The Most Influential Article the Reader Ever Published
“We learned to live with a petty tyranny that brokered black interests to the consistent disadvantage of blacks and prevented coalitions across class and race – blacks were only blacks. Poles were only Poles.”
—John McKnight, of Northwestern’s Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, quoted by David Moberg, April 8
Chicago nearly elected its first Jewish mayor 28 years ago. This milestone, which the city breezed by in 2011, was nearly reached in 1983, when it would have meant that an overwhelmingly Democratic city elected Republican Bernard Epton because he wasn’t black.
To beat Epton, Harold Washington didn’t need a lot of the white vote, but he needed some, and it wasn’t clear he’d get it. Washington’s race spoke for itself: Epton went after his character. Washington’s law license had once been suspended; he’d done jail time for unpaid taxes. Fear of the unknown hung heavy over Chicago, and white Chicagoans who liked to think of themselves as progressive could be heard defending Epton as the prudent choice. Polls showed him closing on Washington.
On April 8, less than a week before the election, the Reader published David Moberg’s “Guide for the Perplexed.” Moberg’s audience was those white Chicagoans who might vote for Washington yet if only someone calmed them down and talked sense to them. Confronting the character issue, Moberg explained that the tax conviction was a misdemeanor, not a felony, that involved a mere failure to file, not fraud, and Washington’s entire debt came to $508.05. He explained that Washington’s law license was suspended (not taken away), because he hadn’t provided some clients services they’d paid for. But these payments were tiny—$15, $30, $60—and Washington had argued he thought they were down payments from individuals who then decided not to proceed.
At any rate, those stumbles were far in the past. Moberg wrote:
In the years that followed, Washington won numerous awards for legislative excellence. The Sun-Times editorialized in 1974 that “his contributions to the legislature and to his constituents far outweigh personal problems he has had in the past. . . . ” The Tribune in the same year said he had “redeemed himself.” And this was nearly a decade ago, long before he served in the Illinois senate and in Congress.”
Moberg looked back on Epton’s record as a legislator. He said it showed him to be a champion of the insurance industry at the expense of consumers, including home owners who couldn’t get policies written in redlined neighborhoods. But the heart of his article was his description of the tones of the two campaigns.
The contrast between the Washington and Epton campaigns shows up starkly in their visits to white neighborhoods. Not long ago, Bernard Epton visited Club Karlov, a bar at 4058 W. 47th St. in the 12th Ward. There he was greeted by a raucous crowd of about 100 workers for Aloysius Majerczyk, one of the least distinguished members of the City Council, whose main claim to fame is that he was the first alderman to bolt to Epton. Amid the shouts of “Epton for mayor” were insistent cries of “vote proud, vote white.” There was a wide variety of buttons – a yellow one reading “Be a Republican for a Day,” a mouse saying “Hey, Harold” and brandishing a middle finger, a picture of a watermelon with Washington written above it, and the straightforward legend, “Vote for the White Man.”
“We got to have Epton,” one young man insisted urgently. “You can’t have a nigger. He’s illiterate, and that’s it.”
Epton was only slightly more temperate. “When I come out and see my neighbors, my friends, my associates, my colleagues, the people who helped make Chicago great come out in miserable weather like this, all I can say is ‘God bless this wonderful city,'” Epton addressed the crowd. “My opponent goes all over the country. He goes to Los Angeles, to Detroit, to New York talking about what a rotten city this is. On April 12 we’ll send him away from this city for a long time.” The crowd loved it.
Meanwhile, Washington was appearing before a civic group in the 35th Ward.
“This city is run as a closed shop,” he said. “Peple don’t see where the decisions are made. They can’t make their weight felt.” . . .
A young blond man said that people in the neighborhood realize black neighborhoods don’t get their share. Does that mean our neighborhood will get a cutback in services? “No,” Washington said. “Your question goes to the heart of the misconceptions and misunderstandings (about needs and desires of poor neighborhoods). Their cry is not to reduce the quality in other neighborhoods. Their cry is to raise the level in the whole city.”
Will you punish this ward by withholding services if our committeeman goes against you? “A ward is not responsible if it has a knuckle-headed committeeman,” he said, drawing the first hearty laugh of the evening. “I’m not in the business of punishing anybody. I have survived because I am basically and fundamentally a fair person.”
Moberg’s article settled me down, and not only me. Washington wound up with 19 percent of the white vote and a 45,000-vote victory, as 1.3 million Chicagoans, an astonishing 82 percent of the eligible voters, flooded the polls. Would Washington have won without Moberg’s article? I’ve always doubted it.
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“She had sort of been like a little girl who was sitting for 15 years watching her uncles play poker, and they