Transcript

84:

Harold
Transcript

Originally aired 11.21.1997

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/84

Act One. Yesterday.

Ira Glass

Before our story begins, let's remember how it used to be. Jackie lived on the South Side, in a black neighborhood. City didn't enforce the housing code properly, didn't investigate arsons.

Jackie Grimshaw

There would be fires going on in Woodlawn, daily, several times a day. And it was just fire engines all the time. And so my daughter started to believe that when buildings got old and died, like people got old and died, that you knew a building was old and was dying because it would burn up.

Ira Glass

Before our story begins, Chicago was run by the Democratic machine. And black aldermen, like Danny Davis, would turn out the vote for the machine, election after election. But the machine didn't reward the black wards for those votes the way it paid back the white wards on the North Side, with street cleanings and sewers, with newly paved roads and sidewalks, with economic development money.

Congressman Danny Davis

Well, actually, we had called the areas "colonies," just basically picking up the garbage in these wards, just trying to keep them clean was a real problem. Person who was elected, there would be so much focus on garbage pickup that you'd almost have to just be the garbage alderman. I recall telling people time and time again that I was tired of just being "the garbage alderman."

Ira Glass

Before our story begins, the Chicago political machine squeezed black kids into mobile trailers behind public schools, rather than let them attend white schools just blocks away. Before our story begins, the Chicago machine built high-rise public housing to hold blacks on the South Side and keep them from moving into white neighborhoods. Before our story begins, the Chicago political machine built a system of highways that coincidentally divided black neighborhoods from white, and particularly insulated the mayor's all-white neighborhood, Bridgeport. Typical inequities, unemployment in the white 11th Ward was 0%. Unemployment in the 4th Ward, where blacks lived, was 25%.

This is a story about one ethnic group doing what so many other ethnic groups have done in this country, put its own candidate in city hall, won the mayor's office. But because this ethnic group happened to be black, what happened was unlike anything that happens when an Italian politician, or an Irish politician, or a Jewish politician takes city hall.

White voters deserted their own political party. White politicians tried to stage a public, slow-motion coup. And the mayor faced pressures that were different from those faced by any white mayor of any city in America. And this little parable of race and politics in America does not take place in some distant, pre-civil-rights past. It happened just 20 years ago here in Chicago.

Host

Good evening, you're on with Harold Washington.

Caller

Good evening. Mr. Washington, could you clear up a point for me? I understand that once you move in to city hall, you're going to remove all the elevator boxes and replace them with vines. Is that true?

Host

What? Replace them with what?

Caller

With vines.

Harold Washington

Vines? V-I-N-E-S?

Host

You know what, I'm not even going to ask you why.

Harold Washington

No, I don't think we have 3 million Tarzans in this city.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. This month marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington. He died early in his second term of office in 1987. Today, we remember Harold's story with a show that we first put together a decade ago for the 10th anniversary of his death.

If you don't know anything about Harold Washington, you're in for a treat. He's one of those rare politicians who reaches high office and then somehow stays idealistic and outspoken, who's funny, who's smart, who's a great talker. But after most of our recent elections, where most politicians seem so focus-grouped, and poll-driven, and timid, it's interesting to hear somebody with such idealism and nerve.

Act One of our program today is about the past. Act Two is about the present and the future. Stay with us.

A word about the voices you're going to be hearing over the course of this hour. It's mostly people who were close to Harold Washington, many of them activists and politicians, Lu Palmer, Judge Eugene Pincham, Congressman Danny Davis, then-alderman Eugene Sawyer. There are people from his administration, Jackie Grimshaw, Grayson Mitchell, Timuel Black. And some reporters who followed his story, Vernon Jarrett, Monroe Anderson, Gary Rivlin, Laura Washington, who later became his press secretary. There will also be an occasional opponent or voter. Stick around.

Act Two. The Present And The Future.

Ira Glass

Act One, Yesterday. For decades, Chicago politics had been run with an iron hand by the legendary political boss Richard J. Daley. Our story begins just after his death in 1976, when the machine was sputtering a bit with no strong leader and the possibility, a small possibility, of change. To give you a sense of what it meant to be loyal, black alderman in the Chicago machine at that time, consider what happened in city hall the day Richard Daley died.

Vernon Jarrett

By tradition, the president pro tem of the city council should have at least occupied the mayor's office until such time as a process was determined for the election of a new mayor.

Ira Glass

And who was the president pro tem?

Vernon Jarrett

That was Wilson Frost, a loyal, black alderman from the 34th Ward, a Daley democrat, a lawyer, impeccable reputation, impeccable credentials. The only misqualification he had was he's black. God ordained that he be born black. And the power structure sent police officers to the fifth floor, armed, to sit at the door to prevent Frost from even entering the mayor's office. That was a tremendous insult.

Ira Glass

It was an insult, but it was not unusual. The white machine picked who the black leaders would be. And mostly, those leaders did what they were told. Blacks in Chicago had nowhere to go but the Democratic machine. They were stuck. But then there were a series of famous and especially infuriating insults from the white political establishment. Biggest among them, black voters finally elected an anti-machine candidate named Jane Byrne who, once in office, betrayed them, sucked up to the white machine, made appointments and decisions specifically to prove she was not in the pocket of black Chicago.

