Transcript

84:

Harold
Transcript

Originally aired 11.21.1997

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

Prologue.

Ira Glass

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

Jacky Grimshaw

There would be fires going on. It went on 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 of those votes the way it paid back the white wards on the North Side, with street cleaning and sewers, with newly-paved roads and sidewalks, economic development money.

Danny Davis

Well, actually, you know, we had called the areas colonies. I mean, and just basically picking up the garbage in these wards, just trying to keep them clean, was a real problem. The person who was elected, there would be so much focus on garbage pickup that, you know, you'd almost have to just be the garbage alderman. I mean, 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. The story happened in the 1980s in Chicago.

Now, today it's hard to hear this story without thinking about what happened when another black politician took office a quarter century later, as president, how he faced pressures and opposition that were different from anything ever faced by a white president-- for starters, people saying he wasn't a citizen of the United States. There was a backlash. And a real part of it was about race.

Back in the 1980s though, when race came up in Chicago, it wasn't signaled with code words and dog whistles. People didn't pretend things were not about race.

Radio 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 into City Hall, you're going to remove all the elevator boxes and replace them with vines. Is that-- is that true?

Radio Host

What? Replace them with what?

Caller

With vines.

Harold Washington

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

Radio Host

You know what? I'm not even going to--

Harold Washington

No, no.

Radio Host

I'm not even going to ask you why. And--

Harold Washington

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

Radio Host

Good evening. Randall is gone.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington. He died early in his second term of office, back in 1987.

Today we remember Harold's story with a show that we first put together in the early days of our radio show, for the 10th anniversary of his death. If you don't know anything about Harold Washington, you're in for a treat. He's this charismatic, idealistic man, funny and smart, and a great talker.

A Democrat, framing issues with a skill that it's hard to think of any Democrat in office right now who does it as well. A pragmatist who got things done. Act One of our program today is about what happened during Harold's life. Then we have a short Act Two, about what came afterwards. 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, Jacky 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 One. Yesterday.

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 a loyal black aldermen in the Chicago machine at that time, consider what happened in city hall the day Richard Daley died.

Vernon Jarett

By tradition, the president pro temp of the city council should at least occupy 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--

Vernon Jarett

That was Wilson Frost, a loyal black alderman from the 34th Ward, a Daley Democrat. A lawyer, impeccable reputation, impeccable credentials. The only mis-qualification he had was he was 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 declaring 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

And 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 have 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

He asked 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. And it 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 with the broad masses of black people was when they had the primary debates.

Jacky Grimshaw

Oh, the triumph was a televised debate.

Monroe Anderson

You know, 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. 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.

[AUDIENCE CHATTER]

Ira Glass

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

Richard Daley

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

[APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

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

Harold Washington

The precise question is, 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.

[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]

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. It's a long-standing--

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 two or are related to police members of the Chicago police department.

Vernon Jarett

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 Washington, standing there between Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley, the son, so cool, so well read, that black people were 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--

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. Black people loved that.

Eugene Pincham

And he jumped on Jane Byrne, and just 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. The 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 hold 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 Jr.'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.

[APPLAUSE]

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 doubt about it. And he spewed and fought 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 plantations 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'd 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.

[APPLAUSE]

And he runs on the legacy of his name, an insult to common sense and decency. Everything I've ever got in the world, I worked for it. Nobody gave me anything.

[APPLAUSE]

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're the hybrid between the politician and the public man. And you becomes somewhere between Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, somewhere in superstar.

Harold Washington

No, though 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 it out.

[APPLAUSE]

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, higher after higher, and so heavy, it's 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 attitudes 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 going to give it if we have to beat them across the head and knock them down and make them take it. We're going to give it to them.

[APPLAUSE]

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 a 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.

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 return.

Eugene Pincham

He hadn't filed the return. That's right. He'd paid withholding.

Ira Glass

Right.

Eugene Pincham

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 criticisms being leveled against him.

They then said, well, you're not married. You can't be mayor if you're not married. We made Janet Byrne marry McMullen. 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, well man, go get married, if this is is going to make-- and he said, I'm not.

Nobody can tell me to marry. I don't want to marry. My marital status has nothing to with my qualifications as mayor.

And here again, the black community looked at him with a great deal more respect now because many of the black folks said, the mayor don't want to be married, no way. So they said, go on, Harold.

