, usually Irish, always Democratic mayors.

Chicago's last Republican mayor, Big Bill Thompson, lost his re-election bid in 1931 in a virulently racist campaign.  Democrats used inflammatory anti-African-American rhetoric (Thompson, it was alleged in pamphlets featuring racist caricatures, would give all patronage jobs to blacks and allow them to run rampant over the city just as he allowed Al Capone and his thugs free reign) to spur recent immigrant voter blocs to the polls and elect Anton Cermak.  Thompson gave as good as he got, making it easier for Croats, Lithuanians, Hungarians, and Poles to vote Democratic by his mocking Cermak as "Pushcart Tony" who would take all the patronage jobs and put them in his "Bohunk" supporters' hands.  It was an ugly time in Chicago, pitting recent European immigrants against African-Americans at the polls, just as employers, real estate agents, and landlords had pitted those factions against one another since the late nineteenth century.

Cermak began an unbroken line of Democratic mayors, mayors whose patronage powers grew from the funding provided during and after FDR's New Deal and could spread the wealthy sufficiently to end two-party politics in the city with promises of jobs and services.  Though black Chicagoans became consistent Democratic voters during Ed Kelly's administration (Kelly succeeded Cermak after the mayor was shot by an assassin in 1933), there was always an uneasy tension between the white politicians who ran the town and the African-American citizens who grew in ranks between World War One and the 1960s, but often received brutal treatment at the hands of the police, police who often did not enforce industrial zoning laws or dumping laws on the South and West Sides.  In the winters, snow would pile up south of Bridgeport and north of Hyde Park while white neighborhoods saw plows clear access to the main roads with regularity.  These inequalities were rarely remarked upon outside of the pages of the Chicago Defender, except when tensions flared.

Under Mayor Richard J. Daley, those tensions rose during the 1960s, with commissions investigating police brutality, the effects of new highway and housing projects that physically isolated the "Black Belts" on the south and west sides, the 1966 standoff with Martin Luther King's SCLC (a failed attempt to challenge Chicago's residential segregation met with such hostility that Ralph Abernathy later remarked that the SCLC had received a worse reception in Chicago than they had in the South), and the violence of 1968 after King's assassination and during the Democratic National Convention.  Chicago was clearly two cities: one white, controlled by the mayor who had vast authority on how federal, state, and municipal resources were used, and one black, featuring a large population feeling increasingly disenfranchised over time.  African-American commentators, columnists, and leaders such as Jesse Jackson, Lu Palmer, and Vernon Jarrett grew increasingly disgusted with the state of affairs in Chicago.  Despite growing discontent amongst African Americans (not to mention many other Chicagoans after the 1968 Democratic convention), Daley was Mayor for Life.

By the winter of 1983, Chicagoans' discontent grew with politics as usual.  "As usual" was machine politics of the type that Daley had used for twenty years to build one of the great municipal empires in American urban history.  Daley, though, had been dead for more than six years in February 1983.  His successors had been found wanting by many Chicagoans.  Michael Bilandic won the first popular election after Daley's death, but he is most vividly remembered for his slow, inadequate response to the Blizzard of '79, which left the city snowbound.  That breakdown in city services opened the door for the first successful challenge to an incumbent mayor since Daley forced his way to power a quarter century earlier.  It also led to history:  Jane Byrne beat Bilandic in the 1979 primary, becoming the first woman to lead the city.  Though that breakthrough made headlines, it didn't produce much of a change in policy.  After four years her most notable accomplishments seemed to be throwing Chicagofest every summer, allowing John Landis free reign to shoot The Blues Brothers anywhere and everywhere he wished, and moving herself into the Cabrini-Green housing projects with a massive security detail in the summer of 1981.  Racial inequities in city services and city hiring continued; Jesse Jackson led protests against Byrne's Chicagofest because of the hiring disparities, inspiring Stevie Wonder to cancel his appearance at the festival.  Black Chicago was not happy with Jane Byrne; white Chicago was not terribly impressed with her either.  Sensing the opportunity to unseat the incumbent in consecutive elections, two Democrats challenged the mayor in the primary.

One had a name that every Chicagoan knew: Richard M. Daley.  Richard J. Daley, a man so beloved that long after his heart stopped beating in his doctor's office in late 1976, doctors furiously worked to revive him, had left his name and speaking style to his son, now Cook County State's Attorney.  Though Byrne was the incumbent, Daley was a Daley.  If you listened to WGN or read the Tribune, you would assume that the battle to be mayor would be decided between these two Irish-American pols.  

But Byrne and Daley were not the only candidates.  Rep. Washington, prompted by those like Lu Palmer and Vernon Jarrett who thought he could win, threw his hat into the ring as well.  His campaign depended upon his supporters organizing a grassroots voter registration drive to bring over 100,000 disaffected Chicagoans into the political process.  Washington's speeches spoke to these citizens in ways no mayor ever had.  Spoke for these citizens as well, demanding equal treatment 15 years after Martin Luther King had died.

