Washington, Harold 1922–1987
Harold Washington 1922–1987
Former mayor of Chicago
Chicago, America’s third largest city, is home to the country’s greatest black population and, according to many studies, its most segregated city. For years it epitomized the power of big city “machine” politics as its influential Democratic party allowed a shrinking white minority to maintain political control. But in 1983 a local African American politician named Harold Washington forged a coalition outside of the political mainstream, turning his campaign for mayor into a civil rights crusade for black Chicagoans.
By winning the election, Washington became a symbol of black hope and a national figure overnight. At home, Chicago’s white political machine formed an alliance to fight all his attempts at political reform. Washington refused to compromise or yield, gradually strengthening his reformist coalition through his equal treatment of all ethnic groups within the city when it came to jobs, housing, and other progressive issues. Then, shortly after winning re-election to a second mayoral term in 1987, Washington suddenly died of a massive heart attack. His hard-won coalition quickly unraveled in the heated battle over succession, leaving many of his plans unfulfilled.
Washington was born on Chicago’s segregated South Side in 1922, when the city was still a Republican stronghold. His father, Roy Washington, Sr., was one of the area’s few black Democrats. The elder Washington had moved north to Chicago from a small town in Kentucky, working in a meatpacking house by day, attending law school at night, and serving as Democratic precinct captain in charge of recruiting black voters for his party. After graduating, he opened a solo law practice, struggling for years before landing a city job as assistant prosecutor working out of a South Side police station.
As a child, Harold Washington grew up surrounded by the black political elite, running errands for the Democratic organization. By the age of 14 he was helping his father in the precinct. At Du Sable High School, he was noted for his constant reading and athletic skill—he won the 110-yard high hurdles in a 1939 citywide track meet. Claiming he was no longer challenged by schoolwork, he dropped out between his junior and senior years.
Washington went to work in a packing plant before his father used connections to land him a desk job at the local U.S. Treasury office. At nineteen, he married Dorothy, a girl who lived in his building. Seven months later, the Japanese attacked
Born April 15, 1922, in Chicago, IL; died November 25, 1987, in Chicago; son of Roy L. Sr. (a lawyer and assistant city prosecutor) and Bertha (a domestic worker; maiden name, Jones) Washington; married wife, Dorothy, 1941 (divorced 1951). Education: Roosevelt University, B.A., 1949; Northwestern University Law School, J.D., 1952. Religion: Progressive Community Church. Politics: Democrat.
Assistant city prosecutor, City of Chicago, 1954-58; arbitrator, Illinois Industrial Commission, 1960-64; member of Illinois House of Representatives, 1965-76; member of Illinois Senate, 1976-80; member of U.S. House of Representatives, 1980-83; mayor of Chicago, 1983-87. Member of board of directors of Mid-South Mental Health Association and Suburban Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Military service: U.S. Army Air Force, 1942-45.
Member: Cook County Bar Association, Illinois Bar Association, National Bar Association, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Urban League, American Veterans Association, Americans for Democratic Action (vice president), Washington Youth and Community Organization (president).
Returning home in 1945, he enrolled in Roosevelt University, a new college that was a bold experiment in higher education. Located in a former downtown Chicago hotel/office building, the university was one of the few integrated schools in the country. It gave Washington his first sustained contact with whites. He became a serious student, hardworking and focused, and was elected senior class president in 1949 by his classmates, 95 percent of whom were white.
After graduation, he attended Northwestern University’s law school, graduating in 1952 and going into practice with his father. Across the hall was the office of the new ward committeeman and alderman, Ralph Metcalfe, a former Olympic sprinter and popular black figure in the city. When Washington’s father died in 1954, Metcalfe offered the younger Washington a job as assistant city prosecutor on the condition that he take over his father’s duties as Democratic precinct captain.
Washington quickly discovered that politics was his true vocation. Soon he was spending more time working in the precinct than in his office, becoming Metcalfe’s ward secretary and head of the ward’s Young Democrats group. He helped build the Third Ward into one of the most loyal pro-machine organizations in the Democratic party, effectively turning out the vote each election.
This was the era of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who ruled Chicago from 1955 until his death in 1976. His Democratic party was the last, great big city political machine. It was said that nothing got done in Chicago without his approval. The party’s ultimate source of power was the thousands of patronage jobs it controlled and skillfully used to reward loyal workers like Washington.