[LAUGHTER]

But he got some more publicity. And quite frankly, you would 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?

Eugene Pincham

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

Ira Glass

What should we think of that?

Eugene Pincham

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

Ira Glass

Nelson Mandela.

Eugene Pincham

Nelson Mandela, for 27 years.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

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

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

I mean, there was such a somber feeling around that place. I mean, it was like, somebody's beloved family member had died or something. I mean, 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, (SINGING) doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo. And then we were going to somebody's office or someplace inside, and go, yes! And jump and down and then come out, walk around. Oh, yes. We're reporters, too. Yes, we understand.

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

After primary day, things get 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 policeman 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 St. Pascal's church, in the city's white northwest side.

Monroe Anderson

There 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, I mean, there was this angry-- I mean, people were like, approaching the car. I mean, it was just-- people were out of control. I mean, I thought that we were in physical danger. Then when 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.

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 an Irish mayor, it's good ethnic politics. But when the blacks 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 local government.

And people just saw that as a threat. They thought, well, these people are going to come in, move into the corner house or whatever, and another white flight starts again. I think 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. And Glenn says that white Chicago was used to having the late Mayor Daley protect the neighborhoods, for instance, by blocking federal schemes to bring in low-income public housing all over the city. But 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 into every neighborhood in the city or whatever. And that would start the ball rolling in your-- what do they call it, in the Far East, when the communists-- the domino effect, thank you.

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

This is one thing that black politicians have to deal with 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 into 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, when our program continues.

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, a story 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. He died 30 years ago this week.

So in Chicago and most American big cities, the way it used to work-- and I say used to with some reservations. You could argue that a version of this still exists lots of places. But 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 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, you know, 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 know, you don't have to go overboard. And Harold did.

Those of us who are considered radicals, we simply believe 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 that 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. But people 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, who 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 things, that I think we were probably too fair. I think Harold was too fair.

Monroe Anderson

In what way?

Eugene Sawyer

A lot of people think he was too fair, by giving a lot more and giving everybody the same thing. But people just expected-- a lot of the black folks think that, you should give 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 I mean, and 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 would be 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. Jacky Grimshaw was a staff person.

Jacky 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. I mean, they'd come in and they'd want 10 jobs and crap like that. Hey, there ain't 10 jobs.

But I think on the part of the people, I mean, they were into fairness. I mean, I think the fairness thing played with them, you know? I mean, 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 can 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. And in the words of Cornell Davis, they said he 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.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

[APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Washington attacked the machine. The machine struck back. From the first day of Washington's first city council meeting, 29 aldermen-- 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, 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, he never brought them up for consideration. They 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?

[AMPLIFIED SLOW BREATHING]

[APPLAUSE AND CHEERS]

Darth Vrdolyak

(ROBOTICALLY) I wish to discuss committee assignments for the new council.

[AMPLIFIED SLOW BREATHING]

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

Luke Skytalker

I don't have to talk to you. I'm the mayor. I can do whatever I want. I can--

[EXAGGERATED GASPING]

[SCREAMING]

[AMPLIFIED SLOW BREATHING]

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

Darth Vrdolyak

(ROBOTICALLY) 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.

Luke Skytalker

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

[IMITATES LASER MISSLE]

Darth Vrdolyak

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

[IMITATES LASER MISSLE]

Luke Skytalker

Then I'll file a suit in court!

[IMITATES LASER MISSLE]

Darth Vrdolyak

But the decision is in my favor.

[IMITATES LASER MISSLE]

Luke Skytalker

Ah! You may have prevailed at this juncture, Vrdolyak, but I will assiduously pursue your disestablishment.

[AMPLIFIED SLOW BREATHING]

Darth Vrdolyak

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

No!

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. Jacky 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.

Jacky Grimshaw

So every ward was to get, I think, it was 10 miles of street resurfacing. And alleys, a certain number of alleys done, and street lighting. And so he had all of these on the bond issue.

And they were refusing to pass it. So he put all of the reporters on the 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, you know, the folks in the communities are pretty much outraged. Black mayor or not, they wanted their streets. They wanted their sewers. They want 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 very evenhanded history of Washington's years, Fire on the Prairie.

