My political roots are in the Chicago of the 1980s, the interregnum between the Mayor Daleys when racial politics threatened to tear apart the city. National politics -- Reagan, Iran-Contra, etc -- flew at the edge of my political radar, but I was extremely attentive to the ongoing saga of Chicago city politics. Harold Washington, Chicago's mayor from 1983 through 1987, was my first and strongest political icon. I was, and remain, extremely proud that the very first vote I cast in my life was for his re-election in the mayoral campaign of 1987. Washington's substantial victory that year -- after squeaking to victory in 1983 against a previously unknown Republican, whose late surge to near victory was driven by racist fears of a black mayor by much of the white population of Chicago -- represented to me the defeat of the forces of racial divisiveness.
My formative years under the spell of Harold Washington's anti-machine, reformist, and racially unifying administration may help explain my affinity towards Barack Obama, whose career began in that same place and time. I was reminded of all this by a recent article in Salon by Edward McClelland, which is a very interesting look at Chicago's, and Harold Washington's, influence upon Obama during those years.
Here is an excerpt:
Ironically, Chicago became the political capital of black America because it was so racist. For most of the 20th century, it was the most segregated city in America. Blacks used to have a saying: "In the South, the white man doesn't care how close you get, as long as you don't get too high; in the North, he doesn't care how high you get, as long as you don't get too close." During the Great Migration, the refugees who rode up from Mississippi on the Illinois Central Railroad were crowded into the Black Belt, the South Side ghetto portrayed in Richard Wright's "Native Son." Because the black population was so concentrated, white politicians couldn't gerrymander it out of a congressional seat. One of De Priest's successors, William Dawson, was the most powerful black politician in America. He helped boot out the predecessor to Mayor Richard J. Daley, the current mayor's father, who bossed Chicago from 1955 to 1976. In return, Daley's machine rewarded Dawson with control of the entire South Side.
The politician who truly set the stage for Obama's rise was also a South Side congressman: Harold Washington, who was elected mayor of Chicago in 1983, beating two white opponents in the Democratic primary -- incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and future Mayor Richard M. Daley. In the general election, the difference between Washington and his Republican opponent was black and white -- and nothing else. When Washington campaigned at a church in a Polish neighborhood, he was greeted with the grafitto "Die, Nigger, Die."
In New York, Obama read about Washington's victory and wrote to City Hall, asking for a job. He never heard back, but he made it to Chicago just months after Washington took office. In his memoir "Dreams From My Father," he wrote about walking into a barbershop and seeing the new mayor's picture on the wall. (It's probably still there. To this day, Washington's image is as revered by South Side blacks as St. Anthony of Padua's is by Italian Catholics.) The old men, who'd suffered a lifetime of slights by white mayors, saw in Washington a sign that the black community had finally arrived as a citywide power. Blacks may have run things in their own neighborhoods, but they were still crammed into dreary housing projects, and they sent their children to overcrowded schools -- while white schools just across the color line sat half empty. And of course, the big political jobs -- the state's attorney, the County Board president, the mayor -- had always been controlled by the Irish.
"Before Harold," the barber said, "seemed like we'd always be second-class citizens."
After too many triple cheeseburgers and deep-dish pizzas, Washington dropped dead of a heart attack in his second term. But the confidence he instilled in black leaders became a permanent factor in Chicago politics. His success inspired Jesse Jackson to run for president in 1984, which in turn inspired Obama, who was impressed to see a black man on the same stage as Walter Mondale and Gary Hart. Washington also strengthened the community organizations in which Obama was cutting his teeth, says Ransom. Obama's Project Vote, which put him on the local political map, was a successor to the South Side voter registration drive that made Washington's election possible.
"Everybody owes something to Harold Washington, because that was something they never thought could happen," Ransom says. "If Harold can be mayor, what can't we do? Obama talks about the audacity of hope. That audacity has grown into the notion that a black man can be president of the United States."
Before Washington, a black Chicagoan pol's highest aspiration was U.S. representative. After Washington, it became senator, and finally, president. Plenty of other cities have had black mayors -- Detroit, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Baltimore -- but in none of those places have blacks achieved as much statewide political success. Chicago has two unique advantages, says political consultant Don Rose. First, it's in Cook County, which contains nearly half of Illinois' voters. Second, the local Democratic Party is a countywide organization. After Chicago's Carol Moseley Braun beat two white men to win the 1992 Democratic Senate primary, precinct captains in white Chicago neighborhoods and the suburbs whipped up votes for her in the general election.
"They had to go out and sell the black person to demonstrate that the party was still open," says Rose, who sees "direct links" from Washington to Moseley Braun to Obama.
"It was a hard-fought thing. If you use Harold Washington's election as the pivot point, what you begin to see is black politicians making challenges to the regular organizations, and then the organizations having to support them."
For much more on the the tumultuous, transformative, years of Harold Washington's tenure in Chicago, listen to a great program from Ira Glass' This American Life, that was first aired in 1997 on the 10th anniversary of Washington's death.
By the way, on that website, I learned that the Washington-Obama connection is embodied in David Axelrod, "a political advisor to Harold Washington during Washington's second mayoral race and who is also chief political and media advisor to Illinois Senator (and Presidential candidate) Barack Obama."