Like so many clichés, Chicago politicians seem to be unfairly stigmatized with a negative reputation for underhanded backroom dealings in smoke-filled rooms, but Harold Washington, the city’s first Black mayor had an impressive record and blazed an honorable trail of public service—for all people—but especially for the legions of African-American elected officials who followed his path, and which obviously laid the groundwork for the first African-American to be the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party to be the President of the United States, the Senator from (Chicago) Illinois, the Honorable Barack Obama. (Also, it is no accident the Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, was a political advisor to Washington).
A lawyer who became an Illinois state representative, state senator and a U.S. congressman, Washington was a seasoned legislator before he became the chief executive (mayor) of one of the largest cities in the nation. He was skillfully adept to Illinois politics and equally qualified to head the state’s largest city.
Born on April 15, 1922 in Chicago, Washington grew up and attended school in the Bronzeville neighborhood, a Black metropolis of Chicago’s Southside and the epicenter of the city’s Black culture. His father, Roy Washington, was a lawyer and a Methodist minister who became one of the city’s first precinct captains—a fact that nurtured young Harold during his formative years. His mother was Bertha Washington. They were married shortly after she arrived in Chicago from Central Illinois to pursue a singing career. They had four children including Harold.
As many Black people of that era, Washington attended a segregated high school. It had been recently opened and he was a member of its first graduating class. In addition, he was a gifted athlete having placed first in the high hurdles event in the citywide track meet in 1939, and second in the low hurdles event. Washington reportedly dropped out of high school prior to graduation saying that he no longer felt challenged and went to work at a meat packing plant.
With the help of his father, Washington got another job at the U.S. Treasury Department. There at about 19 years old, he met Dorothy Finch, two years his junior. They were married and not long after, the United States was drawn into World War II and Washington was drafted into military service and sent overseas. As was the custom then, he was assigned to a segregated unit of the Air Force Engineers in the Philippines that built runways and bridges to facilitate the movement of airplanes and ground troops.
Washington spent three years of “segregated” service in the South Pacific supposedly fighting for “someone else’s” freedom and democracy, and later on in his biography, the author recalled how his experience of racism during that time molded and shaped much of his later life, especially in politics. Despite tremendous obstacles, he rose to the rank of first sergeant even though Blacks at that time, according to the military (and in the larger society), were not considered brave enough or smart enough for combat. (The real reason however, was that the White military was apprehensive to provide Blacks with weapons fearing that they [Blacks] would justifiably turn on them [Whites] for the way they were treated.)
In 1946, when he returned to civilian life, Washington used his G.I. benefits to continue his education by enrolling in Roosevelt College (now University). It was one of the first integrated private colleges in the Chicago area. His time in the service and at Roosevelt was eye opening realities to the racial inequities that were a part of the fabric of American society. So when he was faced with restrictive covenants (discrimination in housing), he became immersed in fund-raising drives designed to overcome those housing restrictions. To accelerate involvement in the college extra-curricular activities, he joined the student council at Roosevelt in 1948 and also became a member of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.
The following year, his mission took him to Springfield, as a student representative, to protest the impending legislative probe of subversives against the Communist Party. However, he made a conscious effort to avoid extremist activities, even the sit-ins and demonstrations that were usually the mainstay of student protests. But he would always remain focused on his academic studies and in August 1949, Washington graduated from Roosevelt with a B. A. degree and enrolled at Northwestern University School of Law.
During this transition, he divorced his wife. Their relationship was eroding since he went into the military and his student activities after he returned further exacerbated the fragile union. While in law school, he maintained a low profile and the fact that he was the only Black in his class was helpful in curbing his activist tendencies. However, he did enter school politics and was made treasurer of the Junior Bar Association, which helped his with his law school classes. Washington joined the Nu Beta Epsilon fraternity largely because he was excluded from the others by virtue of his race. To supplement his G.I. bill income, he worked on evenings and weekends which minimized his time for any extra curricular activities, and introduced him to “ward” politics, famous in Chicago.
Washington graduated in 1952 and continued working in the 3rd Ward where he met former Olympian and future congressman, Ralph Metcalfe, who further introduced him to one of the country’s political machines, the Daley’s political machine, which according to legend, would reward its friends and punish its enemies severely. Metcalfe was one of (Richard) Daley’s allies and took newcomer, Washington “under his wing” to “show him the ropes.”
