A look back in time: Mayor Harold Washington; the “magic” of the moment

Harold Washington

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By Juanita Bratcher

Date of Speech: June 21, 2001
(A reprint: First published in www.copylinemagazine.com on January 10, 2010)

Good evening. It’s a pleasure to be here with you this evening, and to take a proud look back in time, a glorious time in the history of the City of Chicago, and indeed an exciting time.

I’d like to thank Dr. Robert T. Starks, Chair of The Harold Washington Institute for Research and Policy; and Dolores Wood, the late mayor’s personal, executive secretary and confidant, for inviting me here tonight, and I thank all of you for coming out.

I consider myself fortunate, having covered the campaign trail of the Honorable Mayor Harold Washington, and of having the opportunity to be an eyewitness to history in the making. The stark memories in my mind of seeing history unravel; unfold right before my eyes are unique and precious to me. Because it was a proud moment in time, to see this campaign up-close and to witness that undying support of others who supported and worked for the candidacy of our illustrious mayor.

Covering the campaign trail of Harold Washington was one of the most exciting assignments in my then six-year career as a journalist. And I’m proud to say that in January, this year (2001), I celebrated 25 years as a journalist. And, I must say, it’s been one helluva good ride.

I met the Honorable Harold Washington in 1981 when he was Congressman of the 1st Congressional District. I was very much aware of him as a politician; I just hadn’t had the honor to talk to him one on one. But my late husband, Neal Bratcher, a union executive, knew him quite well. The first one-on-one meeting with Harold Washington came about when I was down on 47th Street doing research on a Series I was working on for the Chicago Defender about the Greater Grand Boulevard area. The articles focused on a time when the nightclubs in the area were jumping, and the ideal place to be if you loved entertainment, the nightlife, and wanted to hob-nob with some of the greats who came to the area to perform. It came about when Rick Chapel, a Washington aide at the time, saw me walking through the area with a businessman who was introducing me to other business people there and showing me the rope to enhance my 12-article series I eventually wrote. Chapel informed me that the Congressman was also walking the beat chatting with businessmen there – in an off-election year. Washington was available to his constituency at all times. And it didn’t take an election campaign to bring him back to dialogue with his constituency.

Chapel told me that Washington was familiar with the area because he grew up there. And an interview with him would certainly add flavor to the series I was preparing to write. I agreed.

When I finally caught up with the congressman, he was sitting in one of the businesses chatting with people, was very comfortable, and seemed right at home. Harold always kept it real; he never lost the common touch.

A few days later, I had my first one-on-one interview with the Congressman, a product of the Greater Grand Boulevard area, at his congressional office located at 79th & Cottage Grove Ave. Washington was knowledgeable about the inner workings of government and politics, having been a public servant on various levels of government city, state and federal. But there was one thing about the interview that stuck with me over the years. He repeatedly said in that interview that, Everything is by design, which caught my attention in a most profound way.

So as I stand here before you tonight, let me make a few observations. There’s no doubt about it:

* Racial profiling is by design.

* Institutional racism is by design.

* Predatory lending is by design.

* Last one hired, the first one fired, is by design.

* Drugs in our neighborhoods are by design.

* Poor housing stock is by design.

* Many political decisions made in this country, in this city, are by design.

* The disparity in sentences for crack cocaine use and of cocaine use is by design.

And now that I’ve made note of that, let’s take a step back in time.

On November 10, 1982, Harold Washington announced his candidacy for mayor of the City of Chicago. He threw his hat into the mayoral ring after supporters had fulfilled an ultimatum of condition to add 50,000 new Black voters to the voter registration roll (doubled that amount and more), and put in place adequate campaign funding to launch such an endeavor.

Now I’m going to take a slow walk back in history. The move to draft a Black for mayor of Chicago caught political fire in Bethel A.M.E. Church on the South Side of Chicago, one of the largest black churches in the city. Progressive Blacks, for sometime, had been planning and strategizing ways to oust the incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne from office. The coalition of grassroots organizations came together at the church and drafted Harold Washington to carry the banner, out of an initial list of 21 names. The survey was conducted by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Lu Palmer Foundation.

The Political Action Committee of CBUC joined the Auxiliary in its efforts.

It was a period of jubilation for the MOVEMENT and other fair-minded citizens in this city who worked laboriously to elect a mayor of this city who strongly espoused a fair and open government.