Then circumstances came together, some by planning, some by luck, that made it possible to elect a black mayor. The planning, organizers registered over 100,000 minority voters, held rallies and meetings decrying it was time to elect a black mayor. The luck, two white candidates split the white vote. One more piece of luck, the Chicago Democratic party had created, in spite of itself, Harold Washington. Vernon Jarrett was an old friend and a vocal newspaper columnist.

Vernon Jarrett

Harold was in that party now. Don't forget, Harold had been a precinct captain. His father had groomed him as a precinct captain since he was, what, 11 years old. But his father was done wrong. So Harold is an unusual person in that he nursed this resentment of how the Democratic party had deserted his father at one time when his father ran for alderman of the 3rd Ward.

He was a confused guy, got a little sense of mission in him, and wanting to do the right thing. But yet he was balanced off by this pragmatism that you got to play ball to a degree with the organization. And he was correct. He wouldn't made it without the Democratic machine.

Ira Glass

Usually in Chicago, political activists had a choice. They could go with politicians who were good on the issues, but then had no political experience dealing with the machine. Or they could get hacks who knew the machine, but were terrible on the issues. Washington was the rarest kind of politician, delivered on the issues, knew the machine, which was why, in fact, he did not want the job. Lu Palmer was at the center of the effort to draft a black mayor.

Lu Palmer

Well, we talked to Harold. He was reluctant, very reluctant. At the time, he was in Congress and was enjoying being a congressman.

Ira Glass

Enjoying it partly because he was far from the machine.

Lu Palmer

He set some requirements, how much money we'd have to raise, we'd have to get 50,000 new voters.

Ira Glass

Did he ask that thinking, well, you'll never get that?

Lu Palmer

He used 50,000 knowing that no way in the world are they going to come up with 50,000 new reg-- and that was hard in those days to come up with 50,000 registered voters.

Ira Glass

They registered 130,000 new voters.

Vernon Jarrett

May I jump ahead a moment? You know what put Harold Washington over? Were the broad masses of black people when they had the primary debates.

Jackie Grimshaw

Oh, the triumph was the televised debate.

Monroe Anderson

Because you had Daley. You had Byrne. And then you had somebody who could talk, Harold.

Ira Glass

Let's review that line-up. Daley was Richard M. Daley, son of the late mayor, Richard J. Daley. He is, by the way, our current mayor here in Chicago. Byrne was Jane Byrne, the then-incumbent mayor. And Harold, you already know Harold. Those were the three democratic contenders in the mayoral race. It is the fall of 1983.

Here's a typical exchange between them. The three of them were asked at one point what they would do, if anything, about the police department's Office of Professional Standards, the place in the police department which handles complaints about police misconduct and brutality. Jane Byrne and Richard Daley sound basically like normal politicians. They offer dull truisms like--

Jane Byrne

I believe that the members of the police board, chaired by Reverend Wilbur Daniels, really do take that job very seriously.

Ira Glass

Here is the most specific that Richard Daley, then-state's attorney, got that day.

Richard M. Daley

I think, like anything else, there must be improvement. And there is nothing wrong with improvement in the Office of Professional Standards.

Ira Glass

When Harold Washington comes on, what is most noticeable is that he sounds like a human being.

Harold Washington

The precise question was what would I do to improve the Office of Professional Standards. When I answer it, I'll be the only one who answered the question. The Office of Professional Standards was arrived at after a long and tortuous situation in this city in which members, not all, but members of the Chicago Police Department consistently refused to be adequate and professional in their handling of Hispanic, black people. It's just that simple.

Monroe Anderson

What happened was he became plausible to the black community. Suddenly, they heard somebody who was articulate, knew what he was talking about, and was forceful.

Harold Washington

In the first place, the appointees, all but nine, are political appointees. Many of the investigators are wedded to or related to members of the Chicago Police Department.

Vernon Jarrett

A lot of people, black people, had felt all along that we'd been bossed by the dunderheads. They are not that bright. They don't know that much. And Harold, Harold Washington standing there between Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley, the son. So cool, so well-read that people, black people, just thrilled. It was like watching Michael Jordan with a basketball.

Harold Washington

Mr. Brzeczek, unfortunately, at the behest of this mayor, as a minion of this mayor, as a subaltern of this mayor, as a subordinate of this mayor, has destroyed his credibility by going on television--

Lu Palmer

Harold used to use words that even some of these journalists, these white journalists, had to scratch their head and go to the dictionary. But black people loved that.

Judge Eugene Pincham

And he jumped on Jane Byrne, and took her by surprise, shocked her. And she was still reeling from the shock. And I shall never forget it that night. I said, this man's got it made. He's in.

Ira Glass

Here's one way that being a black candidate for office is different from being a white candidate. If you're black, you get thrown into the chasm of misunderstanding that divides white America from black America in a way that white politicians almost never are. Two Americas simply see certain things differently.

For instance, what should Harold Washington say about the late mayor Richard J. Daley? Many white Chicagoans still held him in awe, while black and Latino Chicago, for good reasons, had a different take. Daley openly stood against integration of the city's neighborhoods. The night after Martin Luther King, Junior's death, he ordered police to shoot to kill rioters. Well, here's what Harold decided to say.

Harold Washington

When he says that he would hope that I would have all the good qualities of past mayors, there are no good qualities of past mayors to be had. None. None. None. None.

