The greatness of late Mayor Harold Washington lied in his ability to gain the title of legislator while earning the unwavering faith and trust of his constituents. In the 1980s, the same era that spawned Iran-Contra, trust in the government was no doubt on the downswing, particularly in the black community.
The black community was particularly afflicted with the crack epidemic and a surge in unemployment. The 1983 mayoral victory for Washington symbolized a social, economic and political empowerment for blacks nationwide.
One man who knew firsthand the tremendous impact of Mayor Washington on the city of Chicago is Timuel D. Black, an author and professor at the City Colleges of Chicago. Black is a man who has cemented his own impressive legacy as a political activist, oral historian and respected educator, and a founder of the League of Negro Voters.
Black worked alongside Washington during his historic 1983 run for mayor, where he and Washington registered thousands of new voters.
Black spoke at a gathering at the Harold Washington Library downtown on Saturday, commemorating what would have been Washington’s 84th birthday.
“Harold and I were both products of the great migration that took place throughout the 20th century,” said Black, author of the recent book “Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s First Wave of Black Migration,” an oral history based on interviews with African-Americans who migrated from the South to Chicago.
“I came to Chicago from Birmingham Ala. when I was only eight months old,” Black recalled. “As you are probably aware, being black in Alabama in 1919 was ripe full of problems including lynching, inability to receive adequate education, and a more volatile labor market with the advances in technology, such as the cotton gin, doing the work of 90 men in less time and for less money.
He said many blacks migrated to the north because of the reported better working environment and opportunities to receive an education. But a 1919 race riot in Alabama at the time demonstrated that blacks still faced racial injustices, he said.
“The importance of gaining the freedoms blacks of the south were denied made Washington intent on reaching out to all the communities and to find ways to bridge the economic and racial divide,” Black said. “This is the goal he followed his entire career.”
Black met Washington at Roosevelt University where even then, he noticed Washington’s ability to work a crowd and get things accomplished.
“Back in those days, our parents were insistent that we attend college; both for bragging rights [so they can say] ‘my son just graduated Princeton’, and because they knew that education was the only way to not only escape the ghetto but control as much of it as possible.”
Black said Washington knew this too, and was “all about educating our youth as the means of shaping our own economic destiny.”
“He himself was an avid reader and freethinker,” recalled Black. “He was so charismatic that he became president of the student government at a time when it, like the school, was mostly white. He knew how to unite people.”
Washington united enough people to make “particularly blacks “to be elected the city’s first black mayor.
Among Washington’s pre-mayoral accomplishments were being one of the first to introduce legislation to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday while a congressman in U.S. House of Representatives. He also fought for and won an extension on the Voter Rights Act in 1980.
Washington and his supporters registered more than 200,000 new voters, particularly in the black community, during his 1983 mayoral campaign. The Democratic Primary, considered by some as the real election in Democratic-stronghold Chicago, was a bitterly fought campaign between Washington, incumbent Jane Byrne, the city’s first and only women mayor, and then-state’s attorney Richard M. Daley.
Washington held back both challenges.
Renowned journalist Lou Palmer famously predicted the end of her reign with the quote: “We shall see in ’83”.
“His integrity was his best virtue,” Black said of Washington. “He couldn’t be bought. He never compromised his beliefs for the good of his campaign and always handled himself with pride and dignity.”
Washington died of a heart attack on Nov. 25 1987, shortly after his reelection. It rained that day and the next three days, the speakers recalled.
Following his personal reflections at Saturday’s lecture, Black urged those in attendance to share their own memories of the man who inspired the city.
Others who spoke Saturday included Neal Harris, a veteran photographer who followed Harold Washington throughout his entire political career. Harris also showed his album of photographs taken at many of Washington’s political functions and his funeral.
“In the early ’80s it was totally un-hip not to have a ‘Washington for Chicago’ button on,” said Harris. “Even when I traveled to Europe or Africa, people knew right away who he was and voiced their support. Bus drivers would say to the passengers ‘If you’re not voting for Harold you can’t ride on this bus.’ It was a truly special time.”