Gary Rivlin

You know, 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 changed? Anything new? And the reporter answered, no, he's still white, and he's still black. And really, 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 eloquently. They don't know what they're 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.

That ain't got nothing to do with nothing. Nothing! Crazy stuff! That's what you read around here in Chicago.

That's what I have to put up with every day when I look in the reporters' eyes. All that silly business, you know? How many white folks did you convert today, Harold?

[LAUGHTER]

Wow!

[LAUGHTER]

[APPLAUSE]

Wow! And the answer is more than you did, boy, because I do my job, irregardless of race, color, creed and 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. The 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, you know, 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 aldermen who opposed Washington, that 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 a 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 it was.

And if I was, would I meet the mayor on a corner in our ward and go in there together with him? And I told the guy, no, I'm not meeting him on the corner. I said, 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. We sat around for a couple of 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 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. I mean, and he was just that quick. He was really very, very good.

But my point 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 Two. The Present and the Future.

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 headcounts and using a lot of numbers.

Ira Glass

Laura Washington, Harold Washington's former press secretary, now a columnist with The Chicago Sun-Times.

Laura Washington

I think he opened up the city in ways that 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 the public officials and policymakers have to equity in the city.

Ira Glass

30 years after Harold Washington's death, this is still mostly true. After Harold, one of the people elected mayor was Richard M. Daley, the son of Richard J. And even he was careful to have black press secretaries.

And he kept a number of appointees from the black administration before him. He 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. City services are still distributed more fairly, even today.

Though it's not perfect. People in black and latino neighborhoods across the city accuse the current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, of not listening to them on the biggest issues facing the city, schools and policing. But Emmanuel knows that he's supposed to be listening. And he's been careful to put people of color out front. Harold Washington set the bar for what's expected of him.

When we first broadcast today's program back in 1997, we ended the story with this quote from Judge Pincham, about Harold Washington's legacy--

Eugene Pincham

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

Ira Glass

And Harold?

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

When we last broadcast today's program 10 years ago, you could argue that right then, from the grave, Harold Washington was leading at least one person, a black Chicagoan who was, at that point, running for president in the Democratic primaries. And when that candidate said that there's no black America or white America, there's only the United States of America, you could hear the echoes of Harold Washington saying that he'd be fairer than fair.

Barack Obama

Some of you may know that I originally moved to Chicago in part because of the inspiration of Mayor Washington's campaign. And for those of you who recall that era, and recall Chicago at that time, it's hard to forget the sense of possibility that he sparked in people.

Ira Glass

When Barack Obama ran for Senate, and later for president, one of his advisors was David Axelrod, a man who is uniquely positioned to comment on how racial politics have changed in Chicago since Harold's time. Because he was also a political advisor to Harold Washington, back during Harold's second run for Mayor.

10 years ago, when we rebroadcast the show, I reached Axelrod on his cell phone talk about that. It was during the Obama campaign. He was on a campaign bus in Iowa. He told me, back then, that things had significantly changed in Chicago's white wards in the years since Harold's death.

David Axelrod

I remember 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.

You know, 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 St. 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. His results weren't far from that when he ran for president.

What happened? Well, back then, 10 years ago, when we last broadcast this show, we asked one of our colleagues at our home station, Chicago Public Radio, reporter Rob Wildeboar, to go find out. He went to some of the wards where Harold Washington was not welcome back in the day, the 10th, 11th, and 23rd wards, talked to 50 people.

And all but three of them said that they would be willing to vote for a black mayor today. To be clear, people were openly racist, ok. Unapologetic about that. Like this guy, Pete.

Pete

Well, we bought a house here in Hegewisch. And what happened? Blacks moved in. Taking over the parks, taking over the schools, taking over everything. 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. We got nothing.

Ira Glass

But then, the same guy said that he wished that a black alderwoman, Toni Preckwinkle, would run for mayor. He'd vote for her, he said. She did a great job cleaning up Hyde Park.

Or there was a woman named Mary Kay, who lived 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. And she told our reporter, Rob, things are just different now.

Mary Kay

Back then, for me, it was white or black.

[LAUGHS]

You know? I was prejudice back then, probably, more so than I am now.

Rob Wildeboer

There's still some lingering around?

Mary Kay

Oh, yeah.

[LAUGHS]

A little bit, you know? Don't turn my back on them, but yeah.

