My Memories of Harold Washington

Growing up in central Illinois Chicago was always the boogeyman of Illinois politics where the Machine ran everything and ‘the blacks’ were dangerous.  Democrats were inherently bad so the entire spectacle was interesting to watch.

However, I also spent my summers in Covington, Georgia where my Dad lived.  Covington’s main claim to fame  was being the setting for the first episodes of the Dukes of Hazzard.  Race in semi-rural Georgia was a lot different than race in Central Illinois.  It’s hard to imagine two cultures more different within the United States, but a small town in Georgia 10-15 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was far different from Bloomington Normal even as conservative as the towns were.  Molly Ivins said of being a southern liberal:

“Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything,”

After spending about 7 summers prior to 1983 (about the time my Dad moved further south to essentially a northern culture in Florida), watching the 1983 Chicago Mayor’s race on television opened my eyes to many things I’d never seen before.  People said they believed in Civil Rights in Bloomington Normal (after all we were only down the highway from Everett Dirksen’s home district), but a black man as Mayor of Chicago terrified them even as they were three hours a way.  I was always assured when I’d talk about Georgia and how African-Americans were treated that we were different, after all, Lincoln was from Central Illinois and much of the beginnings of the Republican Party were in the area and it had been strongly in favor of abolition.

But the reaction to Harold made woke me up to the reality that African Americans didn’t receive the same treatment in Chicago or in Central Illinois, we just hid it better.  African-Americans in Central Illinois didn’t live in the shacks I’d saw in Covington and would never see people living in again until visiting Nicaragua.  I didn’t see the abject poverty in Central Illinois. I didn’t see swimming pools that were effectively segregated by social pressure.

But I did hear the fear and anger in the voices of those people when Harold won.  To them, Chicago would be destroyed and the riots of 1968 would return.  Bernard Epton’s “before it’s too late” captured their attitude perfectly. (I’d mention my grandmother here, but apparently that would be throwing her under the bus)

As Molly Ivins said, once I figured they were lying about race, I started to question everything.  Harold wasn’t just some random black man though who showed revealed the deep seated bigotry.  He was a genuinely likable guy who was not angry at what he faced.  He was a guy who could laugh and reach out no matter how much whites rebuffed him.  When you heard Jesse Jackson or Gus Savage, they seemed angry–and often with reason, but it was hard to relate if  you did not understand where they were coming from.  Harold was different using humor to disarm race and then speak quite plainly to an audience without changing what he said to different audiences.

Harold Washington died before I was even old enough to vote and I never lived in his city while he was Mayor.  That said, I learned more about the people around me because of him and he has always been one of my political heroes. He was a very flawed man as well, but the thing we have forgotten since his time is that perfection often comes at the expense of experience.

4 thoughts on “My Memories of Harold Washington

  1. I lived in Hyde Park 25 years ago; even there — in Harold’s own neighborhood — one could see some of the racial hysteria that put Bernie Epton as close to the mayor’s office as any Republican since Big Bill Thompson. I remember being so happy and proud when Harold won.

    His ability to overcome his enemies both in the elections and on the job (maybe a tougher task) made me a fan for life. I wish his life had been longer; the link above is to something I wrote on the twentieth anniversary of his death. Thank you for commemorating a happier anniversary.

  2. This is a great post. I suppose it’s always good to question things. Perhaps things aren’t always as they seem to be. Also it sounds like people in central Illinois had a certain amount of fear.

  3. It may be that what we are seeing in the Democratic Presidential primary season of 2008 is the race that Chicago dealt with in 1983. It should be remembered that most of America has not had their own “Harold Washington” and that they have not lived in a community, region, or state where the highest elected official was Black.

    Or at least a community that elected Blacks and then Whites.

    Many of the communities that have elected an African-American for mayor, etc, in the midst of social dislocation or upheaval, and don’t again elect a white–leading to some to quietly consider the town “lost”.

    Statewide, the Washington years also had the fortunate effect of bringing together Cook County’s first “Dream Ticket” (including Judge Pucinski for Circuit Clerk and Ambassador Braun for Recorder), setting the stage for “upticket” statewide races (certainly not begrudging Roland Burris’ wins as Comptroller, but his election as AG, along with CMB and Secretary White’s wins, were greatly benefited by the novelty of Blacks high on the ticket having worn off).

    Frankly, in this regard, an African-American at the top of an Illinois ticket or serving as chief executive is as noteworthy as Tiger Woods winning a tournament. This small step has been little noticed by the national press and commentators–probably because it would stand in the way of their prejudged notions.

    The history of Chicago may come to see the Byrne-Washington administrations as the interregnum between Daleys, but contemporaneous viewers see the importance of both mayors in re-engaging disaffected Independents and Progressive Democrats back into the electoral process.

  4. Thanks for sharing your insights on Mayor Washington. He was born on this day in 1922. He is missed by many…

    peace, Villager

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