Panel explores historic role of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington

A distinguished panel of experts gathered at the University of Chicago recently to reflect on the 30th anniversary of the election of Harold Washington, the city’s first African American mayor.

“When we describe that time, we talk about the culmination of three things: the man, the movement and the moment,” said Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington, who moderated the discussion. The lively event offered a range of perspectives on how Washington changed Chicago history, along with insightful takes on his legacy and rare video footage from Chicago filmmaker Bill Stamets’ 1987 Super-8 film, Chicago Politics: A Theater of Power.

Organized by the Chicago Studies Program, which the University Community Service Center runs in partnership with the College, and by the Institute of Politics, the April 9 discussion gave students an opportunity to connect with the city in a meaningful way. UCSC Director Amy Chan said she hoped the event would “spark an open and honest dialogue about race in Chicago politics.” In addition, she said, “We wanted students to gain some historical perspective as they consider careers in public service.”


Panelists included Institute of Politics Director David Axelrod, AB’76, who covered Harold Washington’s first mayoral campaign as a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune; Chicago Alderman Will Burns, AB’95, AM’98; Michael Dawson, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science, who directs the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture; and Jacky Grimshaw, Washington’s political strategist, who now serves as vice president of policy at the Center for Neighborhood Technology. In addition to the UCSC and the Institute of Politics, the event was co-sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and the International House Global Voices Lecture Series.

Washington, a longtime state legislator and civil rights advocate who had been elected in 1981 to represent the South Side in the U.S. House of Representatives, was initially reluctant to enter the Chicago mayoral race, Axelrod recalled. But in the summer of 1982, as the African American community grew disenchanted with incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and increasingly vocal in their enthusiasm for Washington, he pledged to run if his supporters could raise $1 million and register 50,000 new voters. To his surprise, those goals were easily surpassed, and so began the historic campaign that led to his election on April 12, 1983.

In order to secure the Democratic nomination and win the general election in a political climate of racial anxiety, Washington forged a citywide coalition that united disparate communities around a common agenda of inclusion and reform. “One of the things that impressed me was how positive the movement was,” Axelrod said, recalling how the campaign’s hopeful “sunrise” buttons inspired the logo he helped design for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Several panelists noted the strong similarities between Washington and Obama in terms of governing style and campaign tactics. “One of the things you see for the first time in quite awhile is the ability to organize from the grassroots up,” Dawson said of the Obama campaign. Once in office, he added, both men faced fierce opposition to policy agendas aimed at helping vulnerable minority communities.

“I wasn’t around during the Harold Washington era, so it was interesting to hear that multiracial coalition-building has roots in Chicago, and that it affected Obama,” said Linda Nyemba, a fourth-year cinema and media studies major.

One of the night’s recurring themes was the challenge of preparing the next generation of African American political leaders—whether they run for office or stay out of the limelight, helping devise winning electoral campaigns and smart policy. For UChicago political science doctoral student Allen Linton II, AB’11, who helped organize the event, Washington is as much of a role model as the current president.

“[Washington] had big ideas, and he pursued them, and he was able to not only win election, but to win re-election in a tumultuous climate,” Linton said. “So I think it encourages young people—who, right or wrong, are known for big ideas, and sometimes for being naïve—to go for it.”