Remembering Harold Washington, Chicago’s 1st African-American Mayor

Longtime Chicagoans will never forget that shocking day on the eve of Thanksgiving 1987. Here at Channel 11 we broke into programming early that afternoon with John Callaway delivering the news that Mayor Harold Washington had died.

“The mayor suffered complete cardiac arrest,” Callaway reported. “He was taken from his City Hall office to Northwestern Memorial Hospital shortly after 11 o’clock this morning. He slumped over his desk while in a meeting with his press secretary Alton Miller.”

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Washington, who was just six months into his second term as mayor, was both a complex and controversial leader. During his tenure, he faced a wall of opposition from many aldermen and even the Cook County state’s attorney—who would later take office as Mayor Richard M. Daley. But Washington heralded a new era in Chicago politics and many believe in national politics as well. Washington was also the first guest on the first episode of “Chicago Tonight” on April 24, 1984, where he talked about the so-called council wars.

Chicago Mayor Harold Washington speaks during the commissioning of the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Chicago in September 1986 in Norfolk, Virginia.Chicago Mayor Harold Washington speaks during the commissioning of the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Chicago in September 1986 in Norfolk, Virginia.

As we approach the 30th anniversary of his death, Washington and his legacy are being remembered in many ways, including an upcoming documentary directed by Chicago filmmaker Joe Winston.

“I think [Washington] was a crucial inspiration for Barack Obama and I think future generations of leaders could still learn from Harold,” said Winston, whose new survey on the life of the late mayor is tentatively titled “Punch 9: Harold Washington for Chicago.” It’s a production that’s been in the works for nearly three years with a release date not yet set. Winston says he’s already amassed a treasure trove of interviews from many people who played key roles during Washington’s 4.5 years in office.

Among them are some of the late mayor’s opponents, who Washington referred to as “obstructionists.” One was former Ald. Dick Mell (33rd Ward). “[He] really opened up that it was about race but also about power,” said Winston. “The old machine guys really made it clear for me how it was really about both those things: who was going to run the city and what was at stake.”

Winston says he became very aware of Washington from the beginning of his first mayoral campaign. Like Washington, Winston was a resident of the famously integrated Hyde Park neighborhood and in 1983 he shot Super 8 home movies of Washington on the campaign trail. Even as a teenager, Winston says the campaign slogan used by Washington’s Republican opponent Bernard Epton—“Epton: Before it’s too late”—stunned him. “I remember writing about it for the high school newspaper,” Winston said. “I was not often exposed to that kind of open racism so that made an impression on me just the sheer naked racism on display really shocked me.”

Winston believes Washington’s impact on national politics is not entirely appreciated or understood to this day—especially when it comes to ethnic coalition building. “Obama cited Harold as a reason why he came to Chicago to start his career and I think Obama learned a thing or two from Harold [about bringing together people],” he said.

Washington also liked to “party hard,” Winston says, and ate a diet rich in fats. After Washington’s death, his heart was found to be horribly enlarged. “It’s gut-wrenching to hear that how he neglected himself and contributed to us losing him before we should have,” Winston said.

What Washington’s second, third or fourth terms may have yielded is purely speculative. Two years after his death, one of his previous mayoral opponents would succeed in taking over the office and Mayor Richard M. Daley would also succeed in serving six terms. 

Winston joins host Eddie Arruza in discussion along with Robin Robinson, a community affairs advisor for the Chicago Police Department who was a longtime news anchor in the city beginning in the Washington era.

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