By Ben Joravsky

There’s a new exhibit honoring Mayor Harold Washington at the DuSable Museum of African-American History, on 57th Street in Washington Park.

It’s nothing fancy, just a replica of his City Hall office, with the red rug, desk, and bookshelves. In the corner on a rack is the raincoat he wore to a groundbreaking ceremony the day he died in 1987. The walls are lined with dozens of plaques and framed or bronzed newspaper articles, all testifying to his life in politics.

“We wanted to give people a sense of the man and of the world he inhabited,” says Ramon Price, DuSable’s curator and, coincidentally, Washington’s half brother. “We wanted some tangible way of capturing his moment in history, as opposed to just putting up a sign that says this is this or that is that.”

So much about city government has changed in the last few years that it sometimes seems Washington’s moment in history was only a dream. Those under 30 for whom the past is fuzzy and inconsequential might find it hard to even imagine a mayor like Washington, so vastly different was he in style, substance, and background from the current officeholder.

The son of a precinct captain (not a mayor), Washington came of age in a world of riots, ghettos, and segregation, a time in which Martin Luther King marched in Chicago for open housing and got hit in the head with a rock. The attitude of Washington’s Democratic Party toward blacks was condescending. They’re lazy, bosses said; if it rains on election day they’ll stay at home. In the election of 1983 Mayor Jane Byrne sent her minions into the projects to pass out hams, confident that was all it took to win the residents’ votes. Washington’s victory in 1983 wasn’t an anointment, blessed by the city’s corporate and political elite; it was a revolution against all of that history, and he knew it.

“We’re going to reach out to [other communities], but this is the base,” he proclaimed to voters at a south-side church. “We don’t have to be ashamed of it. We’ve been through the crucible. We’ve been pushed around, shoved around, beat, murdered, emasculated, literally destroyed. There’s been an unfair distribution of all the goodies. No system works for us. We influence no institutions in this country except our own….But through this struggle we’ve stayed together. We’ve maintained equanimity. We’ve been courageous. We’ve become more understanding. We are humanitarian. We have elevated amazing grace to the level of art and now it’s our turn.”

Such rhetoric inspired blacks and frightened whites. The general election of 1983 was foul, dirty, and mean, as thousands of white Chicagoans rallied behind Bernie Epton, an obscure Hyde Park Republican. “You, a white person, don’t dare walk the streets or drive in the downtown area,” read one anonymously written pamphlet. “Your cars will be stoned. You will be robbed or killed, white women will be raped. With a black police chief, there will be absolute chaos in the city.”

Washington beat Epton by less than 4 percent of the vote, but his campaigning never really ended. A month later Council Wars raged, as a majority faction of aldermen (28 white men and one Puerto Rican) organized by Eddie Vrdolyak banded together to sabotage Washington’s efforts, going so far as to offer suburban Republicans control over O’Hare Field in exchange for a state law preventing Washington from replacing Democratic ward boss Ed Kelly as head of the Chicago Park District.

“I often think about the conflicting feelings and hatred Harold’s election exposed,” says Price. “I know how much hope there was–I worked in the campaign. The rallies we had–artists for Washington, DuSable High graduates for Washington–we had a benefit Redd Foxx appeared at. People came in from all over the country for that campaign. It was so infectious. You’d be finishing up work and somebody would say, ‘Are you going to the rally?’ and I’d say, yeah, and I didn’t know which rally they were talking about–we just had to go. But the other things–the hatred, the fear. They made up so many stories about Harold, they tried to turn him into a demon. I remember going to a bar one night and standing next to a man, and you know how bigots in a bar can come on to you like they want to be your friend. This guy starts in on how he’s got nothing against black people but he knows things about Harold, and the next thing you know he’s talking about me. He starts saying, ‘I know his brother and he’s so and so,’ and I say, ‘Is that so?’ And he says, ‘Oh yes, it’s a fact.’ I often wonder about this hatred. Where does it come from and where has it gone?”

