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Harold Washington’s legacy matters more than ever in these troubled times

Chicago was devastated by the death of the city’s first Black mayor, whose reform agenda changed this deeply segregated city. His story is told in the documentary “Punch 9 for Harold Washington.”

Mayor Harold Washington at Weber High School, where he greeted Chicagoans before a mayoral forum.
Mayor Harold Washington at Weber High School, where he greeted Chicagoans before a mayoral forum.
Sun-Times archive

This is the season when luscious turkey leftovers beckon. I look ahead with sugarplum anticipation, but also with melancholy, as Harold Washington’s memory brings a perennial tear in my eye.

Chicago’s greatest mayor died suddenly, on Nov. 25, 1987, the day before Thanksgiving.

As a cub reporter, I covered Washington’s 1983 mayoral campaign. I was later privileged to serve as deputy press secretary to Chicago’s first Black mayor.

Washington’s irrepressible charisma, boundless energy and keen political instincts inspired and empowered the voiceless. He is sorely missed, 34 years beyond a too-soon demise, especially in this time of racial reckoning.

To Harold Washington, race always mattered. Decades before the “Black Lives Matter” battle cry, racial justice forged his political career and campaign for change.

What has race got to do with it? He would ask and demand answers. Washington governed on a platform of racial equity long before most other politicians would even acknowledge, much less embrace it.

Washington prevailed over “the 29,” the racist and venal City Council cabal that viciously opposed him for three years. He won control of the Council but died just months after he won reelection.

Washington always said he would be mayor for the next 20 years.

Chicago was devastated. For three days that bleak November, thousands waited in the cold to pay their respects as Washington’s body lay in state at City Hall.

Then, we mourned what was not to be. Today, we celebrate what is.

Washington’s reform agenda changed this deeply segregated and oppressed city forever.

Like all politicians, he made many promises on the campaign trail. The one that mattered most was one he assiduously kept:

“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,” he would declare. “We’ll find you, and be fair to you, wherever you are!”

Harold found us. His administration pioneered laws and policies promoting government transparency and access. He appointed an abundance of people of color, women and LGBT people to leadership positions.

He mandated equal distribution of city services, infrastructure projects and grants to community organizations. His economic development and planning initiatives lifted long-neglected neighborhoods. Washington spearheaded ethics and tenant protection laws, collective bargaining rights and helped minority-owned businesses get their fair share of city contracts.

He was a brilliant political tactician, a policy maven and a voracious bookworm. He wooed Chicago with his charisma and fighting spirit.

That story is memorialized in the new documentary, “Punch 9 for Harold Washington.” It chronicles his rise to City Hall. When I caught it last week, the tears flowed once again.

The feature-length documentary is a masterful quilt of storytelling, historic videos and photos and the bright voices of that era.

It reminds us that Washington was the first reform mayor who genuinely beat the notorious Democratic Party Machine. He inspired voters to believe change could happen and that democracy was real. He laid the political way for the nation’s first Black president.

Barack Obama moved to Chicago in 1985, in part, because Washington was here. “For those of you who recall that era and recall Chicago at that time, it’s hard to forget the sense of possibility that he sparked in people,” he once told the Congressional Black Caucus.

The documentary has been shown at film festivals in Chicago and New York City. Its director, Joe Winston, is seeking a distributor for a wide release.

In these times, the Washington legacy matters more than ever.

For more on “Punch 9,” go to punch9movie.com.

Laura Washington is a columnist for the Sun-Times and a political analyst for ABC-7. Follow her on Twitter @mediadervish

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