I did not mourn at the bier of the late mayor. I regret anyone dying. I have no regrets about him leaving. He was a racist from the core, head to toe and hip to hip. There's no danger of doubt about it. And he spewed and fawned and oppressed black people to the point that some of them thought that was the way they were supposed to live, just like some slaves on the plantation thought that was the way they were supposed to live.

Laura Washington

It was just like everything else he did and said. It was historic. No one would challenge the late mayor on anything, much less call him that kind of name. And I think that was what made him so provocative. It's what made him so loved by the people who supported him and so hated by the people who wanted to deny him the office. He didn't mince any words.

Harold Washington

I give no hosannas to a racist nor do I appreciate or respect his son. If his name were anything other than Daley, his campaign would be a joke. He has nothing to offer anybody, but a bent-up, tin can smile, no background. And he runs on the legacy of his name, an insult to common sense and decency. Everything I've ever gotten in the world I worked for. Nobody gave me anything.

Grayson Mitchell

The primary taught him that he could transcend being the third candidate, of being the black candidate. And he could take that Adam Powell positioning, he could take that Marcus Garvey positioning, where you the hybrid between the politician and the public man. And you become somewhere between Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, somewhere in superstar.

Harold Washington

And although I may sound abrasive, I have no malice toward anybody. I have a job to do. I've got places to go and things to do. And I approach this job just like any masterful surgeon when you have to cut out a cancer. I cut it out with no emotion. Get it out. Get out. This dominant culture may have messed up my pocket, but they haven't messed up my head one bit.

I believe in the powers of redemption. And I simply cannot believe in the God I worship that he would permit us to sit on this earth for 400 years, or rather, in this country for 400 years and suffer the indignities which we have suffered, piled time after time, high after high, and so heavy it has almost broken the backs of one of the most powerful people in this world. I can't believe there is no redemption. But that redemption is not going to come out in hatred. It's going to come out in positive attitude toward our fellow man.

We've come into the 1980s with an understanding that we have not just a right, but a responsibility to give the best that we have to a society. We want to give it. And we're gonna give it if we have to beat 'em across the head, and knock 'em down, and make 'em take it. We're gonna give it to 'em.

Ira Glass

During this election and during Harold Washington's terms as mayor, in Chicago, every day was the day after the OJ verdict. Every day was the day when black and white Chicago took a look at the same set of facts and drew two different conclusions. For instance, when the media raised questions about Washington's past, it made white Chicagoans question his qualifications for office. But it made minority voters more loyal.

Judge Eugene Pincham

In 1983, when Harold announced his candidacy, 95% of black people never heard of him. And what happened was the white power structured media first criticized Harold for having been convicted of a tax violation. He failed to file his returns.

Ira Glass

We should be precise about this. It wasn't that he hadn't paid. It's that he hadn't filed the returns.

Judge Eugene Pincham

He hadn't filed the return. That's right. He had paid withholding. There was nothing to it. So what difference does it make? But the point is when this occurred, it gave him publicity that he otherwise would not have gotten. Many people in the black community resented the criticism being leveled against him.

They then said, well, you're not married. You can't be mayor if you're not married. We made Jane Byrne marry Mullen. And we made Jim Thompson marry Jane Thompson. We made Kennedy in the Senate go back to his wife. You cannot be a viable politician if you're not married.

Here again, he did something that blacks aren't accustomed to seeing blacks do. He stood up, and he said, I'm not going to get married. Everybody thought, man, go marry if this is going to make-- he said, I'm not. Nobody can tell me to marry. I don't want to marry. My marital status has nothing to do with my qualifications for mayor.

And here again, the black community looked at him with a great deal more respect now because many of the black folks who are married don't want to be married no way. So they say, go on, Harold. But he got some more publicity. And quite frankly, you will have to concede-- I certainly will say it-- that had a white candidate with the same baggage been running, there's no way in the world he would have been elected mayor.

Ira Glass

How do you figure that?

Judge Eugene Pincham

Well, it's true. Your white candidate who'd been in jail for failing to file a tax return, who wasn't married, rumored to be a homosexual-- everybody know Harold wasn't a homosexual, but that was the rumor they tried to create-- and a disbarred lawyer, no way in the world he'd be elected.

Ira Glass

What should we think of that?

Judge Eugene Pincham

What do I think of it? I think, here again, well, if South Africa can elect a man who's a felon--

Ira Glass

Nelson Mandela.

Judge Eugene Pincham

Nelson Mandela. 27 years.

Ira Glass

You know what's interesting about it is that none of those criticisms also go to what the white fear was. As far as you could tell, what was at the heart of the white fear?

Judge Eugene Pincham

Because he's black.

Ira Glass

And so the two Chicagos headed to primary day. White Chicago mostly ignoring the Washington candidacy. Black Chicago abuzz about it. And when he won, the two Chicagos had wildly different reactions, as you might expect. Monroe Anderson was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune at the time. He was one of the few blacks who worked in the newsroom the day after Harold Washington's primary victory.

Monroe Anderson

There was such a somber feeling around that place. It was like somebody's family member, beloved family member had died. It was just really somber. And we were in this jubilant mood. Except you did not feel comfortable expressing it, looking it. So we walked around, [MAKES A CASUAL, DOO-DOO-DOO SOUND]. And then we would go into somebody's office or someplace inside, and go, "Yes," and jump up and down, and then come out, and walk around, "Oh, yes, we're reporters too. We understand."