Reform in government was at center stage in 1982, and there was a clarion call on the part of many black activists to mobilize the voting electorate to bring about change. Many slogans were set into motion as an outcry for change, but the most effective ones were “We shall see in and Come Alive October Five.” The slogan “We shall see in ‘83” referred to the time of the next mayoral election, and an all-out effort to defeat the incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne.

The Honorable Harold Washington, the Movement’s handpicked candidate, was strong on the issue of fairness in government for all its citizenry. He vowed to open up government to the people, and he lived up to that promise when he signed the Freedom of Information Executive Order. He promised improvement in the neighborhoods, and he did so by distributing equal public services, streets, curbs and gutters, “to all neighborhoods; and in education matters, he was a strong supporter of quality education for every child.”

When Washington accepted the Movement’s draft request to run for mayor, he hit the ground running. The campaign train was moving at full speed ahead, faster than a speeding bullet, and picking up more steam and speed as it traveled along.

A vote for Harold meant putting the death knell on the patronage system, a system that, over the years had bred waste and corruption.

Washington, an astute politician, was selected by a coalition of grassroots organizations to carry the banner. He was a man on a mission. He reluctantly answered the beckoning call to run, and only after he had put his menu on the agenda, what he expected and what he felt could bring about a win. He was driven by a vision and the people followed. But he was also looking at the big, overall picture. A wise man once said, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Harold Washington had a vision. And the Movement had a vision. And Washington pursued that vision with the backing of a strong and active movement. And as we all know, his vision became a reality. Harold had the drawing power to mobilize people, the capacity to pull various ethnic groups together. He was a coalition builder and a believer in coalition politics. A tireless leader and campaigner, energetic, like the energizer bunny, he kept going and going and going. He was charismatic, quick thinking, witty, and an intellectual. He was brilliant. He never sidestepped a good political fight. He was a people person. He had a robust smile, a strong presence when he walked into a room. On Easter Sunday, during campaign stops, he visited nine churches, in addition to three stops elsewhere.

Harold could fire the people up. He’d look out from the podium at a campaign rally into a sea of faces and he’d ask: “You want Harold? You got him!” It was always met with thunderous applause. They truly believed that Harold was on their side, that he had theirs and the city’s best interest at heart, and Harold always made it known every chance he got that he loved Chicago and its people.

Listen to the way Radio great Daddy-O Daylie described it. “It was like magic. And, It wasn’t the Democratic machine that generated this kind of enthusiasm. I have a bowling lane on 87th Street. I watched the kids come in, way back when (the campaign) first started. I watched the winos. The winos were talking about getting out the vote, and they voted. There was something in the air. This kind of magic in the black community has never existed since Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali.”

Certainly, it was an accurate description of what was going on in the city at that time. The mayoral campaign of Harold Washington set off sparks all across the city, specifically in black communities. The campaign was so powerful that it woke up the sleeping giants who had been turned off from the political process. But they saw Harold as a winner! They knew he could articulate the issues in a city that needed a good shot-in-the-arm to move it into the right direction. And Harold was the man, in their eyes and in their hearts.

The last thing I want to do is give the impression that all Black people supported Harold Washington in his mayoral bid. There were some who were blunt, declaring that Washington didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. It was no secret; there were Blacks who supported the incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne’s re-election bid. And others supported Richard M. Daley, now mayor of the city of Chicago. There were some, Blacks as well as others, who said the time wasn’t right to elect a Black mayor, and that the idea was so farfetched. They urged black groups to get commitments from Jane Byrne and Richard Daley, “likely contenders for the post’“ to put more Blacks in high city posts.

The black media, specifically black radio, gave Washington a forum to get his message out.

After an uphill struggle and much hard work, Washington won with 36 percent of the vote in the Feb. 22, 1983 primary election. He garnered 52 percent of the vote in the April 12, 1983 general election against his challenger, Bernard Epton, the Republican candidate.

Even after Harold won the primary election, members of his own Democrat Party jumped ship and supported his Republican challenger. At a press conference, Washington was asked about rumors that Democratic Party officials on the North and Northwest Sides were holding secret meetings to support Bernard Epton, the Republican candidate. Although he didn’t know the rumors to be true, he admitted that he had heard the same rumors.

“I still maintain that all of the 50 ward committeemen will give their support to this campaign,” he said.

But he warned that those committeemen who have not done “what they should have rightfully done, should get out of the party, posthaste. I carry the banner. I won it by right; no one gave it to me. It’s not something that someone passed on. I won it fair and square. And by right, I’m entitled to their support. I’m not making it easy for Democratic ward committeemen; they know their responsibility as well as I do.”