No part of the electorate was more under Daley’s thumb than the local African American community, even though countless studies singled out Chicago as the nation’s most segregated city. Daley loyalists ran the public housing projects, the local welfare organizations, and counted numerous black preachers among their fold. In the 1963 mayoral election, Metcalfe and Washington’s Third Ward delivered more votes for Daley’s successful re-election than any other ward except the mayor’s own.
The following year, Washington was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives from a South Side district. During his six terms from 1965 through 1976, he began to demonstrate his political independence by frequently voting against machine-sanctioned bills and helping to organize the legislature’s first black caucus. He began to make a reputation as an innovative legislator and eloquent orator, sponsoring consumer protection bills, a fair housing code, and a civilian review board to investigate widespread charges of police brutality against Chicago’s black population. Still, he would return to Chicago each election to turn out the black vote for the so-called machine.
Daley died in 1976. In a special mayoral election held to replace him the following year, Washington came in a distant third with only 11 percent of the vote, losing even among black voters. But according to author Gary Rivlin in Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race, he responded to the defeat by telling a group of black journalists, “I ‘m going to stay outside of that damn Democratic organization and give them hell.”
Washington moved to the state Senate in 1977, serving there through 1980. Eleven times his colleagues voted him one of the ten best state legislators. He got his revenge against Chicago’s Democratic party when he handily defeated its candidate in the 1980 congressional primary, and then won the seat with 92 percent of the vote against his Republican opponent. As a liberal Democrat in the conservative Reagan era, Washington consistently opposed proposed cuts in social services and increases in military spending. He led the fight in Congress to extend the 1965 Voting Rights Act, resulting in the most significant civil rights victory of Reagan’s first term. The Congressional Quarterly ranked him fifth among all 435 members of the House of Representatives in anti-Reagan votes.
Being a member of Congress fulfilled a lifelong dream for Washington. Freed from the endless infighting of Chicago politics and re-elected with 97 percent of the vote in 1982, he told people he would be happy spending the rest of his career in Congress. But black Chicagoans had other ideas.
Different fractions in the city’s large black community had been meeting and making plans to elect a black mayor in 1983. For once black nationalists, black community activists, and black businesspeople were pledging to work in union, brought together by a mutual antagonist, Mayor Jane Byrne.
Many people of color had supported Byrne in her “antimachine” mayoral candidacy in 1979, helping her win the Democratic primary. African American voters hoped for a fair share of city-controlled patronage jobs, improved municipal services, and more attention paid to their community. But once she became mayor, Byrne made peace with Chicago’s Democratic organization, helping machine alderman Edward Vrdolyak become the local Democratic party chairman. In return, Vrdolyak became her floor leader in the city council. Byrne’s hiring of African Americans for new city jobs fell from 47 percent in her first two years to 28 percent in 1982. The final straw was her appointment of enough whites to the governing board of the Chicago Housing Authority, in charge of the city’s huge public housing projects, to tip its racial balance.
Local black leaders responded by organizing a successful boycott of ChicagoFest, the city’s summer entertainment festival, in 1982. Then they turned up the heat against Byrne in the black-controlled press and radio stations as well as in neighborhood churches.
Washington was approached to be the black candidate. Always the shrewd politician, he realized that black voter registration lagged behind whites. “Give me 50,000 new voters,” he said at one meeting, “and I’ll run.” Local organizers took up the challenge, and by November of 1982 more than 100,000 new black voters had been registered. In that month’s election, Chicago’s black wards set a record with a 65 percent voter turnout. Finally convinced of the support he would need, Washington announced his candidacy with a speech exclaiming, “We shall see in ‘83!”
His opponents in the Democratic party primary were Mayor Byrne and Richard M. Daley, Cook County state attorney (equivalent to district attorney) and son of the former mayor. Both were far better known outside of the black community and had more money to spend on their campaigns.
But Washington’s campaign quickly took on the aspects of a religious crusade in the black community, particularly after he exhorted in an early speech, “It’s our turn.” An additional 30,000 blacks registered to vote, marking a 25 percent increase in black registration in one year and bringing African Americans up to 40 percent of the registered voters, equivalent to their percentage of the city’s population.
Blue Washington campaign buttons became a source of black pride. Enthusiastic crowds greeted his appearances at black churches and housing projects, stops often alien to white politicians, chanting “Ha-rold, Ha-rold.” Washington also made effective use of his frequent airtime on the city’s black-oriented radio stations.
