Remembering Mayor Harold Washington, 30 years later

Thirty years ago this week, Harold Washington was sworn in as Chicago’s first black mayor, so it’s a good time to assess more fully the import of his path-breaking tenure.

His powerful presence on the national stage attracted Barack Obama to Chicago and later provided the young and coming politician with an example of how to navigate some tricky waters.

Washington’s 1983 victory was momentous not just because it marked the election of Chicago’s first black mayor but also because it represented a powerful example of what could be termed “self-help politics.”

Independent of prompting from white political power brokers, the black community decided to run and finance a candidate of its own choice. This gesture of political and economic autonomy was a new one for black Chicagoans, who were more accustomed to patronage politics based on trickle-down favors from the white, primarily Irish-controlled, political machine.

However, the militant voices of the times, plus the political disrespect with which the black community was treated by the administration of Mayor Jane Byrne, fostered a new, militant attitude.

Harold Washington embodied that attitude, as he embraced racial pride as well as reform politics. But he was no naive newcomer to the political game. By that time, he already had served many years as a state legislator and one term as a member of Congress. In fact, he had to be strongly coaxed out of his job in the House of Representatives to mount a mayoral campaign.

He was a unique composite: an intellectual concerned about the life of the mind and a seasoned political operator who had mastered the nuts-and-bolts of precinct politics. Washington also was an effective legislator and a progressive activist with deep connections to grassroots groups.

He managed to unify notoriously divided factions of black Chicago. He also helped bring the city’s feuding Latino groups together. White radicals, progressives and liberal reformers also were attracted to his defiance of the Chicago machine and his promise of transparency. And they appreciated his prominence as a national critic of President Reagan’s conservative course.

Washington’s candidacy used a formula that was part campaign and part crusade. That formula served as templates for the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and informed Obama’s presidential campaign.

During Washington’s four-plus years in office, he put the city’s shaky finances on firm footing. He opened up the contracting process to women and minority-owned businesses, precipitously increasing the participation of black-owned firms. Blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays and others traditionally marginalized groups were given access to City Hall as never before.

On Nov. 25, 1987, he suffered a fatal heart attack at City Hall, and it soon became clear that Washington’s range of talents were hard to duplicate.

But he proved that multiracial coalitions could be politically viable, a lesson that another talented Illinois politician took to heart on the way to the White House.

Salim Muwakkil is a radio and print journalist based in Chicago. He wrote the text for the book “Harold! Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.” Muwakkil can be reached at

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