Ira Glass

After primary day, things got ugly. Usually, winning the Democratic primary for mayor in Chicago means you've won the office. The Republican party doesn't count in city elections. But in this case, as Chicago moved toward the general election in April 1983, 90% of white Chicago deserted the Democratic party to vote for a republican named Bernie Epton. One of his campaign slogans, "Epton, before it's too late."

Black Chicago saw the democratic defections as racism, pure and simple. Meanwhile, white policemen circulated hate literature illustrated with chicken bones and watermelons. And in perhaps the most famous incident in the campaign, while stumping with Walter Mondale, Harold Washington stopped at Saint Pascal's Church on the city's white, Northwest side.

Monroe Anderson

It was almost a riot.

Ira Glass

Monroe Anderson covered it for the Tribune.

Monroe Anderson

When Harold showed up and the press entourage showed up, there was this angry-- people were approaching the car. People were out of control. I thought that we were in physical danger. And then we get to the church, and somebody spray-painted, on the church, graffiti that said, "Die, nigger, die."

Ira Glass

On a Catholic church?

Monroe Anderson

Yes.

Ira Glass

Meanwhile, something curious happened. Occasionally, Harold Washington or one of his supporters would say, in passing, something like, it's our turn now. And when they did, it made headlines. White Chicago and the mainstream press saw it as more than just ethnic pride. It was seen as threatening. This is one of the ways that being a black politician in America is different than being a Polish politician or an Irish politician. Judge Pincham.

Judge Eugene Pincham

The difference is very, very simple, and that is when the Polish attempt to get a Polish mayor, it's good ethnic politics. When the Irish try to get in an Irish mayor, it's good ethnic politics. But when the black try to get a black mayor, it's racism.

Ira Glass

Glenn Leonard grew up in the white, Southwest side of Chicago. Didn't vote for Harold Washington.

Glenn Leonard

I think a lot of people thought that he was going to bring in a lot of people that were going to be black and were going to change the city. Now we have our chance, now let's go ahead and do it. Let's right all these so-called wrongs-- whether they were right or wrong, it's another story-- let's right these wrongs. Let's move in. Let's take over. Let's have more of a say in the local government.

And people just saw that as a threat. They thought, well, these people are going to come in, move in to the corner house, or whatever, and another white flight starts again. I think that that was a big fear.

Ira Glass

Chicago will become another Detroit, people said, another Cleveland. Property values would fall. Businesses leave. Many whites had already fled one set of neighborhoods during white flight. Glenn says that white Chicago was used to having the late Mayor Daley protect their neighborhoods, for instance, by blocking federal schemes to bring in low-income public housing all over the city. That Harold Washington wouldn't do that.

Glenn Leonard

He was going to, obviously, no longer block these. And these low-income housing units would come in to every neighborhood in the city or whatever. And that would start the ball rolling-- what do they call it in the Far East when the Communist-- the domino effect, thank you.

Ira Glass

This is one thing that black politicians have to deal that white politicians don't. And this is true from Chicago to Washington DC, from North Carolina to South Africa. They have to deal with white fear. Harold Washington.

Harold Washington

We have 670,000 black registered voters in this city. But when you get right down to it, the votes are here. They're here. They're here. And every group-- and I've said it before, and I'll say it again, and the press takes it and runs out in left field with it-- every group that gets our percentage of the population, they don't go around begging. They don't go around explaining. They don't have any excuses to make.

They just move on in, and take one of their own, and put him in the office. That's what we should do. That's what democracy is all about.

Ira Glass

Problem is when your opponents don't see your election as just the normal workings of democracy. How Harold Washington tried to rise above their fear after he squeaked out a narrow victory in the general election and took office. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Most weeks on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different stories on that theme. But today, we are breaking from that format to bring you this parable of race and politics in America. The story of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, who took the mayor's office in 1983 and died just four years later, just a few months into his second term. This month marks the 20th anniversary of his death.

So in Chicago and in most American big cities, the way it used to work-- and I say "used to" with some reservations, in Chicago, you could argue that it still works this way-- the way it used to work was that when Irish-Americans took the mayor's office, or Italian-Americans, or Polish-Americans, they channeled contracts, and patronage jobs, and other municipal goodies to their own communities.

Lu Palmer was one of the people at the center of the movement to elect a black mayor in Chicago. He convened the early organizational meetings in his basement. It is hard to imagine that Harold Washington would have ever come to office without him. And he was disappointed by Harold.

Lu Palmer

I don't know. But he never became what I would consider "the black mayor." Black people wanted something that was-- it's so simple. Fairness. And I used to get upset with Harold after he became elected because Harold was too fair. In fact, he would say in his speeches, I'm going to be fair, I'm going to be more than fair.

Harold Washington

No one, but no one in this city, no matter where they live, or how they live, is free from the fairness of our administration. We'll find you and be fair to you wherever you are--

Lu Palmer

And I used to cringe when he would say, I'm not only going to be fair, but I'm going to be fairer than fair. Well, come on. You don't have to go overboard. And Harold did.

Those of us who are considered radicals, we simply believed that since the Daleys, Byrne, and all the rest of the white mayors had always put white people first, without any question, without any apology, we said, well, Harold got to put black people first. And that's what we wanted.

I'm not sure we wanted to be to white people what Daley was to black people, that is, he was just ridiculous. And the present Daley, same way. But people wanted-- they wanted to see the opportunity to have our community thrive like other communities.

