Harold Washington: The People’s Mayor

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The 1980s opened with a huge transformation in American political and social life unseen since the Great Depression. With the election of Reagan there began a shift in ideology and politics to the right and an economic restructuring unparalleled since Franklin Roosevelt. The New Deal was decimated. Reagan and his successors shifted national resources to military spending and war, weakened federal oversight of consumer goods and worker protections, eliminated and stripped education, housing, health care, affirmative action and welfare programs. In the name of the “free market,” they promoted “free trade” and the abandonment of communities by big business seeking cheap labor and super profits. They nearly succeeded in strangling the Great Society, and the biggest target of this project was the nationally and racially oppressed, especially those living in urban areas.

But in this wave of Reagan reaction and corporate greed, there stood an island of hope, a city with a new idea for fighting back. At the helm of that city was a people’s mayor named Harold Washington, the first African American mayor of Chicago. African American mayors such as Carl Stokes (Cleveland), Richard G. Hatcher (Gary), Tom Bradley (Los Angeles), Kenneth Gibson (Newark), Ernest Morial (New Orleans), and Coleman Young (Detroit) probably paved the way for him and the style of coalition politics he adopted. In Chicago in the run-up to the 1983 election, the coalition Washington helped bring together included the labor movement infuriated over the loss of jobs and plant closings, reformers tired of corrupt and racially divisive machine politics, and growing African American and Latino communities struggling for civil rights and a voice in city government. One former 7th ward coordinator for Washington’s 1987 campaign said, “I loved the Washington days; it was magical.”


Harold Washington was born at Cook County Hospital in 1922 and grew up in modestly comfortable surroundings. In high school, his schoolmates recalled, he was an avid reader, a gifted student, friendly and popular, enjoyed music and dancing, and excelled at baseball, track and boxing. In the late 1930s, he dropped out of high school to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal public works program established to create jobs. After several months, Harold returned to Chicago and worked odd jobs, including a brief stint in Chicago’s stockyards. In 1942, Washington was drafted into the Army and assigned to an engineering battalion, where he rose in the ranks and participated in the Pacific theater of World War II.

Discharged from military service in 1946, Washington returned to Chicago, took a clerical position in the Treasury Department, and, having finished his high school diploma in the Army, began at Roosevelt College. He became an elected leader in student organizations, and by the early 1950s had helped turn the Young Democrats into an important political force in Chicago’s 3rd ward. Meanwhile, Washington had finished his law degree and took several low-level political appointments.

Throughout this early period of his political life, Washington worked hard to breakdown racial barriers for young African American political hopefuls in the city government using coalition politics, shrewd political maneuvering, and mobilizing new participants in the process. Mostly, however, Washington confronted hostility in Chicago’s Democratic machine toward any challenge to the “way things are done.”

In 1964, Washington won election to the Illinois state house of representatives where he served until 1976. Washington’s major legislative accomplishments included ethics reform and the passage of an historic bill he authored to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a legal holiday. Elected to the state senate in 1976, he turned in 1977, following the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley, to a failed attempt to win the Democratic nomination for Chicago mayor. In 1981, Washington won election to the US House of Representatives from Chicago’s predominantly African American 1st district.

Along the way, Washington was an advocate for the labor movement, the peace movement, and a variety of people’s causes. Long-time Chicago peace and labor activist Beatrice Lumpkin, recalled a rainy afternoon in the early 1970s at which a few hundred Chicago residents gathered at a rally sponsored by the Chicago Peace Council to protest the war in Vietnam. Lumpkin recalled, “Harold spoke strongly against the war. He was one of the more progressive legislators. I was very impressed that he spoke in the rain and grateful to him for coming and giving our rally greater impact.”

“Save Our Jobs”

Washington’s relationship to the labor movement went back a long way. When plant closings in northern Illinois, Indiana, and southern Wisconsin pounded the Chicago region economically in the late 1970s and early 1980s with no relief in sight, Washington could be counted on to be part of the struggle to save jobs and provide relief. According to one source, Chicago alone lost 300,000 between 1970 and 1983, over 120,000 of which disappeared between 1979 and 1983. Among the hardest hit workers were those in the manufacturing sector, especially steel.

