Remembering Harold Washington

Gary Rivlin, author of Fire on the Prairie: Harold Washington, Chicago Politics, and the Roots of the Obama Presidency, reflects back on Chicago’s first black mayor on the anniversary of his passing.

He was the first black mayor of Chicago, a city whose black populace had endured innumerable indignities at the hands of its fabled political machine. Yet to sum up Harold Washington as a racial pioneer and little more is to diminish the man and all that he accomplished. Behind him amassed a multiracial coalition consisting of blacks of all political stripes along with white progressives, Latinos, Asians, and gays, all organized around progressive totems like affordable housing and a more equitable distribution of city resources. Jesse Jackson would get his political start in Chicago; so, too, would a young community organizer named Barack Obama, who found inspiration in Washington. For decades anti-machine crusaders had tried but failed to reform. But even today Washington, who served during the 1980s, still looms as a before-and-after figure in the city’s history. Under Washington, Chicago saw the implementation of any number of good-government reforms, from the freedom-of-information act he signed to the steps he took to tame a bloated, inefficient city budget. He opened up the contracting process to women- and minority-owned businesses, shifted the focus of economic development from downtown to the neighborhoods, and gave voice to Latinos, gays, and other Chicagoans long locked out of City Hall.

Harold Washington died 25 years ago yesterday. His death represents one of those where-were-you-when-you-heard the news moments, at least for Chicagoans of a certain age.  Me, I was in my car, listening to NPR on my way home from some last minute Thanksgiving shopping. There was something strange about how the world learned the news: from Tom Bradley’s office, in Los Angeles, which had sent out a press release offering the mayor’s condolences. I was a staff writer for the city’s alternative weekly, the Chicago Reader, and I nosed around in search of an explanation. It turns out that allies of Washington were keeping the lid on the news of the mayor’s death until their preferred successor could make it to the hospital, where he would appear with the doctors in a press conference. Meanwhile, word of Washington’s passing had spread among a small fraternity of black mayors of large cities. Putting the kibosh on tragic news for political reasons; It was quintessential Chicago.

Like a lot of Chicagoans, I was crushed by the news of Washington’s death. I was sad for myself, no doubt. I had just done the first of what was supposed to be a series of interviews with him: about his life and his time as mayor for the book that eventually would be called Fire on the Prairie. From my narrow perspective, I’d be denied the pleasure of spending time with an interesting and larger-than-life figure. But mainly I was crushed by what it meant for the city and the movement I believed in. Imagine the fierceness of the legislative opposition Barack Obama faced in the last two years of his first term: that was nothing compared to the nastiness and resistance that confronted Washington at every turn through his first few years in office.  Finally, he consolidated his power with his election to a second term. But then six months later, he would be dead and the multiracial progressive coalition that had assembled behind him fell apart.  Within a few years, again Chicago would be run by a Daley.

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