[LAUGHS]

No, I mean, that was 20 years ago. I don't have that fear these days. You know, now I accept you, black or white. You know? And Washington didn't do bad. I mean, he was a decent mayor. I would go for Obama as president. And he's black.

Ira Glass

This interview obviously was before she got a chance to, back in 2007.

Rob Wildeboer

So what's changed?

Mary Kay

Everything. I mean, I've changed. They've changed.

You know, the black people are more educated. They're, you know, they're standing on something these days. They've come a long way in this world.

And they deserve-- you know, they worked hard. I mean, you see it in the stores. You know? 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 you know, they want what we got. What we've always had. You know?

Rob Wildeboer

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

Mary Kay

That's good. As long as they're-- anybody that's willing to work for what they get, they deserve today. They deserve it. You know what I mean? If you want it and you go for it and you're willing to work, then, you know, you deserve what you got.

Ira Glass

When I asked the people who urged Howard Washington to run in the first place-- that's Lu Palmer and Timuel Black-- what the lessons of the Washington years are, they both said the same thing. They talked about how it was a mistake to think you could make the world change if you pinned your hopes on just one man. After Harold died, the movement died, too.

Lu Palmer

And I'll tell you, a lot people don't like to criticize Harold Washington. I blame Harold for this.

Timuel Black

What should have been happening, we should have anticipated either his demise or removal from office, and been organizing for that possibility.

Lu Palmer

Harold was put on a pedestal. And I think that was a major mistake. We lifted him to almost-god status.

Ira Glass

Barack Obama noticed the same problem. In fact, there's a passage in Dreams From my Father about this, when he writes about what Chicago was like immediately after Harold's death.

Barack Obama

The day before Thanksgiving, Harold Washington died.

Ira Glass

This is Obama, reading on the audio book.

Barack Obama

It occurred without warning-- sudden, simple, final, almost ridiculous in its ordinariness, the heart of an overweight man giving way. It rained that weekend, cold and steady. Indoors and outside, people cried.

By the time of the funeral, Washington loyalists had worked through the initial shock. They began to meet, regroup, trying to decide on a strategy for maintaining control, trying to select Harold's rightful heir.

But it was too late for that. There was no political organization in place, no clearly-defined principles to follow. The entire of black politics had centered on one man, who radiated like the sun. Now that he was gone, no one could agree on what that presence had meant.

Ira Glass

What's interesting, of course, is that this is what so many Democrats are saying this year, now that Barack Obama is out of office and Donald Trump is in power, and the Democratic Party is at one of its lowest ebbs in memory.

I checked in with Obama and Washington's campaign advisor, David Axelrod, this week. He told me Harold might have been surprised by the fact that a black man was elected president just two decades after Harold won his second term. But he would not have been surprised at the backlash once that black man got to the Oval Office.

Well, today's program was originally produced back in 1997, by Alex Blumberg and myself, Nancy Updike, Alix Spiegel, and Julie Snyder. Senior editor for this show was Paul Tough.

Production help from Rachel Howard, Seth Lind, Bruce Wallace, BA Parker, and Matt Tierney. Since we first put this show on the air 20 years ago, four of our interviewees-- Lu Palmer, Vernon Jarrett, Eugene Sawyer, and Judge Eugene Pincham-- have died. I'm sad to say that none of them lived to see a black man win the Oval Office.

We used archival footage 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's archival news footage. WXYT Radio gave us an archival tape of Aaron Freeman's Council Wars satire. And WTTW-TV gave us archival footage of the '83 debates. In addition to all that, we would like to think Eva Baeza, who at the time was director of the Chernin Center for the Arts at the Duncan YMCA.

And thanks to Gary Rivlin, who gave us advice throughout this production. We recommend his book, Fire on the Prairie. It's a great history of the Washington years.

Thanks to Hugo Tyrel and Dolores Woods. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to the co-founder of our program, Mr. Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass.

Man 2

(SINGING) Bet your bottom dollar you lose the blues in Chicago, Chicago.

[CROWD CHEERING]

Ira Glass

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

(SINGING) On State Street, that great street, how does one say? They do things they don't do on Broadway. Hey! They've had the time-- the time of their life. I saw a man. He danced with his wife! In Chicago, Chicago, my home town!