The career of Chicago's first black mayor
December 3, 1992
This piece was written on the fifth anniversary of the death from heart attack of Mayor Harold Washington. Many of the usual encomiums issued on the occasion were enlivened by an unusual word—"joy," which is not a word that gets used a lot in or about Chicago. I was living across the street from Chicago during the Washington years, and so got a closer look at it than most Downstate commentators did.
I remember watching the news on cable in Springfield when Harold Washington died. They showed some old news tapes of him in action. One caught Washington in the middle of one of his mayoral stump speeches about fairness. "You cannot hide from our fairness," he intoned soberly. "Wherever you live, however you live in the great city of Chicago, we will seek you out and be fair to you!" Perplexed silence from the crowd, until his storm-cloud look was dissipated by an enormous spreading grin.
Washington will be remembered as Chicago's first black mayor but what he really was was that city's first modern reform mayor. Because "black" means change in Chicago, black politics and reform politics are often confused by Chicago's bozo press. Washington's black constituents were as surprised as anyone to learn that he was serious about reform.
Earlier this year a book appeared about Washington's years as mayor titled, "Fire on the Prairie (Henry Holt) written by Gary Rivlin, who covered City Hall for this paper's city cousin, the Reader. Though flawed, it is a book worth reading. In spite of the author's commitment to fairness, Washington emerges as a hero, if only because everyone else in a position of public responsibility acted as if they were in a schoolyard rumble. Washington stood out in the book, as he did then, amidst a dismaying array of poseurs and fools and charlatans; reading it reawakened my Downstater's contempt for the city.
The emphasis on race in the postmortems on his public life is insulting. What impressed me was his genuine reluctance to resort to race. His anger at its exploitation by opponents was in the nature of self-defense, but it was hard to tell which part of him was more offended, the proud black man or the intelligent citizen.
When Harold Washington said that he ran for mayor to show the children of Chicago that there is a better way to live, you could believe him. He seemed diffident about power and largely immune to the usual vanities of public men. Nor did he mean that he was a "positive role model" for children of color. He didn't run to show white Chicagoans that black people could be as good as they are, but to show that those whites could be better than they themselves thought they could be, by learning to support or even love a black mayor.
Personality is what Chicago politics thrives on, not party, certainly not ideas, only incidentally rational self-interest, and Harold was a personality. He was a complicated and far from perfect man—a Machine reformer, a politician who loved books, an athlete who died because he neglected his body. All this made him a frustrating and fascinating figure of study. Carol Mosely Braun once remarked that Washington made people who didn't know him feel that they did, while he made the people who did know him feel that they didn't.
Everyone has their favorite stories. One of mine is about how he ventured into the Northwest Side, the enemy stronghold of the white ethnics, to make a speech at a Polish dinner-dance. It was Mayor Washington who went there to make a speech; it was Harold who stayed and danced with (and charmed) all the ladies.
A few months ago I was in Chicago, exploring the new main library, named after the late mayor. By accident I wandered into the Harold Washington Archives on the ninth floor. In one of the rooms there is a TV set on a stand in front of a few folding chairs, where sat a handful of people of mixed races and ages who looked as if they'd stumbled upon the place as I had.
Playing on the TV set was a half-hour video about the man's life and career. And as I suspected it might be, the production was usual tribute to the famous—worshipful and dull, coming alive only when they showed clips of the man himself. I did not want to watch the tape. But when I moved toward the door the security guard whispered politely that it was only a few more minutes until the end. He clearly wanted me to stay to see it all. He seemed to feel himself not just a guard but a teacher, one who, as a young black man in Chicago, had in Harold Washington something of value that the rest of the world ought to know about.
The production credits at the end of the tape rolled over the scenes of Washington on election night, singing about that toddlin' town—remarkably, he knew the words to every chorus—in a voice that was a victory of exuberance over tunelessness. I felt again what Illinois doesn't have anymore because he died.
People in Chicago talk about Washington's sense of fun, his combativeness, his theatrical rhetoric as the things they miss. What I sense the city really misses these days is a sense of serious purpose, a sense that the city could be made to work, that Washington awakened in people. A friend of mine went to his second inaugural. Traditionally these affairs are drunken celebrations. She recalled for me her surprise and admiration that the everyday people in the back rows listened attentively to every word of every speech as if they were in church or a lecture hall. When Washington said of the city, "This isn't seventh heaven but if you give me four years it will be," people believed him. That hopefulness didn't last long, as his first term was tragically wasted by a racist and obstructionist city council.
Would things have been any different had Washington lived? To answer that it is first necessary to separate the problems Chicago has from Chicago's problems. No mayor can do much to stem the macroeconomic trends that are impoverishing the city. But a good mayor can still do a lot, for example by reforming the schools, the CTA, and public housing. Would Washington have taken up these Sisyphean tasks had he lived? Maybe. Could he? Yes, and that is not something anyone can say about the present mayor or any other white mayor. It will take a black mayor to do those things for the same reasons it took an anticommunist like Nixon to open the door to China. People complain that Richie Daley isn't his old man; the real problem is that he isn't Harold Washington. ●
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