Mayor Harold Washington shakes the hands of students at Weber High School. He was there to greet citizens outside Weber for a mayoral forum.
| Sun-Times File Photo

Classic Royko: Give Harold Washington a break

SHARE Classic Royko: Give Harold Washington a break
SHARE Classic Royko: Give Harold Washington a break

Editor’s note: Twenty-one people are running to be the next mayor of Chicago. Some are white, some black, some Latino. Pretty much any one of them could win. It wasn’t always like that. But with the election of Harold Washington on Feb. 22, 1983, things changed. Mike Royko wrote this column for the next morning’s Sun-Times.

So I told Uncle Chester: Don’t worry, Harold Washington doesn’t want to marry your sister.

That might seem like a strange thing to have to tell somebody about the man who will be the next mayor of Chicago. I never had to tell Uncle Chester that Mayor Daley or Mayor Bilandic wouldn’t marry his sister.


On the other hand, no other mayor, in the long and wild-eyed history of Chicago, has had one attribute of Washington.

He’s black. It appears to be a waste of space to bother pointing that out, since every Chicagoan knows it.

But you can’t write about Harold Washington’s victory without taking note of his skin color.

Yes, he is black. And that fact is going to create a deep psychological depression in many of the white ethnic neighborhood people who read this paper in the morning.

Eeek! The next mayor of Chicago is going to be a black man!

Let’s all quiver and quake.

Oh, come on. Let’s all act like sensible, adult human beings.

Let us take note of a few facts about Harold Washington.

First, Washington was born in an era when they still lynched people in some parts of the United States. By “lynched,” I mean they took a black man out of his home, put a rope around his neck, and murdered him by hanging. Then they went home to bed knowing they were untouchable because the sheriff helped pull the rope.

Washington suffered through it. God knows how he did that. I think that most of us — white, privileged, the success road wide open to us — might have turned into haters.

Washington didn’t turn into a hater. Instead, he developed a capacity for living with his tormentors and understanding that in the flow of history there are deep valleys and heady peaks.

He fought in World War II. Yes, blacks did that, although you don’t see them in many John Wayne movies. He went to college and got a degree. Then he went to Northwestern University’s law school, at a time when blacks were as common as alligators there.

Had Washington been white, he would have tied in with a good law firm, sat behind his desk, made a good buck, and today would be playing golf at a private country club.

But for a black man, even one as bright as Washington, an NU law degree meant that he was just about smart enough to handle divorce cases for impoverished blacks.

Being no dummy, he gravitated toward politics. And the Democratic Party. It may have been pseudo-liberal, but the Democratic Party did offer a black lawyer a chance, meager and piddling as it might be.

And he went somewhere. Come on, admit that, at least, even while you brood about a black man becoming your next mayor.

He became a state legislator. Then a United States congressman.

I’m still enough of an idealist to think that most people who become members of Congress are at least a cut or two above the rest of us.

And even his critics say that as a state legislator and as a U.S. congressman, he was pretty good.

So I ask you: If Jane Byrne is qualified to be mayor of Chicago after holding no higher office than city consumer affairs commissioner, what is the rap on Harold Washington?

And I also ask you: If Richard M. Daley is qualified to be mayor after being a state legislator and state’s attorney of Cook County, what is so unthinkable about a man holding the mayor’s office after being a state legislator and a U.S. congressman?

The fact is, Washington’s credentials for this office exceed those of Byrne, Bilandic, Richard J. Daley, Martin Kennelly, Ed Kelly, Anton Cermak and most of the others who had held the office of mayor of Chicago.

Byrne was a minor bureaucrat. Bilandic’s highest office was alderman. Richard J. Daley was the county clerk. Kennelly was a moving company executive. Kelly was a sanitary district payroller. Cermak was a barely literate but street-smart hustler.

All became mayor. And nobody was horrified.

But this morning, the majority of Chicagoans — since this city’s majority is white — are gape-jawed at the prospect of Representative Washington becoming mayor.

Relax, please. At least for the moment. There is time to become tense and angry when he fouls up as mayor — as anybody in that miserable job inevitably will do.

Until he fouls up, though, give him a chance. The man is a United States citizen, with roots deeper than most of us have in this country. He is a 60-year-old Chicagoan who has been in politics and government most of his life.

He is a smart, witty, politically savvy old pro. He is far more understanding of the fears and fantasies of Chicago whites than we are of the frustrations of Chicago blacks.

The city isn’t going to slide into the river. The sun will come up today and tomorrow, and your real estate values won’t collapse. History shows that real estate values in a town like Chicago go up and up, over the long haul, no matter who is mayor.

He’ll fire a police superintendent, hire a new one, and the earth won’t shake under us.

He might hire some jerks. I haven’t seen a mayor who hasn’t. They don’t learn. Two days before Lady Jane was elected, I wrote: “How she does will depend on the kind of people she surrounds herself with.”

She surrounded herself with Charlie Swibel and other bums and got what she deserved.

If Washington is smart, which I think he is, he’ll surround himself with the very best talents and minds available. And they’re available. If not, we’ll survive and we’ll throw him out.

Meanwhile, don’t get hysterical. As I wrote four years ago, if we survived Bilandic, we can survive Jane Byrne.

And if we survived Jane, we easily can survive Harold Washington.

Who knows, we might even wind up liking him.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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