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The legacy of Harold Washington 30 years after his sudden death

Former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. | Sun-Times Library

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Harold Washington would have been 95 this weekend. Although he died 30 years ago, he left us a legacy.

Washington, the first black mayor in Chicago, permanently changed the balance of power between the races for the better.

He shifted city policies from downtown development and a downtown power elite to a balance with neighborhoods and made room at the table for grass-roots community leaders.


Washington ended the old political machine. But, most importantly, he symbolizes what Chicago can become.

He left “plantation politics” far behind when he led the Black Caucus as a state legislator. He became an outspoken congressman leading the fight against Republican President Ronald Reagan and Reaganomics. Like President Donald Trump’s policies now, Reagan’s were harming the poor and the cities. In Congress, Washington enjoyed fighting the good fight. So he was hesitant to come back to Chicago and run for mayor. But he did, and we are better because of it.

As a candidate and as a mayor he fought against the machine that has governed and choked this city since 1871.

Thousands flocked to support Harold Washington. He was the right man at the right time with the right message.

When he announced his campaign, he declared: “The city that supposedly works, doesn’t. … Chicago is a city divided where

citizens are treated unequally and unfairly. … Instead, I see a Chicago that runs well, but in which services are provided as a right, not as political favors. I see a Chicago of education excellence and equality of treatment … in which jobs and contracts are dispensed fairly … and in which justice rains down like water. I see a Chicago in which the neighborhoods are once again the center of our city, in which businesses boom and provide neighborhood jobs, in which neighbors join together to help govern their neighborhoods and their city.”

That is still our vision for Chicago.

Washington made a true the rainbow coalition manifest in City Hall, and his reform platform is his legacy. To stand for any one reform would have been noble, but he stood for all, and created a movement.

Before Washington, Chicago was governed by patronage, but Washington signed a consent decree outlawing patronage hiring.

Before Washington, you had no right to see the city government documents your tax dollars paid for. But Washington on his first day as mayor issued an Executive Freedom of Information Order and in 1987 passed the city’s first ethics ordinance.

Before Washington there was no affirmative action in city jobs and contracts. We have that today.

Before Washington the city’s infrastructure was falling apart. He passed the largest Neighborhood Bond Ordinance in Chicago’s history to be spent in white as well as minority communities. The entire city benefitted from the infrastructure and economic development in all our neighborhoods.

Despite black control, the city didn’t fall into Lake Michigan, as many whites had feared. Washington proved minorities can rule the city at least as well as whites.

Everybody also now knows that the right charismatic candidate with the right platform and the right coalition of supporters can beat City Hall and be elected.

For Washington and his legacy we have a new challenge. We must elect the right kind of leaders here and across the country so that justice can once again rain down like waters.

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