Lessons from the legacy of Harold Washington

A century after his birth, the legacy of former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington offers much for the city he once governed to celebrate and, looking forward, to contemplate.

Although he is most widely remembered as the city’s first Black mayor, the diverse makeup of the memorial crowd at the Harold Washington Library Center Tuesday symbolized another legacy: the diverse coalition he rallied in order to change not only the city’s mayor, but also its politics .

It wasn’t easy. Winning Chicago’s Democratic mayoral primary was a historic first for a Black man in 1983. Washington’s upset victory in a three-way Democratic primary race against incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and future Mayor Richard M. Daley triggered a racially charged backlash.

Overnight, the city’s moribund Republicans rallied behind a long shot: Bernard Epton, an Illinois House member from Hyde Park. Racial code surfaced most ominously in his campaign’s ads that urged votes for Epton “before it’s too late.”

Even after he won that contentious contest, Washington faced the “Council Wars” from a bloc of 29 mostly white aldermen who blocked his agenda as rigidly as the partisan gridlock that ties up Congress today.

Washington won a second term the following year, but it was cut short in November after a fatal heart attack in his office at age 65.

Yet he left a legacy of other achievements that changed City Hall’s relationship to the city’s neighborhoods.

He mandated government transparency, access and diversity. He created the city’s first Office of Latino Affairs. He opened new opportunities in hiring and appointments for diverse Chicagoans.

He pushed for ethics codes and tenant protection laws as well as collective bargaining rights and opportunities for minority-owned businesses to get their fair share of city contracts.

He also won friends and impressed doubters with economic development and planning initiatives for long-neglected neighborhoods — including, as he proudly pointed out, in areas that had voted against him.

His reputation spread beyond Chicago, as President Barack Obama would attest to years later in accepting the Harold Washington Award from the Congressional Black Caucus. “I originally moved to Chicago,” he said, “in part because of the inspiration of Mayor Washington’s campaign.”

For new generations, Washington offers a model of politics that Otto Von Bismarck famously called “the art of the possible.” That, too, is worth remembering.

Join the discussion on Twitter @chitribopinions and on Facebook.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

Leave a Comment