The death of Chicago's first black mayor was marked by tears of sorrow, words of praise — and down-and-dirty politicking.
A few days after Harold Washington had a fatal
"Farewell to our mayor, our first black mayor,
who relieved our troubles and saved our sins,
who left our sidewalks clean and our houses together.
Farewell, farewell, the one and only our mayor.
It is hard to underestimate the impact of Washington's sudden death on the black community. Many compared it to a death in the family. He embodied the hopes and dreams of those who had twice elected him to office. When the news broke that the mayor had fallen ill, the day before Thanksgiving, residents of the South and West Side spontaneously gathered in Daley Center Plaza. At the announcement he had died, many people wept.
Tens of thousands viewed Washington's body when it lay in state at City Hall. They waited for hours in a line five to six people deep that extended five blocks. More than 4,000 people an hour walked by the coffin.
His funeral the following Monday at Christ Universal Temple, 11901 S. Ashland Ave., was televised, but more than 10,000 tried to attend, and the vast majority were left outside in the rain, singing and mourning.
"Even the skies wept for Harold Washington," an Oak Park reader wrote in a letter to the editor.
Hundreds lined the nine-mile route from the church to Oak Woods Cemetery, streaming out of their houses after watching the rites on TV. Signs along the route read, "We'll miss you, Harold. Love, Chicago" and simply, "Goodbye, Harold."
The day after the funeral, the City Council met to chose a successor, a session that lasted well into the next morning. At one point, the Tribune reported, Ald.
But Sawyer was finally persuaded and sworn in at 4:04 a.m. Four minutes later, letters went out firing Washington's top aides. It came as no surprise to Jacky Grimshaw, director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, who managed the late mayor's final campaign.
The day Washington died, an alderman — using Chicago slang for "political sponsor" — told Grimshaw her "Chinaman was dead."
For Grimshaw, the tributes to her boss were as tough to take as the personal insult she suffered.
"As these people are walking around saying what a great man Harold Washington was," she told a Tribune reporter. "The same people who never let up on him for five years and tried to knock him down every chance they got now love the man. That's bull."
Yet in a sense, all the backbiting, insults and racial slurs marked the magnitude of Washington's accomplishment. Shoving history forward by the sheer force of a charismatic personality isn't a guaranteed crowd pleaser, especially in a polarized city like Chicago. Washington became mayor in 1983 by narrowly defeating Bernard Epton, a former state legislator who ran as a Republican — which should have been enough to sink him in heavily Democratic Chicago, except that he was white.
His campaign slogan got right to the point: "Epton — Before It's Too Late."
Campaigning for his first term on the Northwest Side, Washington faced the hostility long provoked by the sight of a black face in a white neighborhood; an angry crowd told black police officers accompanying him to "go back to the South Side where you belong."
Even after winning the election, some aldermen refused to address him with the traditional honorific title "Mr. Mayor." Washington took those slights philosophically, saying: "Every time a black person gets closer to the Holy Grail, they move it back."
He hoped his election would put an end to "plantation politics," the entrenched system in which black politicians were expected to toe the mark dictated by white party leaders.
That didn't happen without a fight. A bloc of white aldermen was committed to stopping Washington's agenda — and the "Council Wars" began.
Washington dismissed the phrase with one of his trademark literary references: "Now, I object to glamorizing this kind of behavior by calling it 'Council Wars,' implying some kind of struggle between equals on a darkening plain where enemies clash by night."
The Tribune thought the bitter battles were an "embarrassment" that damaged the city's bottom line.
"Last week's clownish performance by Ald.
Not one to turn the other cheek, Washington's famed oratorical gifts could also be wielded on the attack. His nickname for one council nemesis was "Darth Vrdolyak," whom he also called a "scurrilous lowlife." He said Burke was "a pimple on an elephant's butt."
When Cook County State's Attorney
As it turned out, Daley sat out the race, and Washington handily won re-election.
It was only then that Washington had solidified control of not only the council but also the Democratic organization. That made his death even more painful for many, who felt that Washington finally would be able to advance his agenda. On hearing of his death, one mourner in Daley Plaza cried, "He wasn't finished." As the Tribune reported that first day, "In many ways, Washington's legacy is not what he did, but what he was on the verge of doing."
Less than a week after his death, Loop College was renamed Harold Washington College. Now the city's main library also bears his name. But less material legacies are harder to define, especially when the change comes in people's hearts and minds — and their dreams.
After the 1983 Democratic primary, a jubilant crowd was celebrating Washington's surprising victory when an African-American woman told a Trib reporter: "Now, we can go for president."