Washington acknowledged that Blacks had made a tremendous contribution to the Democratic Party and “they could not have survived without our people. They would be a second-rate party if we weren’t in it.”

After Washington was sworn into office, the remnants of racial politics spilled over into the City Council. Three days after he took the Oath of Office, Washington adjourned a City Council meeting and walked out. His 21 supporters in the Council, including five Whites, were not far behind him. They walked out after the “29”, the Vrdolyak faction in the Council, had moved to adopt resolutions to change committee structure and rules by which the council operated. Washington vetoed the resolutions. The impasse in the council in regards to reorganization ended up in court.

We watched obstruction by the “Vrdolyak 29,” holding up confirmation for Washington appointees to the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Transit Authority and the Chicago Housing Authority.

But Harold didn’t give in to the power plays and shenanigans of the ’29. He used the power of the veto to ward off unwanted legislation (ordinances). While his loyal 21-aldermen support base was firm and intact, it was far short of the numbers needed to give him a majority in the city council.

Harold won the political battle through reapportionment, enabling him to tear apart the stranglehold of the ’29 and his appointees finally taking over the strongholds of government.

In October 1984, about 86 Washington appointees were being held hostage. Washington was entitled to 900 confidential and policy jobs, exempt from political hiring and firing, according to a consent decree issued in U.S. District Court by Judge Nicholas J. Bua.

Washington, in his April 29, 1983 Inauguration Speech at Navy Pier, acknowledged that his election “was the result of the greatest grass roots effort in the history of the city of Chicago. It may have been equaled somewhere in this country, I know not where” he said, adding that, “we know the strength of the grass roots leadership because our election was based on it. We want this power infrastructure to grow because the success of tomorrow’s city depends upon it, and the world and country look for an example as to how we can find the way out.

My election was made possible by thousands and thousands of people who demanded that the burdens of mismanagement, unfairness and inequity be lifted so that the city could be saved.”

And to all the activists and foot soldiers who worked laboriously to elect Mr. Washington, they listened intensely and cheered loudly, when at his Inauguration he declared: “Business as usual will not be accepted by the people of this city; business as usual will not be accepted by any part of this city; business as usual will not be accepted by this chief executive of this great city.”

The successful election of Harold Washington was the culmination of many years of struggle by “The Movement”; mostly grassroots people who were fed up with the establishment and the coming together of a progressive coalition of Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians and others. It was an uphill struggle, but the Movement prevailed.” And what’s more, his electrifying campaign woke up the sleeping giant, many of whom in the black community had been turned off from the electoral process.

After his primary win Washington stated, “People can speak when they want to speak, and they speak loudly and clearly. In doing what had to be done, after a hard fought battle, the people won this campaign,” adding that, “You have changed the course of this city forever. This city will never be the same, thank God, it shouldn’t ever be the same.”

It was the second time around for Harold. He had run for the post in 1977, racking up 11 percent of the vote, 77,000 votes.

So why did I write a book about Harold? I am a true believer in preserving Black history for generations to come.

Editor’s Note: The book is titled: “Harold: The Making of a Big City Mayor”.

We don’t hear that much about the Movement anymore, a movement that propelled Washington into the Fifth Floor office of City Hall, and brought about many constructive changes in the city. Is the Movement now in exile? Where is the movement that pumped up motivation and determination to make things happen for Harold? Where is the movement that actively worked to bring about change in this city? What happened to the revolution? Not a revolution with guns and ammunition, but the ammunition of knowledge and know-how. Have the old soldiers faded away and gone off into the sunset? Who will take up the banner in the struggle for liberation of people in their quest for civil rights, for human rights, those who have consistently been shut out of the system? How do we mobilize people? How do we get people to come together for the common good of all, for the community, other than in crisis?

In order to bring about constructive change one must be consistent and persistent. Time waits on no man. Success comes only to those who persist, not to those who start out and waiver, but to those who hold out to the end. We’ve got to build on what we already have, and we must create possibilities for those things that allows for growth and development, those things we do not have or want.

Collectively, we have an exceptional amount of power in our hand, in our community; but when will we use that power to the fullest extent?

Harold Washington loved the city of Chicago. He gave it his all. He left a legacy that should be preserved and protected.

But what have we learned since the Washington years? Are we better off in this city today than we were in 1983, 1987? I think not. The harsh reality is that the magic is gone. But we have the power in our hands to bring it back.

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