The 1980 closure of Wisconsin Steel located in Chicago’s east side was the final straw for many disaffected workers. After years of racism and sexism in the plant, after struggling with a union (Progressive Steel Workers Union – PWSU) that was less an advocate for the workers than a company mouthpiece, the workers were shocked when the corporate owners of Wisconsin Steel shut down the plant without warning or any kind of relief benefits.

Retired African American steel workers Frank Lumpkin, who had also campaigned for Harold Washington in his earlier state and federal campaigns, along with other laid off workers and angry retirees, formed the “Save our Jobs” committee. The organized public protests, demanding relief for workers in the form of the benefits that Harvester, the billion dollar operation that owned Wisconsin Steel, refused to pay after the mill closed. and the organization of resources to keep the mills opened. The committee circulated a petition, gathering some 4,000 steelworkers’ signatures, and delivered it to the Illinois state legislature and to members of Congress, including Rep. Harold Washington.

Meanwhile, the PWSU did little or nothing for the workers. An NLRB investigation of the PWSU found that its lawyer, “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, Washington’s future nemesis within the Democratic machine in Chicago, had accepted campaign contributions for alderman from both Harvester and from the PWSU. But Vrdolyak’s power in the machine was so strong, many Wisconsin Steel workers refused to challenge him directly.

By the middle of 1981, the struggle to re-open Wisconsin Steel, win back benefits and to re-gain lost jobs, shifted as Ronald Reagan took power. It seemed clear that Reagan would simply defund the federal Economic Development Administration, which held the Wisconsin Steel plant, and force its closure.

From the floor of the House, Rep. Harold Washington stated: It bothers me deeply that in a crisis situation of high unemployment this administration seems to be turning its back upon that major problem and going out on flights of fancy, talking about supply side economics.

In the end, the struggle was partially victorious, retirees were paid partial benefits, but the plant never re-opened. According to Beatrice Lumpkin in Always Bring a Crowd, the biography of Frank Lumpkin, Washington won the support of Chicago’s steelworkers with his strong support for their struggle. Washington’s determination to speak up on this issue enabled him to win labor’s endorsement in the campaign for mayor even as the party machine set up obstacles to that labor endorsement

Politics of a New Type

Having been soundly defeated in the 1977 mayoral primaries, Washington made his 1983 candidacy for mayor contingent on the success of registering 100,000 new Black voters and raising a certain amount of funds before an official campaign would be put together. But he refused to confine his appeal to African Americans. In the summer before the 1983 primary, he said, “As a practical politician, I would seek to build a coalition of Black and white campaign workers throughout the city. The issue would not be anti-race, but anti-greed and anti-corruption.” After the 1983 victory, Washington stated: In our ethnic and racial diversity, we are all brothers and sisters in a quest for greatness. Our creativity and energy are unequalled by any city anywhere in the world. We will not rest until the renewal of our city is done. ...[W]e are going to do some great deeds here together.

Washington felt that white voters who initially resisted his candidacy could be won over if a dominant theme of his campaign and his administration of the city was to eliminate corrupt forces that also hurt the city’s white residents as much as its people of color.

Chicago journalist Ron Dorfman, who edited the recently published photographic essay of Washington’s career, Harold!: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years, said in an interview with Political Affairs that Washington was particularly skilled at bringing diverse groups together. In the African American community, Dorfman said, “Harold brought together different factions in the Black community together.” Uniting labor progressives, nationalists, and traditional civil rights people in the African American community, Dorfman suggested, was a key element of Washington’s candidacy, and “there really wasn’t anybody else who could pull that part of the coalition together.”

