A Triumph of Progressive Politics: Roger Biles on Mayor Harold Washington

Roger Biles is Professor Emeritus of History at Illinois State University. His books include Richard J. Daley: Politics, Race, and the Governing of Chicago and The Fate of Cities: Urban America and the Federal Government, 1945-2000. He recently answered some questions about his new book, Mayor Harold Washington: Champion of Race and Reform in Chicago.




Q. Your book chronicles the rise of Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, and his victory over the Chicago political machine in the 1980s. What inspired you to tell Washington’s story?

My wife and I left Chicago in 1981, two years before Harold Washington’s remarkable victory.  We closely followed the election from afar, stunned by the racial animosity that surfaced that year.  We were aghast at the shocking news footage shown on WGN-TV and the disturbing images shown in national newsmagazines.  We watched in amazement as the Council Wars unfolded and cringed when a cabal of white politicians sought to obstruct Mayor Washington at every turn.  Decades later, I remained fascinated by the turmoil of 1983-87 and wanted to understand how such events could be explained.   Most of all, I wanted to know more about the man who stood at the center of the controversy.

Q. In the book, you say his administration “represented a triumph of progressive politics no less than an unprecedented victory for African American voters.” Why do you think it is important to emphasize both race and reform in his story?

The traditional explanation of Harold Washington’s victories in 1983 and 1987, as well as the brutal infighting of the Council Wars, emphasized the bitter race relations in Chicago at that time.  The election returns clearly showed that race played an important role in the voting.  Nevertheless, Washington consistently campaigned on the idea that much more than racial equality was at stake in his anti-machine crusade.  “This political battle is not about race,” he said often.  “It is about money and power and morality.”  He firmly believed that his brand of reform, designed to improve the lives of African Americans, Latinos, poor whites, gays, lesbians, and other disadvantaged groups, would benefit all Chicagoans.

Q. What role did racism play in skeptics’ criticisms of Washington during his campaign and mayoralty?

Without question, racism played a significant role in the opposition to Washington in Chicago.  Somewhat submerged in the beginning, the racial bigotry became open and widespread in 1983 and lingered throughout Washington’s mayoralty.  At the same time, as the mayor and several of his key aides pointed out, the white politicians who skillfully incited their constituents with dire warnings of open housing and affirmative action were fighting for their political lives.  The surviving members of the imposing Democratic machine were defending patronage, contracts, and other perquisites that came with political control of city hall.  Washington’s opposition operated on a toxic mix of race, political power, and self-interest.

Q. Despite his critics’ caricature of him as ineffectual, you outline a number of practical, meaningful reforms he made. For example, how did he improve distribution of city services to underserved neighborhoods?

Chicago had long been known as “the city that works,” but Washington pointed out that the city worked well only for the downtown and for the residents of certain affluent and middle-class neighborhoods.  The inhabitants of less desirable areas of the city, especially people of color, routinely suffered from a shortage of day-to-day services.  Indeed, African American residents of the poorest precincts noted that they had never seen city snowplows or road graders until Washington became mayor.   Washington ran on a platform of greater attention to neighborhood concerns and, after his election, redistributed municipal resources to address the gross inequities in municipal housekeeping commonplace in Chicago for generations.

Q. How did the black community respond to his sudden death in office? What were the political consequences of his death at the beginning of his second term?

Washington’s death shortly after his reelection triggered a massive outpouring of grief in the African American community, where the mayor had enjoyed a special bond with the citizenry.  The depth of sadness among black Chicagoans reflected his unique status as the city’s first non-white mayor and the hero who had delivered his people from decades of political servitude to the powerful Democratic machine.  After a caretaker (Eugene Sawyer) completed the remainder of Washington’s term, Richard M. Daley won the mayoralty in 1989 and secured reelection five times before declining to seek a seventh term in 2011.  Daley’s record twenty-two years as Chicago’s mayor surpassed the previous record for longevity held by his father, Richard J. Daley.

Q. In what ways did Washington’s legacy endure, despite his brief tenure, and impact Chicago politics today?

Chicago’s electoral politics in the twenty-first century include more voters and legitimize more issues than in the machine era.  Decisions on the appointment of commissions, boards, and task forces by the mayor and other city officials, once made peremptorily without regard to diversity, have become subject to new guidelines designed to include representatives of different backgrounds and interests.  Once veiled in secrecy, city hall no longer routinely keeps information from the people or dispenses jobs and contracts to favored wards or groups of people without explanation.  Most important, the Washington interlude left Chicagoans in the twenty-first century with compelling memories of an earlier time and a sense of how local government could be retooled to produce a more just polity for all of the city’s inhabitants.


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