It was just unofficially Harold Washington week in Chicago as the city celebrated the 100th anniversary of his birth.
That’s right—had Harold lived, he’d have been 100 years old on April 15.
Everywhere I look I see articles proclaiming Harold’s greatness. Oh, if only he had so much support when he was mayor.
Look, I love Mayor Washington. I think he’s the greatest mayor Chicago ever had—I could write a whole column explaining why. Maybe I will someday.
But to read the adulation over Harold’s birthday, you’d forget that half the city lost its mind with fear and hate at the thought of him getting elected mayor. And they fought like hell against him once he was mayor. And then once he was out of office, they did what they could to make sure no one like him got elected again.
But now they love him after he’s been dead for 35 years? Give me a break. I think we can officially add Washington to that list of great Black leaders who are loved only after they’re gone. Right up there with Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, and, of course, Karen Lewis.
If you recall, some Chicagoans hated Martin Luther King so much that someone hit him in the head with a rock when he marched for open housing in 1966. But don’t worry, I’m sure your children will never learn about that in school, if MAGA gets its way and erases racist moments from our history books.
You know, I think I should let go of the jaded skepticism just for this moment and concentrate on being positive in honor of Washington’s birthday. So, back to celebrating Mayor Washington . . .
It’s hard to compare Washington or his mayoral campaign to anything happening in Chicago today.
His election was a one-of-a-kind culmination of a movement that went back to the first Great Migration of Black people to Chicago in the early 1900s.
In particular, Black activists were fired up by controversial appointments then-mayor Jane Byrne made in the years leading up to the 1983 mayoral election.
Byrne had replaced Black people with openly anti-integration white activists on the school board. It was obvious she was trying to build a base of support among white voters on the southwest and northwest sides in anticipation of a showdown with state’s attorney Richard M. Daley, who was also getting ready to run.
Back then I can’t recall any politicos or pundits saying Washington had a chance. He ran for mayor in 1977 and got clobbered. In general, no one in power paid attention to the Black vote. Big mistake.
At the time I was a young writer working for the Chicago Reporter, a newsletter that covered racial issues.
In those days, the Reporter didn’t cover breaking news. We specialized in long-form investigations. But the three-way mayoral primary between Washington, Byrne, and Daley was so hot that publisher John McDermott decided to make an exception.
So he called three reporters into his office—Willie Cole, Laura Washington, and me. He assigned Willie to cover Byrne, Laura to Harold, and I got Daley.
I won’t lie—I envied Laura’s assignment. The Washington campaign was where the fun was at. Laura would regale us with great stories about Harold’s stirring speeches, raucous crowds, and visiting civil rights celebrities. It wasn’t a campaign—it was a movement.
In contrast, Daley was the last train to snoozeville. A boring candidate in a dull campaign run by white guys from Bridgeport (and Michael Scott)—who looked at me like I was a freak. They probably figured I was for Washington because I worked for McDermott, who’d been a civil rights activist. And guess what? They were right!
Against all odds, Washington won that primary, as Daley and Byrne split the white vote. His election night victory party was at the old McCormick Place Inn. As soon as I was done covering the snooze fest at Daley’s gathering, I dashed over to Harold’s party.
Man, that joint was jumping!
This was February 22, 1983. Thriller had recently been released—Michael Jackson was the rage. When I arrived, the first thing I saw was jubilant campaign workers dancing to “Billie Jean.” Only instead of singing “Billie Jean is not my lover,” they were singing “Jane Byrne is not my mayor.”
People were drunk with happiness. Harold had defeated the Machine. Anything seemed possible.
You know, I’d just as soon end this story right there.
I don’t really want to go into all the crap that followed, including the bitter general-election campaign against the Republican, Bernie Epton, with his not-so-subtle appeal to white voters to vote for him “before it’s too late.”
Or the Council Wars, where most of the white alderpersons fell in line with Ed Burke and Ed Vrdolyak to oppose Harold at every step.
Or the sad day in November 1987 when Washington died, just a few months into his second term.
Or the mayoral election of ’89, when corporate and white Chicago rallied around Richard M. Daley and returned that family to power. Apparently, the lesson the powers that be learned from Harold Washington’s movement had nothing to do with battling racism or inequity.
No, the lesson they learned is to never, ever let two well-known white pols run for mayor against just one Black candidate so the white vote gets split. And always, always, always support Richard Daley, no matter how corrupt his regime may be.
Sorry, people. There goes that jaded skepticism again. I promise to have a better attitude—at least for the next few paragraphs . . .
In honor of the great Mayor Washington—and the great movement that carried him into office—I say put on “Billie Jean” and party like it’s 1983. February 22, 1983, to be exact.
The joint’s jumping and everybody’s happy to be alive. Harold beat the Machine—anything seems possible. It happened once—who’s to say it won’t happen again?