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.' "
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