Remembering Harold: A friend mourns

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A man holds a sign to express his feelings as the body of Mayor Harold Washington passes through the community following funeral services. (Sun-Times photo by John H. White)

As the 25th anniversary of Harold Washington’s death approaches this Sunday, November 25, 2012, we’re sharing moments of remembrance all this week. All stories are from the Sun-Times archives. And don’t forget to check out our Harold Washington timeline.

Mourning my friend, Harold Washington

By: Vernon Jarrett

November 24, 1988

This year I shall deliberately alter my script for Thanksgiving Day.

Last Thanksgiving Day, I and most of my friends were practically consumed in reflections on Mayor Harold Washington. His name and face went through our minds without any outside provocation. The shocking news of his death had been flashed to us around the clock by television and radio.

News unbelievable. News unacceptable.

Yet throughout last Thanksgiving Day we had begun to accept the fact that Our Harold, that likable-though-tough political crusader, was actually dead. We had seen replays of his body being rushed to a hospital. Over and over we heard replays of that very specific statement from the hospital by the mayor’s press secretary, Alton Miller. Over and over we heard the man say, “At 1:36 p.m. Mayor Harold. . . . ” Spare me the completion of that sentence.

The stark truth: Harold Washington, first black mayor of Chicago, was dead – dead before he could enjoy just one full term of a City Council where he had a majority vote.

And our dinner-table discussions could not avoid those inevitable questions: “What’s going to happen now?” “Who’s going to take his place?” “Who do you think is going to be the next mayor?” “What are they (the politicians) going to do now that Harold’s gone?” “What’s going to happen to Harold’s Movement?”

The big question was Mayor Washington’s Movement. When that was the only power source that he left behind. In fact, it was the only power source he had when alive. Mayor Washington had not had enough time left from his struggles with the Vrdolyak 29 to establish a visible political machinery that spelled out various levels of command.

He was able to command respect from the established political parties and individual politicians only because he had a grassroots army that judged all officeholders – regardless of race – by their attitudes toward Our Harold . All black public officials, regardless of their private feelings about Mayor Washington, finally got the message and acted and spoke accordingly.

Yet, the first day after Mayor Washington’s death was given to questions, the same questions repeated in different forms at thousands of dinner tables.

But while the general populace was asking questions, there were cagey politicians making plans. Harold Washington died on Nov. 25, 1987, lay in state for four days and nights and was buried on Nov. 30. Hardly more than 24 hours after his burial, a City Council conspiracy was ready to seek revenge against Harold’s People, and before daylight on Dec. 2, it did that that. And they made it official.

That is one reason I was in no mood yesterday to attend all those “official city observances” of the first anniversary of my friend’s death.

I prefer to be in that caravan of cars with lights on that at 11 a.m. Friday will begin a slow memorial drive from the Hayes Labor Center at 49th and Wabash to Oakwood Cemetery, where we’ll lay a wreath at Our Harold’s grave. And I’ll return that night to the Hayes Center for a memorial with real feelings.

Just as on Thanksgiving, on the date of Harold’s death, I prefer to be nobody else but his unquestionable friend.

Moreover, I intend to spend the next few days, through Dec. 1, attending various memorials throughout the South, West and Near North Sides and with many of Harold’s Hispanic friends of old.

There are times when my tolerance for phony mourning of heroes cuts against my sensibilities. This week is one of those times.

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