It was 20 years ago this year that Harold Washington, the man who changed the course of history in the City of Chicago, died early in his second term as the city’s mayor.
This past Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of the death of the larger-than-life politician who fell victim to a massive heart attack in his City Hall office on Nov. 25, 1987. Washington was 65.
At a recent Chicago City Council meeting, Mayor Richard M. Daley and many aldermen took time to offer fond memories of the late mayor.
Daley lost to Washington in a dramatic Democratic primary in 1983, but backed him in the general election. And he was effusive in praising the man during the hour-long council tribute.
“He gained [my] confidence, he knew what direction the city was [headed], and he said it very openly and very frankly,” Daley said.
Alderman also offered their memories of the late mayor.
Ald. Ed Smith (28th) said he had the privilege to serve in the City Council during the Harold Washington era. Despite the political divide, Smith felt in the end that everyone involved benefited by changing their attitudes and becoming more effective legislators.
Smith paid tribute to Washington by summing up his impact.
“I think ultimately, Chicago became a better place,” Smith said.
Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) fondly recalled Washington as an articulate speaker.
“When Harold said something, he made you pull your dictionary out,” Mitts said.
Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) remembered his encounters with Washington. While working as an attorney for the city, Fioretti recalled Washington’s common mantra to him and all of the litigators in City Hall’s 5th floor office: “Be good, be fair, and be just.”
The council went on to pass a resolution citing Washington’s academic career.
He graduated from DuSable High School, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Roosevelt University, and received his law degree from Northwestern University.
Washington’s political career began in 1965 when he was elected as a Chicago state representative. He moved up to win election as a state senator in 1977. In 1981, he was elected to the U.S. Congress, a position he held until he returned to Chicago and was elected mayor in 1983, becoming the city’s first and only black mayor. Washington was reelected in 1987.
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who worked for Washington during his second term, called him a man of great intellect.
“He could make you sweat with his inquisitive questioning,” Dowell said.
Even those who sometimes found themselves in opposition to Washington also sang his praises on this day.
In winning her first term, Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th) defeated Timothy Evans, a Washington ally. Today, Preckwinkle called Washington a pioneer in Chicago politics. She noted how he made government open and transparent, as well as giving more opportunities to blacks and Latinos in city government.
“I had great respect for Harold Washington,” Preckwinkle said.
The tributes and praises for Washington were a far cry from what become known as the “Council Wars” under Washington’s tenure as mayor. Many aldermen, including those now praising him, bitterly opposed Washington’s programs.
Ald. Ed Burke (14th) was part of a bloc of 29 aldermen that consistently opposed Washington during his first term. The period was so contentious that some dubbed Chicago “Beirut by the Lake.”
But on a day of remembrance for Washington, Burke was respectful, saying that Washington possessed what all political leaders envy: an ease with voters.
“He had the engaging style of a neighbor, but he had the tough political ability to survive,” Burke said.
Today, Washington’s memory has been preserved at many sites across the city that are named after him, including Harold Washington Library, a city college, a cultural center, and a city park.