Still, he ran as more than just a black candidate, vowing to reform city government and destroy the old Democratic party machine. He pledged to do away with the patronage system, establish a civilian review board to hear complaints against the police, and revitalize the local neighborhoods through economic development. Four televised debates helped to legitimize his candidacy among the electorate by clearly establishing his superiority as an orator and wit over his two opponents.
Seeing themselves slipping in the pre-election polls, Daley and Byrne took to sniping at each other. On the weekend before the February 22 election, Democratic party chairman Vrdolyak sought to mobilize a group of white precinct captains. As recounted by author Gary Rivlin, he was unaware that two reporters had sneaked into the meeting when he said, “It’s a racial thing. Don’t kid yourself.…We’re fighting to keep the city the way it is.”
His words backfired, further motivating black voters instead. On election day, 72 percent of the registered electorate voted. It was a close race. Washington won by 33,000 votes out of the 1.2 million cast, taking 36 percent of the vote to Byrne’s 34 percent and Daley’s 30 percent. The latter two candidates split the white vote almost fifty-fifty. Washington won 85 percent of the black vote, and could have won without capturing a single white vote.
In Chicago, winning the Democratic mayoral primary was tantamount to election since the city’s feeble Republican party had not elected a mayor since 1927. Washington’s opponent was Bernard Epton, a former state legislator who vowed not to make race an issue. Many others, however, had a different idea. The Epton campaign was soon flooded with cash contributions and outside political consultants. Although the Democratic party officially endorsed Washington, eight of the party’s 14 white committee members endorsed Epton. Some of the remaining six had their precinct workers actively soliciting for the Republican opponent.
Epton sensed victory. Almost overnight he had been transformed from a political nobody into the great white hope. The trick was to devise a campaign to exploit racial hostilities without mentioning race. Epton seized upon the integrity issue, repeatedly bringing up Washington’s past legal problems.
Washington certainly had not led the most ordered of lives. He worked too hard, ate too much, and slept too little. He had divorced his wife long ago, and friends described his bachelor apartment as looking more like a motel room than a home. The refrigerator was usually empty, clothes were unwashed, and the floors were strewn with books, magazines, and newspapers that he had been reading. His distracted air carried over into his professional life as well. The Illinois Supreme Court suspended his law license for a year in 1970 for failing to perform work for several of his clients. The Internal Revenue Service fined him $1,000 and sentenced him to 40 days in jail for failing to file income tax returns for four years, despite the fact that he only owed $505.08.
But for many conservative white ethnic voters, this was enough of a socially acceptable reason not to vote for Washington. “Whites for Epton” buttons appeared on the city’s northwest and southwest sides and “Epton—Before It’s Too Late” became the Republican candidate’s new slogan. The racially charged campaign was drawing national attention. People magazine ran a story entitled “Hatred Walks the Street,” while Newsweek countered with a cover story entitled “Chicago’s Ugly Election.” With the 1983 mayoral election only two weeks away, polls showed the two candidates almost in a dead heat.
Then, in the final two weeks of the campaign, the tide turned. On Palm Sunday, Washington visited a northwest side church with Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential frontrunner for 1984. An angry crowd accosted the candidate with verbal taunts. Pictures from the scene clearly recorded the hatred on faces in the crowd, forcing many voters to personally confront their own racism. In addition, Washington began campaigning 16 hours a day, focusing on the liberal white lakefront wards and predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods.
On April 12, 1983, a record 79 percent of registered voters participated. Washington received 51 percent of the vote, winning by fewer than 50,000 of the 1.3 million votes cast. Black turnout was an amazing 85 percent, and Washington captured 99 percent of their ballots. What won him the election, however, was gaining more than 80 percent of the Hispanic vote. Washington’s victory made him a national figure overnight. He made several trips to other cities to encourage black voter registration. He also became a role model for black youths.
Beirut on the Lake (or Council Wars)
In his inaugural address, Washington promised reform, attacking the ongoing waste and fraud of the Democratic party machine that he said was destroying Chicago. His speech was a condemnation of the party’s lifelong organization politicians, and many began to fear for their careers. Vrdolyak quickly organized 28 other aldermen into a solid bloc to oppose the 21 pro-Washington members of the city council. By continual votes of 29-21, the Vrdolyak faction reorganized the city council, putting machine loyalists in control of all the powerful key committees—like zoning and finance—that controlled the traditional flow of money and power that had fueled the city government for decades.
