How Mayor Harold Washington Shaped the City of Chicago

Thirty years after becoming Chicago’s first black mayor, here’s a look at the city Harold Washington took over, and how it had changed by the time he suddenly left.

Photo: chicago tribune file photo

Harold Washington taking the Oath of Office 30 years ago today, on April 29, 1983.

Harold Washington was sworn in as Chicago’s first black mayor 30 years ago today. His impact was outsized for his relatively short tenure. To commemorate the anniversary, I thought I’d pull together some articles that help shed light on his politics, personality, and how his time in office shaped Chicago today.

 

The Elections

Let’s start with Mike Royko’s column, published in the Sun-Times the day after Washington won the contentious Democratic primary in 1983. It includes one of the great ledes in Chicago journalism history—”So I told Uncle Chester: Don’t worry, Harold Washington doesn’t want to marry your sister”—and an apt description of Washington’s empathy:

First, Washington was born in an era when they still lynched people in some parts of the United States. By “lynched,” I mean they took a black man out of his home, put a rope around his neck and murdered him by hanging. Then they went home to bed knowing they were untouchable because the sheriff helped pull the rope. Washington suffered through it. God knows how he did that. I think that most of us–white, privileged, the success road wide open to us–might have turned into haters. Washington didn’t turn into a hater. Instead, he developed a capacity for living with his tormenters and understanding that in the flow of history there are deep valleys and heady peaks.

Winning Chicago’s Democratic primary is tantamount to winning election in normal years, but 1983 was not a normal election. Four years ago, Alex Kotlowitz and WBEZ’s This American Life—which devoted a full-hour show to Washington in 1997—revisited the unlikely, spirited, and (unintentionally?) race-baiting campaign of Bernie Epton, Washington’s Republican rival:

Alex Kotlowitz: This slogan—"before it’s too late"—became infamous, not only in Chicago but around the country. Its meaning seemed transparent, but not to Epton. Epton insisted, both in public and in private, that “before it’s too late” plainly refer to Chicago’s financial problems.

The slogan 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.” Around town, Epton supporters donned various buttons. One depicted a watermelon with a slash through it. Another button had nothing on it at all. It was just white. None of these were being distributed by Upton’s campaign, but it was all being done in his name.

Given that context, it wasn’t surprising that Washington met resistance when he assumed office. Gary Rivlin literally wrote the book on the Council Wars, and in this 1992 excerpt from The Chicago Reader, for whom he reported during Washington’s tenure, he details the lengths to which Harold tried to keep in tact a multi-racial coalition of supporters, and the philosophical divide—still pertinent today, I think—that existed between Chicago’s white and black “reform” communities:

It was as if there were two distinct reform traditions in Chicago, one white and one black. “White” reform was about process and efficiency; open and honest government was its hallmark. This type of reformer was typically liberal and white but not necessarily so; a government based on a corporate model of efficiency was something conservatives could get behind, and black Chicagoans like Bill Ware were also behind this brand of reform. “Black” reform was more expansive. This tradition equated reform with fairness; it was also more political in content. Black reformers weren’t in favor of inefficiency and corruption, of course; but their priorities were different. Government was not merely something to be run efficiently, as the Bill Wares and Marty Obermans would have it, but an engine of change. Redistributing government benefits was just as important as rooting out petty corruption. Where white reform was based in corporate culture, black reform sprang from two traditions, the civil rights movement and the black church.

If there was one overriding resentment among Washington partisans toward these lakefront reformers, it was that they believed theirs was the only legitimate brand of reform … Who’s to say which kind of reform was more important? The Department of Economic Development was shifting the city’s priorities from downtown to the neighborhoods. Was this shift in policy any less worthy a reform than those put forth by the lakefronters? These sorts of philosophical differences were rarely debated, yet they wracked the diverse and unusual coalition allied behind Washington.

David Axelrod, then a green political consultant, was instrumental in Washington’s 1987 reelection. He once called Washington “the most kinetic campaigner and politician that I’ve ever met.” The lessons he learned clearly informed the work he did, decades later, for another ambitious south sider. From Chris Hayes’ 2007 profile in The Nation:

Mayor Washington was extremely popular among the city’s African-American population, and the pettiness of the council wars cemented his support among white liberals, paving the way for his re-election in 1987. “I remember sitting with Harold on the morning after he won the primary,” Axelrod recalls with a wistful smile. “He turned to us and asked, ‘What percentage of the white vote did I get?’ We told him it was 20 percent, and we were happy, because four years earlier he’d gotten only 8 percent.” But Washington pointed out that he’d spent 70 to 80 percent of his time during the campaign in white neighborhoods. “He kind of smiled wanly,” says Axelrod, “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 Legacy

Just months after winning a second term, Washington suffered a massive heart attack and passed away, at the age of 65, sitting at his desk in City Hall. Here’s a great passage on Washington’s funeral, an excerpt from a forthcoming book that Gary Rivlin shared with Chicago last fall.

Before his untimely death, he governed as a populist; his main legacy, according to former Alderman Dick Simpson, was “[opening] the idea of what a progressive city could be … what a regular, hard core, urban-manufacturing city of the old style could actually become.” Washington signed a decree to end patronage hiring, involved citizens in the process of devising budgets and running schools, and focused economic development outward:

Washington’s vision derived from his innate populism. He believed the public could serve as a force for better government, and through neighborhood organizations, community development groups and other grass-roots initiatives actually produce policy and useful services. During his tenure as mayor, local housing and economic development groups came into their own, serving as de facto delegate agencies — “our eyes and ears in the neighborhood,” as he put it. Those community groups could help the city government attend to neighborhood problems such as blighted buildings, a lack of decent affordable housing, and abandoned business strips with an effectiveness simply unachievable by conventional bureaucratic means.

During Washington’s mayoralty, Chicago charted a new path. Neighborhood revitalization moved beyond the slash-and-burn tactics of urban renewal, and Chicago began to re-emerge as a vital city drawing the energies of young people and others who would pioneer a multitude of innovative commercial and artistic enterprises. Chicagoans, as well as commentators across the country, began to notice these changes in the 1990s, but their wellspring was in the 1980s.

In an era when technocrats reign, that approach to public policy has certainly lost traction. Just compare the type of politics we see today against Harold Washington in His Own Words, a set of interview clips with Washington in 1985. Hopefully, it won’t be another 30 years before we see another Chicago pol win office by campaigning on those refreshing, democratic principles.

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