Ira Glass

It wasn't just black nationalists like Lu Palmer who felt this way. Old-time machine loyalists, like Eugene Sawyer, was the black alderman that the white democratic machine wanted to succeed Harold Washington as mayor, said the same thing.

Eugene Sawyer

And that was part of the thing that I think we probably were too fair. I think Harold was too fair. A lot of people think he was too fair by giving a lot more-- giving everybody the same thing. And people just expected-- a lot of the black folks think that you should've given your own people a little bit more.

Monroe Anderson

Well, a major problem with being a black person in America--

Ira Glass

Reporter Monroe Anderson.

Monroe Anderson

--is you're in this trap. Because this is sort of our curse and our blessing because of this racial history is that we have been complaining and pointing out all these inequities for a very long time. And therefore, all these things that you have pointed out that have been an injustice to you, now that you're in power, you can't do because it'll be an injustice to whites. And therefore, the rules have to be this great, even, everything's fair and square.

Ira Glass

People close to Harold Washington say that it was smart politics for him to be fairer than fair. After all, black wards had been treated so unfairly in the past that simply giving them the same services that the rest of the city got would be a huge step forward. It was also the political stance he felt most comfortable with by disposition. And when black politicians or community activists came to city hall trying to get more for one neighborhood over another, he was so enormously popular in black Chicago, where 85% of the black electorate turned out to vote for him, and where everyone simply referred to him as "Harold" that he could ignore the pressure. Jackie Grimshaw was a staff person.

Jackie Grimshaw

I think there is a difference between the black population and the black politicians. I think on the part of the black politicians, it was definitely, "it's our turn." And I had to deal with some of these folks. They'd come in, and they'd want 10 jobs and crap like that. There ain't 10 jobs. But I think on the part of the people, they were into fairness. I think the fairness thing played with him. They were proud of Harold. They supported him in what he was doing.

Ira Glass

Privately, Harold Washington talked about the danger of doing away with the old patronage system, how it could make the first black mayor weaker than any of his white predecessors. But publicly, for all intents and purposes, patronage was over.

Harold Washington

It's gone. It's gone. In the words of Cornell Davis, "They said it wasn't dead." So I went to his grave, and I walked around that grave. And I stomped on that grave, and I jumped up and down, and I called out, "Patronage, patronage, are you alive?" And patronage didn't answer. It is dead, dead, dead.

Ira Glass

Washington attacked the machine, the machine struck back. From the first day of Washington's first city council meeting, 29 alderman, all of them white, the old democratic machine, teamed up to oppose him. For the first time in memory, a Chicago mayor did not control city hall. For the first time in memory, clout-- that's what we call it in Chicago, clout, the sheer bullying force that was at the heart of Chicago politics-- clout was no longer in the mayor's control.

It was the machine's 29 votes to Harold's 21 votes. The 29 not only blocked his appointments, it never brought them up for consideration. It blocked most of his legislative initiatives and dedicated enormous energy to looking for ways to embarrass him and thwart him. It was mayhem, a battle so divisive and chaotic that it sustained the animosity and suspicion between black Chicago and white Chicago for years.

It came to be known locally as "Council Wars" after a local African-American comic named Aaron Freeman began staging moments in local politics as scenes from The Star Wars trilogy. Harold appeared as Luke Skytalker, leader of the rebellion, constantly spouting off long, difficult words. Harold's main political opponent, Ed Vrdolyak, the alderman who led the 29, also got a big part.

Luke Skytalker

What are you doing in my office, Lord Darth Vrdolyak?

Darth Vrdolyak

[SOUND OF DARTH-VADER-LIKE BREATHING] I wish to discuss committee assignments for the new council. [SOUND OF DARTH-VADER-LIKE BREATHING]

Luke Skytalker

I don't have to talk to you. I'm the mayor. I can do whatever I want. I can-- [SOUND OF BEING CHOKED]

Darth Vrdolyak

[SOUND OF DARTH-VADER-LIKE BREATHING] I find your lack of respect disturbing. It is obvious you do not know the power of the Clout. It has served all of the mayors before you. It can bring you great wealth and power, or it can destroy you as easily. The choice is yours.

[SOUND OF LIGHT SABERS MOVING THROUGH THE AIR]

Luke Skytalker

You do not consternate me, Vrdolyak. Take this parliamentary maneuver.

[POW]

Darth Vrdolyak

Well done, Mayor, but I counter with this negotiated majority.

[POW]

Luke Skytalker

And I file a suit in court.

[POW]

Darth Vrdolyak

But the decision is in my favor.

[POW]

Luke Skytalker

Ahhh, you may have prevailed at this juncture, Vrdolyak. But I will assiduously pursue your disestablishment.

Darth Vrdolyak

[SOUND OF DARTH-VADER-LIKE BREATHING] Perhaps, Mayor. But to do so, you must use the dark side of the Clout. You must make deals and compromises.

Luke Skytalker

Never.

Darth Vrdolyak

Yes, Mayor. To defeat me, you must become me. Look at my face, Skytalker, for I am your mentor.

Luke Skytalker

Noooooo!

Ira Glass

Even under these adverse conditions, Washington did manage to pass budgets and get some things done. Black wards finally got the same street repair and garbage pickup as all the other wards. Jackie Grimshaw describes one scheme Washington came up with to do some improvements around the city, designed to be, of course, fairer than fair, to give every ward the same benefits. But the 29, of course, opposed it. And Washington needed their approval because to pay for it, he wanted to issue a city bond.