But Washington refused to compromise with the machine or with some of his black allies on the city council who wanted their share of the spoils. Though all his proposals would be defeated by a constant 29-21 vote, and all Vrdolyak counter measures passed 29-21, the machine faction could not override his certain veto. City government came to a standstill. Local pundits called it “Council Wars.” “Beirut on the Lake” is how the Wall Street Journal described the stalemate.
Still, Washington managed to introduce some measure of reform to city government. Inheriting a large budget deficit, he laid off 700 city employees—the first mayor in memory to do so—and cut his own salary by 20 percent. He signed the Shakman decree, officially outlawing patronage hiring and firing, created a freedom of information act by executive decree, and encouraged economic development in neighborhoods throughout the city instead of solely concentrating on the downtown area. When vacancies occurred, he hired many more women, blacks, and Hispanics for top positions. He even managed to get the council to approve his nomination of an African American to be the new police chief, and a compromise was reached on the city budget. Chicago inched forward.
The continual council wars were beginning to take their toll on Washington. His temper quickened, his weight ballooned, and his health started to deteriorate. Then, in 1986, a federal judge ruled that the Byrne administration’s previous ward redisricting violated the Voting Rights Act. Despite a rising black and Hispanic population, the Byrne redistricting had reduced the number of black majority wards from 19 to 17 and did not provide for a Latino ward. New boundaries were drawn up for seven wards, all currently under control of the Vrdolyak 29, and special city council elections were ordered for March 1986.
Pro-Washington candidates won in two of the new black wards and two new Latino wards, creating a 25-25 council split with the mayor now able to cast the tie-breaking vote. The new city council quickly passed an ethics ordinance, a tenant’s bill of rights, and other pro-consumer legislation.
Jane Byrne challenged Washington in the 1987 Democratic primary. In order not to split the white vote again, the other mayoral candidates—Vrdolyak and Thomas Hynes, Cook County assessor—filed to run as independents. Washington won the party’s endorsement with 54 percent of the vote, including 99.6 percent of the black vote.
In the April general election, both Vrdolyak and Hynes called each other spoilers, each urging the other to drop out to prevent a Washington victory. Hynes did eventually withdraw 40 hours before the election, but Washington still won with his by-now usual 54 percent of the vote. In his victory speech, he boasted that he would be mayor for 20 years.
It was not to be. Just as he was beginning to govern with a friendly coalition in the city council, Washington died, collapsing at his desk from a massive heart attack the day before Thanksgiving, November 25, 1987. The county medical examiner reported that he was 285 pounds—100 pounds overweight, having gained 60 pounds while in office.
Up to 500,000 mourners passed by his casket at City Hall and thousands more lined the nine-mile route from the church to the cemetery where he was buried. In a public statement recounted by author Gary Rivlin, Vrdolyak, his former archenemy, said: “He was a political man. That was his life. He really didn’t have a personal life, a family life. So all he had was politics.”
Even before Washington was buried, the city’s politicians were jockeying for his successor, who would be chosen by the city council. Unable to agree on a candidate, the ruling coalition collapsed. In its stead, white and black pro-machine aldermen uneasily joined together and settled on Eugene Sawyer, a former Washington ally, but one with a strong pro-organization background. Angry crowds surrounded City Hall, jamming the council chambers. Frightened, Sawyer wavered, but finally accepted the nomination as protesters chanted “Uncle Tom Sawyer” from the gallery. The Washington Era was over. With the end of that era came an end to the former mayor’s efforts to establish a progressive political alliance in Chicago. And, on a larger scale, his vision of creating a national urban agenda—one that would help identify and remedy the problems facing large cities throughout the United States—was never realized.
Clavel, Pierre, and Wim Wiewel, Harold Washington and the Neighborhoods—A Progressive City Government in Chicago, 1983-1987, Rutgers University Press, 1991.
Kleppner, Paul, Chicago Divided: The Making of a Black Mayor, Northern Illinois University Press, 1985.
Miller, Alton, Harold Washington: The Mayor, The Man, Bonus Books, 1989.
Rivlin, Gary, Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race, Henry Holt & Company, 1992.
Chicago, February 1988, p. 110-17.
Newsweek, December 7, 1987, p. 45; December 14, 1987, p. 52.
—James J. Podesta
April 15, 1922
November 25, 1987
The politician Harold Washington was born on the South Side of Chicago to Bertha and Roy Lee Washington Sr. His parents separated, and Washington's father, a stockyard worker, raised the children; he also earned a law degree at night and became a Democratic party precinct captain in the Third Ward.
