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.
How 7 fateful days changed Chicago
by: Mark Brown
November 23, 1988
During his 1983 campaign, Harold Washington liked to reassure audiences jokingly that, if he was elected Chicago’s first black mayor, Lake Michigan wouldn’t suddenly dry up nor would Sears Tower come tumbling down.
As the one-year anniversary of his Nov. 25 death approaches, it can be observed with no disrespect that his passing hasn’t brought such calamities either.
Nevertheless, Chicago’s landscape, the political and social variety, has been changed immeasurably by those seven days last fall that shook the city’s foundations.
Do you remember?
It was about 11 a.m. Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, that Washington collapsed while sitting behind his City Hall desk talking to press secretary Alton Miller.
His bodyguards began cardiopulmonary resuscitation almost immediately, and paramedics were on the scene within minutes. But it was painfully evident to those present what the outcome would be.
“While the mayor was still being operated on by the paramedics, the thought went through my mind: It’s all over,” Miller recalled last week from his home, where he is putting the finishing touches on a book about his three years with Washington.
“It’s all over” was more than Miller’s realization that the mayor was dead. It was a foreboding that the coalition Washington had forged would splinter without his strong, charismatic leadership.
The official death pronouncement came at 1:36 p.m. at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. By then, the jockeying among aldermen to choose his replacement was well under way.
Though initial indications were that a special election would be held in 1989, others argued 1991 was proper, a controversy that wasn’t settled until the Illinois Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of 1989.
The next day, while much of the city began a period of mourning, the replacement battle raged full tilt behind the scenes with two black aldermen, Timothy C. Evans (4th) and Eugene Sawyer (6th), emerging as the favorites.
Ald. David D. Orr (49th), becoming a footnote in local history books, took the city’s reins on an interim basis because of his post as vice mayor. The Washington administration, on automatic pilot, went about the business of planning funeral services.
A press conference to reveal those plans provided one of the week’s most poignant moments when Ernest Barefield, the mayor’s usually stoic chief of staff, struggled through tears and trembling sorrow to read an announcement.
“It was probably the hardest day in my entire life,” Barefield said last week from Philadelphia, where he now is a top aide to Mayor Wilson Goode.
He is still struck, as he was in those initial hours, by the “lost opportunity,” and still talks like somebody who wants to come back to Chicago.
“His untimely death just ushered in a tremendous lost opportunity to push a wide range of both existing and emerging agendas,” Barefield said. “I just don’t know how quickly we’ll get back to that point again.”
On Friday and Saturday, more than 125,000 mourners lined up outside City Hall, sometimes waiting in a cold drizzle, to view Washington’s body, which was lying in an open casket in the rotunda.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson jetted back from the Persian Gulf and added more controversy to the replacement fray, exhorting black and Hispanic aldermen to reach consensus. Jackson didn’t state his preference publicly, but his maneuverings, seen as intended to help Evans, provoked a backlash.
As blacks fought among themselves, white aldermen toyed with the idea of electing one of their own, possibly Terry M. Gabinski (32nd) or Richard F. Mell (33rd).
Sunday brought more of the parallel spectacles of church congregations grieving and politicians scheming.
One of the mourners passing through City Hall that day was Robert McClory, a free-lance writer who had been scheduled to meet with the mayor the day he died. McClory, a former Chicago Daily Defender editor who knew Washington from his days in the state Legislature, still doesn’t know why the mayor requested the meeting.
McClory’s initial reaction to Washington’s death was like many others with ties to the mayor.
“It was sort of like the air went out of the balloon,” McClory said. “The fear was that we were going to go back to business as
Many others closely associated with the mayor felt the same, and by Sunday night, they took it as confirmation when a biracial
coalition, composed primarily of white aldermen who had opposed Washington, delivered enough commitments to install Sawyer as the frontrunner to succeed him as mayor.
Monday was the funeral.
Political bigwigs composed the bulk of the 4,000 people who jammed the huge Christ Universal Temple at 11901 S. Ashland to offer songs and tributes, including Jackson’s “We’ll miss you, buddy.”
At a city-sponsored memorial service that night, supporters of Evans used the opportunity to mount a last-ditch campaign to block Sawyer’s expected election at a City Council meeting the next evening.
Jacky Grimshaw, a top political aide to Washington and now for Evans, denies she helped instigate the pro-Evans show.
“I was pretty much home, sedated. I was here under doctor’s orders on Valium,” said Grimshaw, who believes Washington’s coalition will be united again.
Day Seven brought the Council meeting.
As demonstrators packed the Council galleries and adjoining hallways and blocked La Salle Street to demonstrate against his
selection, Sawyer waffled.
But Sawyer’s resolve stiffened, and his election was completed at 4:01 a.m.
He took the oath of office at 4:12 a.m. and vowed that Washington’s reforms “shall remain intact and go forward.”