Jackie Grimshaw

So every ward was to get, I think it was, 10 miles of street resurfacing, and a certain number of alleys done, and street lighting. And so, yeah, all these on the bond issue. And they were refusing to pass it. So he put all of the reporters on a bus, and he would go around to these various wards.

We went out to Mount Greenwood, another area of the city that did not welcome blacks at the time, to say, "Your alderman is refusing to support this bond issue that I want to use to give you real streets. And if you want it, you better tell your alderman to vote for it." And so by the time he got through doing this, the folks in the communities were pretty much outraged. Black mayor or not, they wanted their streets, they wanted their sewers, they wanted their vaulted sidewalks repaired, and so forth.

Ira Glass

What happens to American politics when one of the politicians happens to be black? In this case, what happened was that everything in city politics was seen through the prism of race even though often it had nothing to do with race. Often, it had more to do with reform. Gary Rivlin is the author of a very evenhanded history of Washington's years, Fire on the Prairie.

Gary Rivlin

Everyone wants to understand Harold Washington as the first black mayor. And it's true, he was the first black mayor. And that was a very significant thing. But he was also the mayor who beat the Chicago political machine.

He was the first reformer in 30 years to take on the machine. And he did it more successfully than anyone else before him purely on a reform point of view. And so he was a different kind of politician. But no one could ever see beyond his race.

In fact, there was a political cartoon at the time I loved. And it was an editor asking a reporter covering the election, "So anything change? Anything new?" And the reporter answered, "Nope, he's still white, and he's still black." And it really wasn't that much more sophisticated than that cartoon indicated.

Harold Washington

You pick up a local paper, and these guys just wax so eloquent. They don't know what they are talking about. Don't have the slightest idea about the phenomena. Don't understand the history. Don't understand the mindset. Don't understand what push people.

All they say is, "Gee, black folks must be angry. Gee, black folks is voting for black folks. They must hate white folks." It ain't got nothing to do with nothing. Nothing. Crazy stuff.

But that's what you read around here in Chicago. That's what I have to put up with every day when I look in a reporter's eyes, all those silly business. "How many white folks did you convert today, Harold?" Wow. Wow. And the answer is, "More than you did, boy." Because I do my job irregardless of race, color, creed, or sex.

Ira Glass

Because everything he did, even things that were more about reform than about race, was seen through the lens of race. It gave Washington's opponents a tool that they could use against him, which they did. A typical example. Some crime rates went up between 1985 and '86 even though overall crime was lower under Washington than under his white predecessor. But his opponents tried to make the case that this proved that the black mayor did not care about crime. Hate literature had said that he would do nothing about crime because most crime is caused by blacks.

Gary Rivlin

So they were using this statistical bump between '85 and '86 to prove what the hate literature was saying that the black mayor is going to be indifferent to crime. See, that's playing the race card and playing it in a dirty way. It's a way of distorting statistics to play to racial fears out there.

So did Washington talk about race? Did he talk about the Chicago political machine always being biased against the black community? Sure. Is that playing the race card? Sure. But I also happen to think it's true what he was saying.

Whereas, what I think the opposition was doing much more of was playing the race card and playing it in a dirty way, trying to tweak and abuse statistics any way they could to prove their point and play into the worst fears of the white community. I never saw Washington playing into the worst fears of the black community. In fact, his rhetoric was "I'm going to be fairer than fair."

Ira Glass

Fact is, by the time he died, just a few months into his second term of office, Harold Washington had put together a working majority on the council. Not many more whites voted for him in his second election than in his first. But every political observer in Chicago says that he was making headway. Patrick O'Connor was one of the 29 alderman who opposed Washington though he was one of the few swing votes who sometimes sided with the mayor.

Patrick O'connor

We invited him up to a picnic in our ward. And he showed up at our picnic. And he got a great reception. People that really didn't vote for him and probably wouldn't vote for him the next time respected the fact that he came out there, that he wanted to say, hello, that he wanted to participate. And bear in mind that I was voting consistently with the block that was voting against him. And he came out, and we spent the day, and it was fine.

I remember one time we were both invited to a place that neither of us were particularly popular in the ward. And so I got a call from his office-- and this is, again, at a time when there was a council war going on-- asking was I going to this festival or whatever was, and if I was, would I meet the mayor on a corner in our ward and do in there together with him. And I told the guy, no, I'm not meeting him on the corner. I said, if he wants me to go, he's got to pick me up at my house.

So the mayor pulls up to the front of my house. He comes in. We have a glass of wine, he had, and I had a beer. And we sat around for a couple minutes. And he met my family.

And he looks in my dining room. We didn't have any dining room furniture at the time. The kids were all young. And we'd just moved into the house. So he says, where's your dining room furniture? And my wife says, you don't pay him enough money. And Harold goes, I knew this cheese was going to cost me something. And he was just that quick. He was really, very, very good.

But my point is is that we got in the car. We went to this festival. And by the time he left, he had people dancing with him. He went over. He was talking with folks.

By the time he left, it might not have changed the mind of everybody in there that he was OK. But he had made a significant impact. And he understood by keeping that schedule, and going to areas where he was not expected to show up, or would traditionally not be the most welcome person, that he was winning percentages of people. And that's all he had to do.