He began working with the 3rd Ward Young Democrats to establish distance/independence from the Democratic/Daley machine, though he was keen aware their strategic inter-dependency, relative to the big picture, success in electing candidates and getting issues passed. While working there, Washington met Mary Ella Smith whom he reportedly dated for the next 20 years, but never married. Rumor had it that he was already “married” to politics and she would probably be an undue, additional burden. Smith reportedly said, “He was a political animal. He thrived on it and I knew any thought of marriage would have to wait.”
In 1960, Washington founded the Chicago League of Negro Voters that challenged the city’s political machine. The league was not successful in its first run against the machine, but it persisted aligned itself primarily with more Black voters, with Washington staying in the background but planning all the strategy. Eventually in 1965, there was an at-large election to fill a number of vacant seats in the state legislature. Because of insufficient signatures on the nominating petitions, the Illinois Election Board threw out the election slate. In the subsequent election Washington received enough ballots and ended with a seat in the state legislature behind Daley’s pick. During his time in the state House of Representatives, there was a constant tension between the Chicago “machine” and him. And though Washington was somewhat beholden to Metcalfe, who was beholden to Daley, it never evolved into a triangular allegiance.
As a state representative, Washington became an advocate for the rights of Black people. He worked on the Fair Housing Act (a carryover from his days as a student fighting restrictive covenants in housing); the Fair Employment Practices Commission and on strengthening the Civil Rights Act. After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he sought unsuccessfully to make King’s birthday a state holiday. Most times, he would avoid confrontation with the Daley machine and would take a “no-vote” rather than face a head-on collision. But he was re-elected to the (state) House despite strong opposition from Daley.
When the President of the Illinois Senate decided to retire in 1975, Washington was in line to become a state senator. However, he needed the (State Democratic) Party’s support which led directly to Daley. But at the insistence of the retiring president, Washington got the support, and was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1976. Then his legal troubles began; they appeared to be politically motivated: failure to file tax returns; non-performance of his duty to clients; and a host of seemingly trivial, yet annoying, attacks that prompted him to publicly state, “Sometimes personal problems are enlarged out of proportion to one’s entire life picture and important things are abandoned.” However, Washington survived and remained focused on his work. He focused strongly on the Human Rights Act, restricting all forms of discrimination ranging from race, religion and marital status to real estate transactions and the availability of public accommodations in conjunction with other legislators, and a rewriting of the Illinois Constitution. At that time Illinois had a Republican governor and Washington, along with other Democrats had to marshal all of their persuasive skills to effectuate any legislative victories. According to his colleagues, Washington’s calm non-combative persona would usually win over in the Senate.
In 1980, Washington was elected to the U.S. Congress for the 1st District of Illinois. While in Congress, he became a member of the Congressional Black Caucus but his attention remained mostly on events in Chicago. So when the mayoral primary turned into a slugfest between two White rivals, Washington moved in gaining more votes than either of them winning the primary. He faced a formidable Republican opponent in the general election, and as expected, subtle shades of racial politics surfaced. Some from his own party supported his rival however, he prevailed to become Chicago’s first African-American Mayor.
There was an atmosphere of hostility when Washington began his first term as mayor. It was extremely difficult to move his agenda forward working with a racially polarized city council that business between the mayor and the council was dubbed “council wars” referencing “Star Wars.” The Republican candidate that Washington defeated to become mayor led the majority in the city council and stymied most of the Mayor’s proposals and initiatives. Increase in crime, decrease in the ridership in public transportation, loss in the city’s population and every other conceivable municipal problem were attributed to Washington who used his veto power to get things done or to neutralize his opposition. Being chairman of the city council also helped when his vote would break any deadlocks. In addition, he had a base of core supporters, including African-Americans, Latinos and White liberals, who helped him through his first term.
Despite a recalcitrant city council, Washington became known as Chicago’s ambassador to the world winning a second term as mayor. But it was short lived; months later, he collapsed suddenly in his office and died within two hours. He was 65 years old. Immediately after his death, rumors of foul play surfaced, but nothing became of them—just rumors.
In the years following his death, the city renamed a local college the Harold Washington College. The Chicago Public was also renamed the Harold Washington Library Center, so too was the Harold Washington Cultural Center and Harold Washington Park.
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.