Within three months or so, organizations like Operation PUSH, welfare rights organizations, African American churches, and labor unions helped register over 200,000 new African American voters in the city. Public figures like Stevie Wonder, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., African American elected officials state representatives Carol Mosley Braun and Danny Davis, and US Rep. Gus Savage appeared at many public events to promote the voter registration drive. The success of the drive hinged partially on community reaction to ongoing Democratic machine refusals to address the demands of the people, to marginalize African American communities, and to perpetuate patronage politics.

African American educator and activist and Chicago resident Dee Myles, now a member of the editorial board of this magazine, said, initially there was concern about whether or not Washington’s candidacy would take hold in the African American community. But when it did, “the support for Washington in the African American community grew quickly. Literally you could feel it, you could cut it with a knife it was so thick.” Myles, who worked in the 1983 campaign as a precinct worker and in the 1987 campaign as a ward coordinator in the independent political committee in the 7th ward, described the campaign of 1983 as a real people’s movement. She remembered people riding on the bus to work in south Chicago wearing their blue Washington for Chicago buttons. After his election, a city ban on public musicians was lifted, and there just seemed to be more music in the city, Myles said. “It was really a period of engagement that was quite astonishing.”

Washington knew he couldn’t rely on the Democratic Party to either win mayoral elections or to govern with his reform program. “It was understood that if stability was going to be produced, and progress and building support was going to be maintained from election to election, an independent operation was needed so that he wouldn’t have to depend on the regular Democratic Party machine,” said Myles. Even in the ward’s where Democratic alderman supported him, Washington needed an independent movement to help secure that support and ensure those alderman also did not have to rely on the machine for reelections, Myles said. She explained the differences within the Democratic Party in Chicago thusly: “In Chicago at a certain point, the line of demarcation between the regular Democrats and the independent Democrats seemed to be as great as between the Democrats and the Republicans.”

Indeed, after his victory in the 1983 primary, the Democratic machine appeared to be aloof to his candidacy and even proposed running Mayor Jane Byrne, whom Washington had defeated in the primary, as a write-in candidate, according to Washington biographer Dempsey J. Travis in his book Harold: The People’s Mayor. Other leading figures in the Democratic Party machine even hinted at endorsing the Republican candidate who immediately launched an openly racist campaign against Washington. After his election, Democrats in the city council who had opposed his candidacy and his ethics reform program, fought him every step of the way. Miles recalled one steelworker friend of her saying he’d tune the television every night to the “Council Wars” between Washington’s supporters and opponents on the city council to “find out what they’re doing to Harold tonight.”

Washington appealed to independent voters from a large cross-section of the city’s electorate: a broad coalition of Democrats, independent-minded Democrats, others on the left, and still others who held no specific ideological viewpoint but were alienated form the process by corruption in or the ineffectiveness of city government. To succeed at this unorthodox approach to politics, Washington encouraged the formation of independent political organizations to boost his campaign and to promote his program.


One of the most important elements of the Washington campaign was the drive for interracial, inter-ethnic unity. Washington found in racial diversity a source of strength. In his first inaugural speech, he said: “We are a multiethnic, multiracial, multilanguage city and that is a source of stability and strength.” While all observers of those events seem to agree that the unique unity of Latino and African American voters helped send Washington to City Hall, it is also true that a growing number of whites who came to see his program and accomplishments as beneficial to all Chicagoans. According to former Chicago Alderman and Washington supporter Dick Simpson, though Washington never received more than 20 percent of the white vote, it was clear that had he lived, Washington’s share of that vote would have grown.

Washington’s Republican opponents, and even some within the Democratic machine, successfully promoted fears among white city residents that handing power to an African American would cause the city to fall apart or promote “retribution against whites,” Simpson noted. Washington “did diffuse that sentiment. There was no longer fear of African Americans in positions of power by the time his regime ended,” Simpson recalled. “He was successful in diffusing that racial animosity, but not successful enough by 1987 to win over a majority of white ethnic voters.” Still, the trend favored an anti-racist majority in the city.