Ira Glass

Vernon Jarrett says that if Washington had lived, he would have done a lot to ease the strains of modern Chicago apartheid.

Vernon Jarrett

Harold was going to win over a big chunk of the white population. And I don't mean Gold Coast liberals. They were beginning to like this guy. And they could see something in him that represented them. He was chubby, warm, friendly. And not only that, he was going into some lower-class white neighborhoods, having their streets paved for the first time. And they were slowly beginning to lose their fear.

Act 2.

Ira Glass

Act Two, The Present and The Future.

Laura Washington

There are ways, I think, that the mayor has changed the city forever. But they're not things you can necessarily measure by doing head counts and using a lot of numbers.

Ira Glass

Laura Washington, Harold's former press secretary, now a columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times, senior editor at In These Times magazine.

Laura Washington

I think he opened up the city in ways it will never be closed again. If you look at the numbers, you'll still see a lot of inequity. You'll still see neighborhoods that are poorer, probably poorer than they were 15, 20 years ago. You'll see neighborhoods that still probably don't get their fair share of city services. But you'll see, I think, a dramatic difference in the attitude that public officials and policymakers have to equity in the city.

Ira Glass

20 years after Harold Washington's death, people who follow politics in Chicago say that if nothing else, the current mayor Richard M. Daley, son of Richard J., has to worry about making black voters angry. He's been careful to have black press secretaries and has kept a number of appointees from the black administration before him. City services are distributed more fairly even today. Though there's been a bit of backsliding here and there. And Richard Daley has issued bonds, following the model of the Washington years, giving all of Chicago's wards equal benefits, something that was unheard of in the years before Washington.

20 years after Harold Washington's death, in most of black Chicago, he's still a hero. And 10 years ago, when we first recorded these interviews and first broadcast today's program, for the 10th anniversary of the mayor's death, we ended the show with these words from Judge Pincham.

Judge Eugene Pincham

I just happen to be one who believes that-- again, the power structure does this-- make heroes out of dead folks. Because dead folks can't lead nobody nowhere. They've made Doctor King a holiday. And he was the most unpopular person at the time of his death as any leader in the history of the nation. And the moment he got killed, since he can't lead nobody nowhere, now he's a hero.

Ira Glass

And Harold?

Judge Eugene Pincham

I don't think that they're going to give Harold the same kind of accolades because he might lead somebody from the grave.

Ira Glass

10 years after Judge Pincham said these words, you could argue that Harold Washington is leading people from the grave. A black Chicagoan is running for president. And when that candidate says that there is no black America or white America, there's only the United States of America, you can hear the echoes of Harold Washington saying that he'll be fairer than fair.

Barack Obama moved to Chicago in 1984 because of Harold Washington, he told Chicago magazine. "I wanted to do community organizing," he said. "And I couldn't think of a better city than one as energized and hopeful as Chicago was then." In his memoir Dreams From My Father, Obama writes about living in Chicago during the Washington years, about the conversations that he had with Chicagoans about Harold, and about once actually seeing the man in person though not getting close enough to actually say anything or shake his hand. Obama writes, "More than anything, I wanted Harold to succeed. The mayor and his achievements seemed to mark out what was possible. His gifts, his power measured my own hopes."

When Obama ran for Senate and in his current presidential bid, his chief political and media adviser has been David Axelrod, a man who is uniquely positioned to comment about how racial politics have changed in Chicago since Harold's time because he was also a political adviser to Harold Washington, back during Harold's second run for mayor. I reached Axelrod on his cell phone in a campaign bus in Iowa. He said, things have significantly changed in Chicago's white wards in the last 20 years.

David Axelrod

And I remember that the night of the 2004 democratic primary for the US Senate when Barack Obama was nominated. And one of the things that I looked at that night was how he did on the Northwest side of Chicago. When Harold ran, he got 8% of the white vote in his first primary. I think he got 20% in the reelection. And much of the determined resistance was on the Northwest side of Chicago.

And Obama carried all but one ward on the Northwest side of Chicago. He even carried the precinct in which Saint Pascal's Church sits. That was the church where Harold Washington and Walter Mondale campaigned in 1983 and met with really hostile resistance from the crowd. Obama carried that precinct. And I said to Barack that night, "I think Harold's smiling down on us tonight."

Ira Glass

When Obama got to the general election for senator, he won 70% of the vote or more in every white ward in the city. 10 years after he predicted that Harold would lead people from the grave, Judge Pincham talked to me again just this week. And he ticked off a list of black candidates who've won citywide, countywide, and statewide offices in Illinois since Harold Washington.

Judge Eugene Pincham

And it completely destroyed the myth that white people would not vote for black people.

Ira Glass

So Judge Pincham, if a black candidate were to run for mayor today, could you imagine, again, the white democratic machine and white democratic voters turning away from the candidate of their own party if you were black?

Judge Eugene Pincham

Not today. Not in today's times.

Ira Glass

Why?

Judge Eugene Pincham

I don't think-- and I don't want to be overly sensitive, and I don't want to be under sensitive to it. Race is a factor in an election. We cannot ignore that. It's a reality. I think times have, shall I say, cushioned or softened the concerns that the whites have for a election of a black candidate to political office.

