Like a lot of Chicagoans, I wish Harold Washington could have been around to watch Barack Obama’s inauguration. Without Mayor Washington, there wouldn’t be a President Obama. Washington’s unlikely triumph in the 1983 mayoral race made him the first African-American to run this town, inspiring Obama to move here after he finished college, and changed the landscape for all the black politicians who came after. Thousands of white lifelong Democrats abandoned Washington and voted Republican in 1983 for fear that an independent-minded African-American would hire gangbangers to run the police department. His victory, and the four years he spent in office before dying of a heart attack, forced white voters to at least reconsider their prejudices about blacks with political power. It opened the door to Carol Moseley Braun’s Senate victory in 1992 and Obama’s 12 years later, which launched his national career. Washington was Obama’s role model, as the president himself has said more than once.
I also wish former south-side committeeman James C. “Bull Jive” Taylor could’ve been here. Unlike Washington he was never much of a crusader for black political independence, and I don’t think many people remember him, let alone claim him as a role model. But without Taylor there wouldn’t have been a Mayor Washington. If Taylor hadn’t taken a few swings at him first, Washington might not have been tough enough for the truly daunting task of taking on Mayor Jane Byrne and Cook County state’s attorney Richard M. Daley in the primary.
Don’t get me wrong—if Taylor’d had his way Washington would have been knocked out early on and no one except local history buffs would know his name. A high school dropout from Arkansas, Taylor was a barrel-chested heavyweight boxer before he became a garbage collector and worked his way up the political ranks to 16th Ward committeeman, state rep, state senator, and eventually deputy chief of staff to Byrne (a $70,000-a-year gig—big money back then). In the late 1970s Taylor controlled a political army of up to 400 payrollers, many of them garbage collectors. When Byrne, and mayors Richard J. Daley and Michael Bilandic before her, wanted to quash black independent movements, they turned to Taylor for help.
Washington came up through the machine, but once he dared to run against Bilandic in the 1977 special election to replace the late mayor, Richard J. Daley, it was up to Taylor to put him in his place. Taylor seemed to relish the task. In the 1978 primary he drafted Clarence Barry, an unknown precinct captain who worked in the Mayor’s Office of Citizens’ Complaints, to challenge Washington for state senator. To give his man a little help, Taylor recruited two stalking horse candidates—both conveniently named Washington—and brought out dozens of garbage men to work the precincts. Washington still eked out a victory.
But even after the primary, Taylor wouldn’t concede. He put together an independent political party named—get this—the James C. Taylor Party. It slated Barry as its state senate candidate and made one last effort to keep Washington from reclaiming his state senate seat. Washington won again.
That was the battle that convinced Washington he could never, ever reform the Democratic machine. As he saw it, obvious issues like police brutality and the inequitable distribution of services weren’t the only deal breakers—there was also the demeaning way white political overlords felt free to dictate who would and wouldn’t represent the black community. Washington had watched the first Mayor Daley run a candidate against congressman Ralph Metcalfe as punishment for taking a stand against police brutality, and now the machine had it in for him.
“I’m telling black people today that the Democratic machine in the city of Chicago is racist, and it’s going to stay that way, and you’re not going to reform it because the ingredients of that party are simply not going to let you do it,” he told reporters at a press conference in 1977. “I’m going to run against the machine. I’m going to unfold it. I’m going to pull the cover off it. I’m going to do everything I can conceivably do to awaken black folks inside the media and out as to what’s happening in this town.”
There were other black politicians—alderman William Barnett, committeeman Cecil Partee, congressman Bennett Stewart, even committeeman and future Cook County Board president John Stroger—who battled Washington at one time or another in those early days. But I don’t think he had the enmity for all of them put together that he had for Taylor alone. When Washington was elected mayor he went after Taylor with a vengeance, firing or demoting his top precinct captains from their city jobs, backing candidates to drive Taylor from his state rep seat, calling him a “stooge” and a “hack” and casting him as the epitome of black servility. In the end Taylor couldn’t even hold on to his 16th Ward committeeman seat. By the time he died of a heart attack in 1999, he was driving a cab for a living.
From the time he first ran for the Illinois Senate, Obama was far less combative than Washington—I can’t imagine him calling the Democratic machine racist. But thanks to Washington he never had to.
The current Mayor Daley figured out a thing or two after watching Washington in action. He’s not going to put his black allies in a position where they’re forced to choose him over their communities in any sort of symbolic showdown. He’s careful to avoid riling up black voters with controversial appointments or inflammatory statements—in fact, he’s more likely to play the race card with white opponents, as he did in last year’s fight with Gold Coast residents over relocating the Chicago Children’s Museum. And it’s almost impossible to imagine him directly intervening to topple a black congressman like his father did with Metcalfe. Even when Bobby Rush had the temerity to challenge Daley for mayor in 1999—and get his butt handed to him—Daley stayed out of Rush’s re-election campaign against Obama a year later. Now both Rush and Obama are Daley supporters.
Daley’s black allies—especially the south-and west-side aldermen—have it a lot easier than Taylor did. Because plantation politics are so much subtler now, it’s easier for these pols to bend to the boss even as they promise to stand up to him. Taylor would have never dreamed of criticizing the machine, knowing full well that what the machine giveth it could taketh away. But every year nowadays African-American aldermen loudly vow to get tough with Daley about his administration’s dismal record of awarding contracts to black-owned businesses. And year after year they back down when Daley needs their votes. All the city’s black aldermen, for example, have backed the mayor’s Olympic Village land and funding deals, though only 6 percent of the contracts awarded so far by Chicago 2016 have gone to black-owned firms.
In the weeks leading up to Obama’s inauguration, I heard countless veterans of the civil rights movement say that Martin Luther King Jr. is in heaven beaming down at Obama’s historic achievement. Well, if Taylor and Washington are up there too—if they somehow ended up in the same place—I can’t imagine they’re beaming. More likely they’re talking trash: Washington’s bragging that his man made it to the White House, but Taylor shoots back that his guys still prevail at City Hall.v
Ben Joravsky discusses his columns weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks. And for even more Joravsky, see our blog Clout City.