Here again, the labor movement played a key role. The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists pressed the Chicago Federation of Labor to endorse Washington during the general election battle.

Latino community leader and garment workers union organizer Rudy Lozano was among several organizers within the growing Latino community who helped forge support among Latinos and put together a strong base of support both for Washington’s candidacy and in the battle to win Washington’s reform platform in the city council. Lozano, who had also been a key figure in the “Save Our Jobs” campaign, was based in the 22nd ward and led the formation of that ward’s independent political organization. In 1984, despite the fact that African Americans and Latinos comprised 55 percent of the votes in the city’s 49 wards, only 15 Blacks and one Latino sat as alderman on the city council. The main cause of this was that gerrymandering of aldermanic wards had weakened the voting power of the Black and Latino majority.

A battle over redistricting had begun. Machine politicians fought redistricting in order to block Washington’s reform platform. They had succeeded in the past of forcing Mayor Jane Byrne, who had also run as a reform candidate, to back off ethics reform by keeping control of the city council and brow-beating her into submission. But Washington and his supporters, armed with the independent political forces and a broad multiracial coalition as the tool for winning popular support, took their stand.

The organization that Lozano and his allies put together in the 22nd ward was an unrivaled model of grassroots organizing. Get-out-the-vote campaigns mobilized huge sections of the population who had not participated before behind Washington’s reform program. Some people close to Lozano also suspect that his assassination in June 1983 was directly linked to his efforts on Washington’s behalf. Other key wards with large or predominant Latino populations mobilized independent political committees also, turning out large votes for city council members who would back Washington’s program. These victories occurred despite the Democratic machine’s use of the city attorney’s office to persecute Latino election workers and to set the US Immigration and Naturalization Service loose in Latino wards as an intimidation tactic.

Washington’s Legacy

April 2008 will mark the 25th anniversary of Washington’s inauguration as mayor of Chicago. In honor of the anniversary, the Harold Washington Commemorative Year was established to celebrate his life and work by holding dozens of public events around the city, church services, music programs, and university symposia as well as the publication of the book Harold!: Photographs of the Washington Years. The Commemorative Year is headed by numerous prominent Chicago elected officials as well as many of the people who actually fought by Washington’s side all those years ago.

Some of Washington’s accomplishments are tangible and remain part of the political life of Chicago to this day. With the people behind him, organized and willing to fight, Washington won many of the battles in the city council. According to Dorfman, the ethics reform program Washington instituted at city hall was his biggest success and is still in many ways a feature of Chicago politics despite the fact that prominent machine figures have returned to power. Washington created freedom of information rules in city government that opened political activities up to public scrutiny. Transparency in government, in a city previously rife with machine politics and patronage, was a crucial victory. Dorfman said, “Much of his program was in fact enacted and is still in place, and was carried on by Mayor Sawyer after Washington died and is still being carried on by Daley.”

Washington’s affirmative action policies were another key change he brought to city government. “He opened city hall to not only African Americans but also Latinos, women, gays, Asians – everybody that had been locked out,” said Simpson. Leadership and management positions in the city government included more women and people of color. “It is now just a part of the city fabric,” said Dorfman. “Absent Harold, it wouldn’t have happened. Harold did it and it stuck.”

Another unquantifiable part of Washington’s legacy is his enduring influence on national politics. Just about everyone interviewed for this story eventually came around to talking about another emerging Chicagoan – Barack Obama. Perhaps it is no accident that he too talks in broad, hopeful terms about change, reform, and empowering the people to reclaim democracy. Indeed, is it mere chance that Obama’s main campaign image is a rising sun over a flag and the words “Obama for America”? Those blue buttons that dotted Chicago’s landscape in those exciting days of 1982 and 1983 showed rays of the sun like hope rising above the words “Washington for Chicago.” Perhaps Washington’s very greatest legacy is the insurgent challenge to politics as usual Obama represents on a national stage. Perhaps “the peoples’ mayor” will inspire the making of “the peoples’ president.”