Ira Glass

So this is where we are 20 years after Harold Washington's death. We can say the thing you almost never can say about a national problem. Things seem to actually be getting better. At least according to electoral data. To find out what that actually means in terms of people's feelings and attitudes, we asked one of our colleagues at our home station, Chicago Public Radio, reporter Robert Wildeboer, to head out to some of the wards where Harold Washington was not welcome back in the day, the 10th, 11th, and 23rd wards.

Robert Wildeboer

I talked to about 50 people. All but three of them said they'd be willing to vote for a black mayor today. But a black person from 1983 would find that some things haven't changed at all in these neighborhoods.

Pete

Went and bought a house here in Hegewisch, and what happened? Blacks moved in. Taking over the parks, taking over the schools, taking over everything.

Robert Wildeboer

That's Pete. We're at a bar in Hegewisch, a tiny, working-class neighborhood that was home to steelworkers when the mills were open. A few guys joke with me that they call it "The Last Stand," as in the last stand against integration. But in the last year or two, African-Americans have moved in.

Pete

Go on a holiday to Wolf Lake. Well, who's over there? They're all barbecuing over there. We can't even go to our own parks. Cal Park is taken over. Wolf Lake is taken over. We got nothing.

Robert Wildeboer

Up and down the bar, people nod in agreement. Pete didn't vote for Harold Washington, but he says he would vote for a black candidate now. In fact, he's actually got one in mind, a current alderman Toni Preckwinkle, who he wishes would run for mayor.

Pete

I think she cleaned up Hyde Park. That's the 4th district area up there. She's an alderman. And she would be a good candidate.

Robert Wildeboer

This was a paradox I came across a number of times. White people who explicitly identify themselves as prejudiced or racist, but would vote for a black person. Mary Kay lives in the 23rd ward by Midway Airport, the neighborhood where Washington got the lowest vote total in the city in 1983, less than 1%, just 199 votes. Mary Kay was not one of the 199. She tells me things are just different now.

Mary Kay

Back then, for me, it was white or black. I was prejudiced back then probably, more so than I am now.

Robert Wildeboer

There's still some lingering around?

Mary Kay

Oh yeah, a little bit. Don't turn my back on 'em. No, I mean I don't-- I can't even tell you who I was back then. That was 20 years ago. I don't have that fear these days.

Robert Wildeboer

Mary Kay's Irish. And back then, her family and friends all had jobs with the city. They were Daley supporters in the '50s, and they're Daley supporters today. And she saw Washington as a threat to their jobs.

Mary Kay

Things have changed. Times have changed. And I'm not so much prejudiced as much as I used to be. Now I accept you, black or white. And Washington didn't do bad. He was a decent mayor.

Robert Wildeboer

Well, let's say Daley's off the scene, and there's no other Irishman to vote for. Would you consider voting for a black candidate?

Mary Kay

Oh yeah. I could. If he was better than the white one that was running, yeah, definitely. I would go for Obama as president, and he's black.

Robert Wildeboer

So what's changed?

Mary Kay

Everything. I've changed. They've changed. The black people are more educated. They're standing on something these days. They've come a long way in this world. They worked hard. You see it in the stores.

They're doing just as good as us. They're well dressed. They're clean. They're not the ghetto. They've come out of the ghetto. And they want what we got, what we've always had. The blacks are just gaining on us now. They're getting equal rights.

Robert Wildeboer

And so what's your take on that? Is that good or bad?

Mary Kay

That's good. Good. Anybody that's willing to work for what they get, they deserve it. You know what I mean? You want it, and you go for it, and you're willing to work, then you deserve what you got.

Harold Washington

Every group-- and if the press is listening, I want them to hear this. They didn't hear it when I ran for office, so I'll say it again-- every group, when it gets population ascendancy, as night follows day, decides, without malice to anybody, not angry at anybody, that is their turn. Period. That's all. There ain't nothing wrong with that.

I made that statement two months ago, and they said, it was racist. But they left out most of the statement, which the Irish do it, the Polish do it, the Jews do it, and every intelligent group on earth, which is every group, does it. And we do it. And we should do it. So it's just that simple. Now I hope the press gets it right just once.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself with Nancy Updike, Alix Spiegel, and Julie Snyder. Senior editor for this show was Paul Tough. Production help from Rachel Howard, Seth Lind, and Bruce Wallace.

We used archival footage today from the following sources, from Brian Boyer's film Harold Washington and the Council Wars, from Bill Cameron's taped recordings of Harold Washington's speeches and press conferences. We got tape from Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications. Thanks to Bruce DuMont and the staff there. Also, from Howard Gladstone and Jim Ylisela's film The Race for Mayor. From Bill Stamets's film Chicago Politics, A Theater of Power. And from WBBM-TV's archival news footage. WXYT Radio gave us archival tape of Aaron Freeman's "Council Wars" satire. And WTTW-TV gave us archival footage of the '83 debates.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

We'd also like to note that since we first put the show on the air a decade ago, both Vernon Jarrett and Lu Palmer have passed away. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our show by Mr. Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass.

Harold Washington

[SINGING] Bet your bottom dollar you lose the blues in Chicago, Chicago.

Ira Glass

Let us close out today with a recording from the night of Harold Washington's second mayoral victory.

Harold Washington

[SINGING] On State Street, that great street, I just want to say, they do things they don't do on Broadway. They have the time, the time of their lives, I saw a man he danced with his wife in Chicago, Chicago my hometown.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.