25 Years Ago Chicago Elected its First Black Mayor – Harold Washington

Wow, where has the time gone? But I’m jumping the gun a little. The anniversary of his 1987 death isn’t until November 25, and its another 6 weeks until the anniversary of his election. But today This American Life, a radio and occasion TV program, rebroadcast a piece on him that was really good. This American Life is Ira Glass’s odd program on NPR that’s based here in Chicago (mostly). And so today as I sat listening to the program, and not doing the exterior house painting I needed to be doing, I was fascinated by some of the things I had forgotten and amazed at some the things I never knew. You should listen for yourself.

But to help you understand that program, and to help you understand the Harold Washington campaign and time in office, you need to know some things. Chicago is a city with strong racial conflict. Like most places “it’s not as bad as it used to be.” But the fibers of animosity, distrust, fear and all around discomfort are woven into the fabric of this town. Today people try to downplay it by just trying to ignore the issue. It’s the elephant in the room. Most young people here, let’s say 25 and down, know something is going on. They don’t have many personal memories of event they can point to and say “oh yeah we had that big problem when…”

But at 40 I have a lot of memories like that. And I’ve been OUT of the city for the last 20 years. And yes, I did come back to the city to find a place not so much transformed and the epitome of racial harmony but a place walking on eggshells. I can feel that at the drop of a hat if some event were to happen things would quickly revert to what things were like when Harold Washington ran for office.

In the TAL program they interview people who were close to Harold before and during his time in office, and they say he didn’t want the job. He was a smart man who understood that being Black in a town like Chicago meant you were not a part of the power structure. At all. Not some limited capacity in certain parts of town, but at all. The major, Richard J. Daley (father of the CURRENT mayor) had locked this town up in an old boys network that was the literal model that people used when they talked about an “old boys networks.”

“Daley was Chicago’s third mayor in a row from the heavily Irish Catholic Bridgeport working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side,” according to Wiki. Bridgeport is one of the 2 pockets of white people on this side of town. The other remaining nominally white area is Hyde Park (where Harold lived). But were HP is seen as a liberal minded area with its large Jewish population and University of Chicago, Bridgeport is… Bridgeport There’s a historical whites only club I drive past whenever I go to a famous Italian beef joint. That club still stands to this day but I don’t believe it embodies the general mindset of the locals today. However in 1962 when they built the Robert Taylor Homes (those were WORLD famous violent “projects”) they also built the Dan Ryan Expressway that same year specifically to act as a barrier to keep Bridgeport…uh…protected. Was Daley psychic? In March they demolished the last of those projects and since they started dismantling them the city’s murder rate has drops to its lowest point in 40 years! Of course, creating a walled-in ghetto circumstance in the first place might also have been a factor. If you want an eye full check out You Tube.

So Daley’s actions and decisions left long lasting after effects (hello President Bush!). But Harold’s actions ALSO have not only left a lasting impression in this city but the rest of the country. Obama has said he moved here in 1984 specifically because he wanted to be a near what Harold was achieving here. And in the radio program I listened to today they examine some of those changes. When Harold ran for office NINETY PERCENT of the white Democrats defected from the party. When Obama ran for the Senate 75 percent of the white precincts voted for him. Obama might actually have a chance at winning his presidential bid because he was able to rise so high here.

Harold’s motto was “fairer than fair.” Chicago is a diverse town, and political favoritism is as much a part of this town as deep dish pizza. But Harold said he would be equal to all, even at the expense of NOT giving Blacks behind-closed-doors cushy deals. And that is a policy the current mayor Daley has to at least consider now that the precedent has been set.

Harold’s impact has been very long lasting on me even. For his second term I was old enough to vote, so I voted for him. Then I moved to New York and I voted in the first Black mayor there too. By 2005 I was living in Los Angeles and I voted in the first Latino major in a hundred and thirty years. The irony of course being that Chicago was founded by a black man and LA by a group of 17 mixed race people.So please, take listen to that NPR piece, it’s a wonderful slice of history.