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Saturday, November 25, 2017

A legacy that still shines

    I never laid eyes on Harold Washington. When he died, I had been on staff at the paper eight months, but had spent that time putting out The Adviser, a weekly publication that told readers how to clean their garages and get Japanese beetles off their lawn. Nevertheless, 25 years later, I was asked to assess his legacy.

     Chicago wanted Harold, and Chicago got him, though nobody realized for how brief a time.
     Harold Washington, the beloved, the first and only, larger than life, abruptly entered death on Nov. 25, 1987—exactly 25 years ago Sunday, a span that will catch many Chicagoans by surprise, and perhaps remind them of their own uncertain date with mortality, and of course bring back a dynamic chapter in Chicago political history remembered by all, cherished by many.
     "I miss him terribly, and I think about him every day in one way or another," said Timothy Evans, now chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court, but alderman for the 4th Ward during Washington's administration and his floor leader in the council. "There was certainly a huge sense of loss. The possibility of someone that brilliant and that committed to fairness, and that committed to all communities — who seemed to be the right job for the right man for the right time — and to have that taken away when the city seemed to need him most, was something I think affected people greatly."
      Even 25 years after his death, Washington still inspires a fervent reverence.
     "Harold Washington will go down in history as one of the most, if not the most, impactful mayor in the history of Chicago," said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Chicago), an alderman when Washington was in office. "Because Harold was a visionary. He understood not only the problems that the city was confronted with, but the potential of everyday, ordinary Chicagoans that was not remotely achieved by other mayors. Harold built a coalition that completely exploded the opinion that Chicago ain't ready for reform, and built a coalition that did in fact reform Chicago. He made patronage a bygone word in this city."
     For a city that had elected 40 white men and one white woman mayor over the previous 146 years to finally put a black man in City Hall was an occasion for joy for many.
     "With blacks it was a question of group esteem," said Paul Green, professor of political science at Roosevelt University. "When Harold Washington became the first black mayor, that created an enormous sense of pride, among black people and also Hispanics, and also among good-thinking white people. He had a real deep-seated visceral impact."
     Those who had been frozen out of power delighted in having a mayor who spoke for them.
     "We are a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-language city," Washington said in his first inaugural address. "Neighborhood involvement has to take the place of the ancient, decrepit and creaking machine. City government for once in our lifetime must be made equitable and fair."
     It was not a vision that the old white machine, that still held a majority in the City Council, was eager to hear.
     "That speech that day created the 29-21 [split in the council]," said Dorothy Tillman, then alderman of the 3rd Ward, on the 10th anniversary of Washington's death. "A lot of [the white aldermen] were scrambling and running and saying, 'Uh-oh. Fairness is coming. We've got to mobilize.' "
     'Power-based' opposition
     Mobilize they did. The "Vrdolyak 29" coalesced against Washington; some of his appointees could not be seated for months, even years.
     "I think much of the opposition was power-based and not racially based," said Evans. "Maybe some people mentioned race as a way of marginalizing Harold. But I think the real issue was power, not race."
     Either way, Washington had difficulty matching his success at winning office with success at running the city.
     "Harold Washington, in my opinion, has to be divided into two parts," said Green. "Harold Washington the politician was absolutely brilliant, with the ability to win what I have called the mother of all primaries in 1983 against Richard Daley and Jane Byrne. We'll never have another cast like that, with a supporting cast like Ed Vrdolyak and Ed Burke, it was a rendezvous of sluggers."
     But as mayor, despite the praise of admirers, Washington was often thwarted, not only by local enemies, but by national trends.
     "He was mayor of a big city during the Reagan administration," Green said. "Anyone would have had problems. There was so little he could do, even if he had control of the council. Money was tight. The Republicans also controlled Springfield. And even when he got control, the legacy of Council Wars was there."
     After succeeding in breaking the deadlock in 1987, Washington's death seven months later left a void that the African-American community clutched at for years, assuming that a replacement would be found, that fairness demanded a return to the mayor's office they had won. Instead they were left with enticing might-have-beens.
     "He didn't live long enough as mayor, he didn't have enough time, for his vision to take root in its totality," said Rush. "Had Harold lived, you would have seen more stable communities throughout the city, rather than just having central pockets of affluence."
     "He had a style all his own," said Green. "There has never been an African-American politician in the city, including Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson Jr., to capture a moment in a phrase or feeling the way Washington could. He invented words—"hocus pocus dominocus"—but he said them so well. He had that personality, bigger than life. The man was brilliant."
     "His legacy is alive today," said Rush, "because it's the only legacy that makes sense. Richard Michael Daley borrowed immensely from the Harold playbook. Rahm Emanuel is today using Harold Washington's playbook in terms of trying to rekindle and reconnect that coalition that really represents that city as its best. President Obama right now is trying to govern using the Harold Washington playbook."
     "He was a forerunner of what would happen," said Green. "Illinois gets a lot of heat for its corruption, and Chicago's racism, but in reality, if you look at African-American leadership over the past 25 years, it's all come from Chicago. That is his greatest legacy. He begot Carol Moseley Braun for Senate. He helped create the image of Barack Obama. People forget that Cecil Partee was head of the Illinois Senate in the 1970s. The party was always crucial, and Harold Washington bled Democratic blue. He and people like Emil Jones, John Stroger, Wilson Frost - they assumed real power, and Washington was the personification of that. That's his legacy. He was the first. That to me is tremendous. A lot of people followed him, but there is only one Harold Washington."
     Evans, who was with Washington the day he died, dedicating new housing in Evans' ward, remembers traveling to China with the mayor, on their way to establish a sister city.
     "We got to Beijing, we saw how they had entombed Mao," Evans said. "We were on the square, and he said, 'We see how China's leader was remembered — I wonder how I will be remembered?' I think he'd be thrilled to know that people remember him in commitments to education — Harold Washington College; he was always committed to education as being the path to improvement in every community. The world-class library named after Harold Washington. He knew a new library was coming. He just didn't know it was going to be named after him. I think he'd like to be remembered that way."