Why hadn't it happened earlier?  Chicago had been home to a large African-American population since World War One, but internal divisions and pessimism meant that many people did not participate in electoral politics.  Washington reached out to the disaffected.  Together, we can make a difference.  In 1983, he made people who had never voted think -- no, hope -- that their actions could actually matter.  The efforts, described in detail in William Grimshaw's book Bitter Fruit, didn't receive much attention outside of the African-American community.  But they paid off.

The night of the primary, Washington and his supporters shocked the city.  When the votes were counted, Byrne and Daley had split the white vote almost down the middle, and Washington had earned a four-point victory over Jane Byrne.  Richard M. Daley placed third, a couple points behind Byrne.

Few in the media saw this coming.  Those who did had paid attention to the voter registration drives on the south and west sides -- or in the case of Lu Palmer, was an active participant in those drives.  Hard work on the ground -- and a collective believe among many that for the first time, they had the power to improve their city -- propelled Harold Washington to the Democratic nomination 25 years ago.

That hard work brought him to the mayor's office a couple of months later.  A virulently racist general election campaign followed the primary win.  Suddenly for the first time in half a century, a general election in Chicago actually meant something.  Most white voters in the city lined up to support Republican Bernard Epton, giving the Chicago Republican Party its best showing in a mayor's race since the days of Al Capone.  In the end, though, Harold Washington continued Democratic dominance of the mayor's office, winning both in the spring of 1983 and (despite gridlock with a racially antagonistic city council preventing progress on many issues) a second term four years later -- with a working majority in council.  Sadly he died of a heart attack a few months into his second term. But before he went, he managed city services and hiring practices in a way his predecessors never had.  A more equitable day had dawned in Chicago after February 22, 1983.  Even today, former opponent Richard M. Daley has taken far greater steps to spread city resources amongst all Chicagoans than his father ever did.  Perhaps the younger Daley learned from Washington that such actions were good politics.  Or perhaps he had learned from the coalition that brought Washington to power that a mayor had to respect all Chicagoans to ascend to -- and stay in -- power.  Whatever the lesson learned, something changed for the better -- and for good -- in Chicago after February 22, 1983.

I have written before about how Barack Obama walks in the footsteps of Harold Washington.  The senator himself has said he moved to Chicago because of what the mayor accomplished there; while pundits note the legacies of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King in Obama's rhetoric, they fail to realize the importance of this other historical figure.  But without Harold Washington's voter registration drives, do we see the grassroots Obama campaign's phonebanking?  Without Harold Washington's attempts to provide city services to all Chicagoans (regardless of color or of neighborhood), do we see Obama's call to end the divisive politics of fear?  Maybe we might, but Washington -- though a different man and a different politician -- laid some important groundwork for Barack Obama.

Barack Obama has already amassed a coalition far greater in size and scope than Harold Washington ever achieved.  At his political apex in 1987, Harold Washington still badly lost the white vote in Chicago.  What we are seeing today is unprecedented -- not just because Barack Obama is the first politician of African heritage to get this close to the presidency, but because his coalition is this broad.

There is one precident: Barack Obama's coalition that won the Senate primary in 2004 over Dan Hynes, Blair Hull, and a few other candidates.  Obama won more than 50% of Illinois's Democratic voters in a seven-way race.  Harold Washington's 1983 primary win was a narrow plurality over two white opponents; Carol Moseley Braun's 1992 primary win was similar.  The 2004 primary was an entirely new game, and the current campaign resembles it more than any race Harold Washington won.  It is possible that there was something different about the candidate.  Alternately, perhaps the times had changed.  The example Chicago's first African-American mayor set while in office may have shaken some minds from their racist beliefs enough to consider a man like Barack Obama when he sought to represent all from Illinois, and all from the United States.

This diary is the image I have in my mind of Harold Washington's achievements, but I can offer better than these words.  Hear the late mayor -- and the people who knew him -- yourself.  On the tenth anniversary of Harold Washington's death, This American Life ran a long story on how Chicagoans remembered their late mayor.  Last fall, TAL ran an updated edition of the piece.  Listen to it.  Listen to the passion, humor, and wisdom of Harold Washington.  Hear the memories of many of the people who helped bring him to power.  One quarter century ago today, Harold Washington and the people of Chicago made history.  Today, let history remember Harold Washington, and remember him fondly.

[Portions of this diary were adapted from the diary I published on the anniversary of Harold Washington's death in November.  I include them here to remember the man on a happier anniversary in his life.]

Originally posted to Nuisance Industry on Fri Feb 22, 2008 at 05:50 AM PST.

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