By Contributor on May 03, 2013

By Salim Muwakkil

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 pmproj@progressive.org.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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