Remembering the election of Mayor Harold Washington, 35 years later

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Inauguration of Mayor Harold Washington in 1983. | Sun-Times Library

I almost forgot.

April 12, 1983.

Thirty-five years ago, Harold Washington was elected Chicago’s first black mayor. His historic elevation to the 5th floor of City Hall triggered a racial and political earthquake that transformed the city forever.

My memory was abruptly jogged Wednesday when I was invited to come on WBEZ, to talk about Harold on the 35th anniversary.

As far as I know, that radio show was the only acknowledgment of that beloved day.


How could we forget? Yes, many Chicago years have gone by, some turbulent, others vibrant. As the great Studs Terkel opined, we live in “The United States of Amnesia.”

That day changed lives. I grew up in a Chicago where whites wielded power over people of color who were shut out and kept down.

In 1983, I was a young reporter yearning for racial justice in her city. That early spring night, I frantically ran to the old Donnelley Hall, at McCormick Place, to watch Washington declare victory.

“Today Chicago has seen the bright daybreak for this city and perhaps the entire country,” he exhorted the crowd.

I cried that night.

How can we forget that Chicago was, then as now, a fiercely divided city? Washington campaigned on and for equity. He promised access and power to the voiceless.

“No one, but no one in this city, no matter where they live, or how they live, is free from the fairness of our administration,” the mayor declared. “We’ll find you — and be fair to you, wherever you are.”

Imagine a politician saying that now, much less meaning it?

Washington’s remarkable election was powered by a muscular, rainbow coalition that proved that politics could be a potent force for change.

Washington’s election had more impact than any in Chicago since. More than the one that ushered in the 22-year reign of Richard M. Daley. More than the election of Barack Obama, Chicago’s own, as America’s first black president.

More than our current mayor, whose biggest accomplishment has been perfecting the art of spin.

Washington survived a brutally racist campaign and years of Council Wars, a white-led effort to deny a black-led administration the right to govern.

From April 1983 to November 1987, when he was felled by a heart attack, Washington pioneered many progressive initiatives, from school reform, to neighborhood-based economic development, to minority representation in hiring and purchasing.

We have forgotten that black power matters. That April in 1983, 85 percent of registered African Americans turned out and gave Washington more than 99 percent of their votes. That monolithic support was spawned not only by racial pride, but by a demand that they be respected and counted.

We have forgotten how to add. In this multi-racial city, we have forgotten that disciplined, multi-racial coalitions can prevail. Harold Washington’s “new Democratic coalition” was a combine of African-Americans, Latinos and “progressive whites” who found a common cause to beat the Democratic Party machine.

Washington’s coalition disintegrated after his death and was never revived.

We have forgotten Washington’s pivotal lesson: That a city is far richer and stronger when all matter, when everyone participates.

In this perilous age of Trump, it seems we are more worried about navigating the future than learning from the past.

Again, I cry.


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