Before presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s stirring victory in Iowa last week and strong second-place showing in the New Hampshire Primary on Tuesday, Harold Washington, another charismatic black Illinois politician, took the nation by storm nearly 25 years ago.
Washington, like Obama, had an ability to unite voters with a message of “change” while running for mayor in 1983.
Washington won, making him the first and only black mayor of Chicago. His legacy and image has continued to endure, and a new photo essay book recently released recounts his life.
Author Salim Muwakkil, photographers Antonio Dickey, Marc PoKempner, and editor Ron Dorfman, are the publishers of Harold! Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.
The book chronicles Washington’s political rise in Chicago, reminding this generation of just how prominent a figure he had become prior to his death in November 1987, just seven months after he won reelection as mayor.
“This project began about five years ago when I was at the Chicago Historical Society and found myself drawn to these large blow ups of Harold in his office,” said Dorfman during an appearance Sunday at Carter G. Woodson Library on the South Side, 9525 S. Halsted St.
“It inspired me to seek out the photographers responsible for the pictures, and put a book together based on them during that time,” Dorfman added.
The publishers were on hand at Woodson to discuss the book, which has mostly black and white prints of Washington.
The three hour program also featured a slide show of some of the photos.
Dorfman sought out PoKempner and Dickey. Dickey, a photographer for the Chicago Defender during the ’80s, was Washington’s official photographer.
His photograph was used for the book’s cover, a black and white portrait of Washington standing by the lake with the Chicago skyline directly behind him.
“I took this picture during the filming of one of his campaign commercials on the lakefront,” recalled Dickey. “Shortly after Barack Obama was inaugurated into the Senate, I visited his office and he had this picture on his wall.”
Symbolic of the climate of unrest during Washington’s tenure as mayor, the book is divided into six chapters.
Chapter one, titled “Black Chicago Awakens,” depicts how black Americans needed to become more proactive in the political process.
The second chapter focuses on how this realization came about, which helped fueled Washington’s 1983 campaign. Other photos depict children as young as 8 years old passing out flyer’s and leaflets during his campaign.
“He was definitely a father-figure in many ways,” said PoKempner, whose photography has been in such publications as Newsweek, Fortune and Rolling Stone. “One picture in the book that I like to call the ‘Pied Piper picture’ shows him marching with what seems to be dozens of children around him. He had that kind of appeal.”
Chapters three and four, respectively tilted “Before It’s Too Late” and “Council Wars,” depict the challenges Washington faced before election and afterward during the infamous Council Wars.
The Chicago City Council was sharply divided 29-21 with a majority of alderman opposed to the type of change Washington wanted to bring to the city.
“A special person is needed to inspire the kind of change that Harold was seeking,” said Muwakkil. “Washington was the face of the movement. He was exactly what the city needed at the time.”
Among the qualities present in Washington, the author’s noted, was his ability to “speak in the language” of whatever group he was addressing.
“Whether he was addressing sanitation workers or health care providers, he spoke to them in their language,” said Pokempner. “He wasn’t just talking in platitudes. He knew about what they did, what they wanted, and what changes were necessary for them to do their jobs. His appeal crossed racial and economic barriers.”
About Washington’s death, Muwakkil added, “When Harold died, the light certainly went out on the movement, and it left a cadaverous darkness. It was not just the passing of a great man, but the passing of a promise. The promise that all people – black, white, Hispanic – can rise up and reject the political machine that wanted to maintain the status quo.”