Remembering Chicago’s first Black mayor on his 100th birthday

The movement did not perish with Harold Washington’s death in 1987. It endures through a rainbow of politicians and activists who are eager to claim his legacy.

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Cook County Circuit Judge Charles E. Freeman swears in Harold Washington as Chicago’s 42nd mayor at Navy Pier on April 29, 1983.

Cook County Circuit Judge Charles E. Freeman swears in Harold Washington as Chicago’s 42nd mayor at Navy Pier on April 29, 1983.

Sun-Times file photo

I write this on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Chicago’s first Black mayor who changed his city forever.

I covered Harold Washington’s 1983 historic mayoral campaign and later served as his deputy press secretary. That was a joy and privilege for a Black girl born and raised on the South Side of Chicago in enclaves where racism ruled.

Before Washington, African Americans, Latinos and poor whites enjoyed little power at City Hall, and even less access to the government resources and opportunities we were entitled to — public safety services, good health care, affordable housing, decent schools and quality parks.

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The concept of racial equity has become de rigueur of late.

In 1983, Washington campaigned on the mantra that race mattered, when most other political “leaders” dare not utter the word.

The brutally racist and oppressive Democratic Party Machine and its acolytes were clueless, and stunned by Washington’s victory.

But by 1983, the seeds of his movement were firmly planted.

“Look at the arc of history,” Marilyn Katz said last week.

Katz, a longtime political activist, formed the media team for Washington’s 1983 campaign. Now president of MK Communications, she and other Washington aides spoke Wednesday at a program at the Union League Club of Chicago.

In the late 1960s, Katz said, “there was something called the Rainbow Coalition, which was made up of all of us who are like 18 years old, doing welfare, organizing, doing organizing in the Hispanic community and in Uptown.”

She noted people like the late Leon Finney Jr. of The Woodlawn Organization, José “Cha Cha” Jiménez of the Young Lords, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Operation Breadbasket were all organizing around issues like the Vietnam War, police brutality, hunger, civil rights, poverty and education. Organizers and activists included the likes of Dovie Thurman, Mary Hockenberry, Conrad Worrill, Bob Starks and Al Raby.

When Katz signed on to the Washington campaign 15 years later, many of the early activists were there. “All the folks that I’d known as a teenager. … all these folks who are now in their 30s and who formed the core of something called PROCAN, the Progressive Chicago-Area Network, and that grouping of Blacks, Hispanics and whites, formed the nucleus of the campaign.”

The rainbow rose again for a man tailored for the moment.

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Washington possessed the right political pedigree. He had served in the Illinois House, was elected to the Illinois Senate and to the U.S. House in 1980.

A progressive Democrat, he was known and respected beyond the boundaries of his 1st Congressional District on the South Side. Washington had earned national attention as a vocal critic of the Reagan administration’s punitive urban policies. He had mounted a previous mayoral run in 1977.

Washington was a trusted ally of gay and lesbian activists, advocates for Latinos and poor whites, labor unions, and organizers in housing, health care and education.

His coalition tied those threads together to uplift Chicagoans who were bone tired of the inequities embedded in the city’s government and politics.

He worked strategically, arguing that Chicago was far richer and stronger when all had access to the corridors of power.

The movement did not perish with Washington’s death in 1987. It endures through a rainbow of politicians and activists who are eager to claim his legacy.

Yet, racial justice remains elusive. The rainbow will someday rise again.

Join Laura Washington and Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times “At the Table,” in a conversation about Harold Washington with civic leader Jacky Grimshaw, former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, former NBC 5 Chicago political reporter Peter Nolan and journalist Gary Rivlin.

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