Harold Washington, then a U.S. congressman, and Danny Davis, then a Chicago alderman, in 1983. Credit: Sun-Times Negative Collection
Harold Washington, then a U.S. congressman, and Danny Davis, then a Chicago alderman, in 1983.Credit: Sun-Times Negative Collection

In 1983, Harold Washington became Chicago’s first black mayor. Washington’s emergence as a political leader was no fluke, but rather, a direct result of the city’s racial tensions and the black community’s struggle for political power and representation. Washington’s roots were deep in the south side, where he grew up and later lived after serving in the U.S. Army and in the Illinois and U.S. House of Representatives. He won the ‘83 Democratic mayoral primary with more than 80 percent of the city’s black vote.

During Washington’s tenure as mayor, he “set a precedence of how such a polarized city could come together for change,” as the DuSable Museum put it. However, just months into his second term in 1987, Washington suffered a fatal heart attack at his city hall desk, leaving the city, and especially the black community, devastated. And in many ways, nearly three decades after Washington’s death, the city is still in mourning. The black community can still feel the pain that lingers in unkept promises, a pain that reverberates in the “16 shots” fired at Laquan McDonald, and in efforts to pressure the city’s current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to resign.

May marks the anniversary of Washington’s second inauguration. To mark that milestone, we consider the parallels between the political climate in Chicago during the 1983 mayoral election and the political climate of today.

This multimedia story features photographs from the Sun-Times archive intercut with excerpts from Chicago Politics: A Theatre of Power (1987) a Super-8mm film by Bill Stamets archived at Media Burn.