The Legacy of Chicago's Harold Washington

Nearly 20 years ago, Harold Washington died suddenly, shortly after giving his last scheduled news conference as mayor of Chicago. He was one of the first black mayors of a major U.S. city and he inspired other politicians, such as Barack Obama.

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Twenty years ago this Sunday, Harold Washington, the mayor of Chicago, died at his desk in city hall. He suffered a massive heart attack shortly after winning a second term in office. Harold Washington was one of the first black mayors of a major American city, and his death left Chicago reeling. He was charismatic, loquacious, bigger than life.

And as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, while his tenure was short, Washington's political philosophy still echoes through politics today.

CHERYL CORLEY: Harold Washington was a man who loved to read. And the city's monumental central library is named after him. I'm standing in the basement lobby, where there are quotes from his inauguration etched on the floor. Over the next several months, Washington's friends and colleagues will commemorate the 20th anniversary of his death as well as that electrifying night 25 years ago, when he was elected the city's first black mayor.

Unidentified Man #1: You want Harold? Well, here's Harold.

CORLEY: Harold Washington's deputy press secretary is now a Chicago Sun-Times columnist. Laura Washington - no relation to the late mayor - says he loved people and reveled in his work.

LAURA WASHINGTON: He was so helping to them, and being out in the community, out in the street, spending as much time with people as he could. But then there was also that intellectual side. At 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, when he went home after being out campaigning for 14 hours, he'd pick up a book.

CORLEY: Harold Washington was also a former boxer who knew how to slug it out in the city's rough and tumble political climate of the early 1980s. The city council meetings were called council wars. As Washington presided, he battled an entrenched and very vocal white majority, led by Alderman Ed Vrdolyak.

WASHINGTON: (Unintelligible), if you take your seat.

ED VRDOLYAK: (Unintelligible), Mr. President. This is still a city of Chicago in the United States of America.

WASHINGTON: That's right.

VRDOLYAK: And you don't have...

CORLEY: University of Illinois, Chicago political scientist Dick Simpson, who also served as an alderman before Washington's election, says the mayor broke from the city's legendary Democratic political machine and brought a different agenda to city hall, one of a reformer. He created an ethics ordinance, signed a decree to end patronage hiring, and got citizens more involved in devising a city budget and running schools.

DICK SIMPSON: It opened the idea of what a progressive city could be, not just sort of one that was seen like a special city like San Francisco, what a regular, hard core, urban-manufacturing city of the old style could actually become. It raised the horizons of everyone in the country.

CORLEY: And encouraged a number of people across the country.

BARACK OBAMA: I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America.

CORLEY: U.S. Senator Barack Obama says he moved to Chicago as a young man to work as a community organizer because he was excited and inspired by Harold Washington's election.

OBAMA: Those years, watching him as a larger-than-life figure and seeing the impact he had on the confidence of the African-American community, the hopefulness of the community, it had a lasting impact on me. And I suspect that was the first time when I fully appreciated the potentials of a political figure, not just to pass laws, but also to change people's attitude about themselves.

CORLEY: Former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun, who made history when she became the first black woman elected to the Senate, served as Harold Washington's floor leader in the state legislature. Moseley Braun says although there were other African American mayors before Washington, they had to downplay race. But Washington represented a coming of age in black politics, where the civil rights agenda and electoral politics merged.

CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN: They were parallel tracks before Harold. And with Harold, they came together and made a single track. And I think that's one of the reasons why there were so many people so encouraged and so energized by his election.

CORLEY: Washington critics argue that the mayor had little vision for the city and was not a strong manager. But supporters say the late mayor's philosophy of fairness and openness during his short tenure created credibility and showed the nation that a big, urban city could be sound under a black mayor. Washington put it this way, saying despite the racial strife during his term, Chicago was in good shape under his leadership.

HAROLD WASHINGTON: If you follow me around this city, it's love, love, love. I mean, there's no question about it. No one assumes I'm a boogeyman. They assume I'm an intelligent, decent, grandfatherly figure who understands this world and tries to deal with problems. How about that?

CORLEY: Harold Washington collapsed at his desk on November 25th in 1987 after returning from a press conference on low-income housing. Since his death 20 years ago, the number of black elected officials has mushroomed. African-American mayors now lead cities in more than 25 states and the District of Columbia. Harold Washington's victory a quarter century ago helped lay the groundwork for them.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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