It’s appropriate that Price invokes Washington’s memory by recreating his fifth-floor office in City Hall, since it was his place in that office that inspired so many emotions. The plaques on the wall testify to his long climb. Most of the pre-’83 ones come from black churches or institutions; it’s a little different after he’s elected mayor. Even Polish politicians awarded him a “certificate of appreciation,” for helping enact “legislation designating the first Monday in March General Casimir Pulaski Day.”

Among the newspaper articles is the Tribune’s 1983 editorial “endorsement.” The Tribune bemoans Washington’s lack of substance and the “polarizing effect” of his campaign on Chicago, regrets not being able to endorse Epton (it’s a Republican newspaper, but it doesn’t want to join the bigots), and pats itself on the back for backing a black man (no matter how reluctantly)–as though that were the moral equivalent of riding a freedom bus into Birmingham in 1962.

Next to the Tribune editorial hangs a Sun-Times front page headlined “Harold Again!” The article describes how Washington trounced Vrdolyak by 130,000 votes in 1987’s general election.

Vrdolyak and his aldermanic followers walked away from Council Wars with bigotry’s stain on their reputations; it’s doubtful any could ever be elected to a city office. “People just don’t easily forget,” says Price. “To this day I won’t stand in a room with Vrdolyak, because I remember what he did to my brother and this city.”

But Washington paid a dearer price. “He aged so much in those five years in office,” says Price. “He had the ability to make it seem as though it all just rolled off of him, but I know a lot of it hit hard. He was under a lot of stress. I don’t think Harold ever slept in his bed more than once or twice. He would come home late at night and eat and go to sleep in his La-Z-Boy–that’s where his weight gain really got out of hand. You’d call him late at night and he’d answer the phone. He wasn’t taking care of himself.”

In the corner of the exhibit is a TV screen that plays four short videos about Washington’s life, one a clip of him boisterously enjoying his 1987 victory. “There was a time when you said you came from Chicago and people said ‘Al Capone,'” he tells a cheering crowd. “But now anywhere in the world you go–Egypt, Israel, Rome, Nairobi, Zimbabwe–and you say you’re from Chicago and you know what they say to you? ‘How’s Harold?!'”

Visiting the exhibit may be bittersweet for old-timers. Symbolically, something precious has been lost since Washington died, for whites a healthy flip-flopping of stereotypes. As for the black community, apathy has replaced hope and voters have retreated, their registration and turnout approaching all-time lows. And as ugly as those council wars were, at least aldermen were paying attention to what the mayor was doing. Now those same aldermen, once vocal and bold, are silent as sheep as Daley does almost anything he wants.

The energy is gone from politics. Daley may snap at his critics, but ultimately he plays it safe. When recently asked about segregation in Chicago, Daley replied, “I don’t know why they always say that. In Chicago there is a large number of African-Americans. Is there something wrong with that? I’m very happy that they live here.”

In Daley’s defense it must be noted that his comments were featured in Exito, a Spanish-language paper; it’s possible something was lost in translation. Perhaps he really does know what segregation means and has something intelligent to say about it. Or maybe it’s just his genius to play dumb at the mention of a controversial topic so as not to risk offending anyone. Whatever. Washington would never have gotten away with such a bewildering non sequitur, nor would he have offered one.

“He liked to talk about history. He read all the time, he understood the past,” says Price. “He loved to talk. He liked words for what they did. I once accused him of making up words and he said, ‘Yeah, what’s wrong with that? People know that words are made by man–God doesn’t create words.’

“I know every brother’s proud of his older brother and thinks he’s the best, but Harold really was very special. I don’t want to be one of those old-timers who says things are changing, but they have. When Harold was mayor there was a whole feeling in City Hall where people were smiling and there was a sense of ownership–that was the greatest thing he ever accomplished. That was his legacy. And I don’t think it’s surviving. I’m not saying it’s completely gone, but it’s waning. I know we can’t go back in time, but I’d like to get it back.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ramon Price photo by Karthy Richland.