Harold Washington attended DuSable High School but dropped out after his junior year. He was drafted during World War II and while in the army earned a high school equivalency diploma. In 1941 he married Dorothy Finch; they divorced in 1950.
After the war, Washington entered Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he was the first black student to be elected senior class president. He graduated in 1949 with a degree in political science. He completed law school at Northwestern University in 1952—by "quota" the only black student in his class.
When Roy Washington died in 1953, Ralph Metcalfe, an alderman and Democratic party committeeman, invited Harold Washington to take over his father's precinct. Washington proved to be a talented organizer, successfully mobilizing votes for Metcalfe and training new Democratic party leadership. He was also involved in independent black political organizations.
Washington served in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1965 to 1976, and in the state senate from 1976 to 1980. In office, he selectively dissented from "machine" policies, incurring special wrath in the late 1960s by calling for a police review board with civilian participation. In 1969, he helped organize the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. He fought for consumer protection for the poor and elderly, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and strengthened the Fair Employment Practices Act.
In 1977, Washington openly broke with the machine, running for mayor of Chicago in the special election that followed Richard J. Daley's death. He lost the Democratic primary but won 10.7 percent of the vote. A year later, Washington returned to the state senate despite a machine-orchestrated challenge. In 1980 he was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he demonstrated leadership on issues important to blacks and Latinos. Washington played a key role in the 1982 fight to extend the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and he was secretary of the Congressional Black Caucus. He also supported a nuclear freeze and a 20 percent cut in defense spending.
Shortly after Washington's election, he was approached by independent political and community groups hoping to draft a black candidate for mayor of Chicago. After a massive campaign that registered at least 20,000 new voters by October 1982, Washington agreed to run. The media slighted his candidacy, casting the Democratic primary as a contest between incumbent mayor Jane Byrne and State's Attorney Richard M. Daley, son of the former mayor. But Washington's overwhelming support in the black community, his debate performance, and a high level of grassroots mobilization tipped the balance in his favor. He won with a plurality of 38 percent.
In the 1983 general election, many white Democrats, including some key party leaders, backed Republican Bernard Epton. The campaign was volatile and racially charged, as whites jeered Washington and hurled accusations of personal impropriety. Still, he prevailed with 51.5 percent of the vote due to record-breaking turnouts and support in the black community, and to strong support from Latino and liberal white neighborhoods.
Washington's first term was marred by opposition on the city council, led by Democratic Party–machine stalwarts Edward Vrydolyak and Ed Burke. Washington lacked majority support on the council, and his initiatives often were defeated. The "Council Wars" raged from 1983 through 1986, when a federal court ruled the ward map was racially biased. When Washington sought re-election in 1987, he was challenged by former mayor Jane Byrne in the primary and by Vrydolyak, running as an independent, in the general election. He outpolled his rivals, garnering 99.6 percent of the black vote and significant backing among gays, Latinos, and Asian Americans.
Despite resistance, Washington's structural and programmatic reforms were substantial. He signed the Shakman Decree, which outlawed patronage hiring and firing, and he imposed a $1,500 cap on campaign contributions from companies doing business with the city. He increased racial and ethnic diversity in the city administration, and he aided women and minorities in competing with white male contractors. He appointed Chicago's first black police chief and sought to provide city services more equitably in the black community.
On November 25, 1987, Washington suffered a heart attack at his desk in city hall. He died later that day, mourned by many who believed his career had both reflected and helped to create new avenues for political participation among African Americans.
Carl, Jim. "Harold Washington and Chicago's Schools Between Civil Rights and the Decline of the New Deal." History of Education Quarterly, 41, no. 3 (2001), pp 311–343.
Clavel, Pierre and Wim Wiewel, eds. Harold Washington and the Neighborhoods: Progressive City Government in Chicago, 1983–1987. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991.
Gove, Samuel K., and Louis A. Masotti, eds. After Daley: Chicago Politics in Transition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
Kleppner, Paul. Chicago Divided: The Making of a Black Mayor. DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1985.
Miller, Alton. Harold Washington: The Mayor, The Man. New York: Random House Value, 1995.
Travis, Dempsey J. An Autobiography of Black Politics. Chicago, Ill.: Urban Research Institute, 1987.
dianne m. pinderhughes (1996)