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Windy City Honors First Black Mayor

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Windy City Honors First Black Mayor


Windy City Honors First Black Mayor

Windy City Honors First Black Mayor

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This month, Chicago is paying tribute to the city's first black mayor, Harold Washington. Washington died during his second term in office 20 years ago. Farai Chideya considers his legacy with Washington's former deputy press secretary and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura S. Washington.


I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Twenty years ago, Chicago lost one of the city's most beloved mayors, Harold Washington. In 1983, Washington became the first African-American to run the windy city. Washington brought a wave of changes to the city. Under his motto fairer than fair, he increased minority business contracts and opened the Chicago budget process to public input. He was reelected in 1987 but never finished his second term that's because Washington died from a massive heart attack at the age of 65.

The city of Chicago is celebrating Washington's legacy. Here to talk more about the late mayor is Washington's former deputy press secretary, Laura Washington, no relation. Today, Laura is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a professor at DePaul University.


Professor LAURA WASHINGTON (Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times; DePaul University): Hi, Farai.

CHIDEYA: It's great to talk to you. So his win was considered an upset. What was the political and racial climate like in Chicago when he ran for mayor in 1983?

Prof. WASHINGTON: Well, the city has always been very segregated, you know, Farai, and it remains that way today. The Democratic Party establishment, the machine that was established by Richard J. Daley, was in full swing and, basically, was a party of exclusion. Most of the folks that ran the city, most of the mayors that ran the city had been pretty much taking care of business for the white community, and African-Americans and Latinos, in particular, felt really left out of the system.

So when Harold Washington came along, this was actually his second run at the mayor's race. He, I think, responded and struck a chord in these communities to people who sort of like it's our turn. It's our time to get an opportunity to sit in city hall.

CHIDEYA: Now, I understand he didn't get a lot of press. First of all, explain why. And, secondly, if that was the case, what did he use to win?

Prof. WASHINGTON: The media was pretty much tied in to the same old, the way city hall had been running again the Democratic Party establishment. They didn't - most folks - and they covered politics then and even today - are white and didn't have a lot or little bit handle on what was going on in communities of color. So they didn't see Harold Washington coming. He had run before. He was a well established, very popular black congressman on the south side of Chicago. They didn't really know him very well.

There were a couple of other people in the race. One was Mayor Daley's son, Richard, and who's the current mayor - and who is not the current mayor - and Jane Byrne, who was the mayor at the time. And they were really focused on them. It was a three-way race, and Harold Washington snuck up right behind them and came in to win. I think the way he did it was by igniting a movement. There was a lot of unhappiness with the way government had been run, the exclusionary practices of Jane Byrne. So he tapped into that.

I remember sitting down - I covered the mayor in his candidacy before I went to work for him. I remember sitting down with his campaign manager, Al Rabie(ph) and asking, you know, your organization is pretty much nonexistent. You don't have the money. You don't have the staff. You don't have the organization. How do you expect to win? And what Rabie said me is, we're not running a campaign, we're running a movement.

CHIDEYA: Well, he was someone who made it clear that he wanted change. He talked about this in his 1983 victory speech. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of archived speech)

Mr. HAROLD WASHINGTON (Democrat, Former Mayor, Chicago): We fought it with unseasoned weapons…

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. WASHINGTON: …and a phalanx of people who mostly had never been involved in a political campaign before. This has truly been a pilgrimage. I definitely will be moving forward as well, including more people and more kinds of people than any government in the history of Chicago.

CHIDEYA: Now, Chicago has been famous for its patronage system, sometimes decried for its patronage system. When Harold Washington came in, he brought people in but some other people must have had to go. What did that do to the city?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WASHINGTON: It tore the city, and particularly city hall, apart. He declared, the day he was inaugurated, he declared war on the Democratic Party machine. He said, you know, days - work for a day's pay. We're going to bring in new people. We're going to open up the government to the entire city and that was the declaration of war to the machine. So the folks and the machine really dug their heels in and made sure that he couldn't get anything passed. He brought in a lot of new people, but they were mainly through what they call Shakman-exempt positions or political appointments that he had control over.

He couldn't do much about the folks who were there and, of course, the folks who were in the government were sabotaging him left and right, but he was able to - by executive order. He couldn't get anything passed to the city council because he didn't have the majority. The white majority fought him tooth and nail. But he was able to get a lot done through executive orders. And actually, in many ways, just by going directly to some of the white aldermen's constituents, the folks that were not voting on the policies and practices that were going to be good for their community, made sure he got the word out through the media and just on his own to tell them, look, you should talk to your representatives. They're not representing you well.

CHIDEYA: Now, he died from a massive heart attack while sitting at his desk in city hall. He never got to serve out his second term. Some people think there was foul play behind his death. What do you think about that?

Prof. WASHINGTON: Yeah, that's why those old rumors that just won't die even after 20 years. The reason for that is that he, you know, the man was larger than life. He had so much energy. He worked 14 hours a day. He was always on the street. And that morning, the morning he died, he had been out at a groundbreaking, he'd been his usual jolly self. He went back to his office, was sitting and talking to his press secretary and he fell over on the desk. By the time they got him to the hospital, he probably was already dead.

It happened so suddenly. It was such a shock. And because it happened when no one was around, I think it just - there were - it was rife for conspiracy theories that he'd been poisoned, that he'd been assassinated. People just couldn't let go of Harold Washington because he was such an attractive, powerful man. But I don't think there was any truth to that.

CHIDEYA: We're almost out of time. Give me a thought or a sentence on his legacy.

Prof. WASHINGTON: His legacy was equity and fairness and coalition politics, which is something that I think you don't see often enough in American cities today. He realized that addition, it gets you a lot further than subtraction. And he had a lot of success with that.

CHIDEYA: Well, Laura, thank you.

Prof. WASHINGTON: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Laura S. Washington is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a professor at DePaul University. She joined us from our NPR bureau in Chicago.

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