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 23, 2012


  1. That is his greatest legacy. He begot Carol Moseley Braun for Senate.

    Hmmmm...not a legacy I'd be particularly proud of.

    But what I admire most about Washington is that when he was faced with the Vrdolyak 29, he didn't get mad--he got busy. He put together a political coalition that crushed the opposition and left him free to work his will. It's such a shame he died before he had the chance to make a real, lasting difference in Chicago.

    1. A "fervent reverence" indeed. Hundreds of thousands of those whom he spoke ofr (and to) waited to pass his open casket. The line stretched around the outside of City Hall. Each mourner got a viewing of perhaps fifteen or twenty seconds. Being a born-and-raised Chicagoan, I walked out of the building and went right back to the end of the line for a second look. Early and often.

      I consider myself fortunate to have been a city resident during his time in office, and to have been able to vote for him. I still have his campaign buttons and posters. Mayor Washington was getting out of his limo, flanked by his bodyguards, on the Saturday morning I arrived at City Hall to be married. I wanted him to pose with us for a picture, but I didn't have the guts to ask. I just said hello and moved on. Two months later, I was standing in that long sad line, in the same spot. Do it now--you may never get another chance.

  2. His greatest legacy is "if you look at African American leadership in the last 25 years it's all come from Chicago".
    While this includes Ms. Braun it is not Ms. Braun in particular that is his greatest legacy. Though flawed as a politician she as the first African American in the senate and first female elected senator from Illinois deserves a place in the list of African Americans that can thank Harold for helping to propel them into leadership roles in america. And of that overall I'm sure Harold would be proud.

  3. At the time I was disappointed Mayor Washington didn't support the movement to have Chicago host a future Olympic Game in Chicago. In particular as homage to former Olympians like Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe and their ties to Chicago. Given the high casts the host city typically pays, in retrospect it was probably for the best.

    1. Given the high casts the host city typically pays, in retrospect it was probably for the best.

      I couldn't agree more. The Olympics are the very definition of "white elephant." There's a reason they're now mostly held in dictatorships (which, come to think of it, is a definition that pretty much fits Chicago).

    2. We never got the Olympics, and we didn't get another World's Fair in 1992, either. The proposal began in 1982 on Jane Byrne's watch, and died in 1985, while Washington was in office. It would have probably been the biggest and most expensive "white elephant" of them all. World's Fairs appear to have gone to the white elephant graveyard in the U.S. There haven't been any here since Knoxville in '82 and New Orleans in '84, neither of which were much. But I'm sure Chicago's would have been quite a deal. Both my parents fondly recalled going to the 1933-34 Century of Progress as teen-agers.

      And it would have been our third such extravganza, something no American city has ever had. Not even New York (1939-40 and 1964-65) or San Francisco (1915 and 1939-40) can boast of more than two. Would Chicago have added yet another star to its city flag? Two of those four stars represent our own two fairs (1893 and 1933-34). Would I have been there to see Mayor Washington, in his third term, proudly snip the ribbon on Opening Day? Probably. The world is so full of "what-ifs"...


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