When Chicago elected its first black mayor

A campaign button from Harold Washington's first successful mayoral election is a souvenir of a historic moment.

Photo by William Camargo

A campaign button from Harold Washington's first successful mayoral election is a souvenir of a historic moment.

Millennials had their Obama Moment.

It enveloped Chicago like a hug on Nov. 4, 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.

People of all ages and colors streamed into Grant Park for Obama’s election-night victory speech, appearing as if they were dancing on a cloud. Folks cheered until their voices were raw. Eyes teared up. It was a historic day and night remembered vividly, especially by African-Americans.

But it wasn’t the first time a political movement took root and blossomed for black Chicagoans.

Mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s references to the multiracial coalition that paved the way for the election of Harold Washington in 1983 triggers equally vibrant memories for those of us old enough to remember our shared Harold Washington Moment.

During his campaign for Chicago mayor, many African-Americans and other supporters could not stop talking about the U.S. congressman and former state legislator who was waging a political battle many black Chicagoans thought could never be won: to become the city’s first African-American mayor.

It wasn’t just the possibility of Chicago having a black mayor that energized his supporters. Washington represented a new era for African-Americans, a symbol of progress, a reformer whose governance would incorporate a civil rights agenda. And black people were eager for a change.

I recall people in the neighborhoods — including complete strangers — debating nonstop the chances that the anti-political machine Democrat could win. The conversation spilled into barber shops, beauty salons and churches. It percolated on CTA buses and at “el” stops. Black folks, many of whom had never stumped for a politician before, poured into Washington campaign offices to volunteer. The air was electric.

Blue and white Harold Washington for Mayor campaign buttons were ubiquitous in black neighborhoods across the city. True believers reasoned with those convinced that a black man could never be elected Chicago mayor.

The conversations I witnessed were polite, respectful, friendly — there was a spirit of camaraderie. In the end, most black voters were willing to vote for their first preference, regardless of whether they thought he could actually win. And their preference was for Washington.

That time has special meaning for me. I had been studying American politics as a graduate student at the University of Chicago and was launching a journalism career. The pages of the textbooks I studied came to life as I witnessed a transformative campaign unfold in an American city with a rich political history.

I remember Washington’s famous smile. I remember him saying: “You want Harold? Well here’s Harold!” I remember feeling like a party was going on. Washington was the life of that party. As a souvenir, I kept a Washington campaign button.

Like that night in Grant Park when Obama won, election night was magical. In black neighborhoods, people were jubilant. TVs were tuned to Washington’s triumphant victory speech. African-Americans had flexed their political muscle and it felt good. Those votes had made a difference. No politician who expected to become mayor could ever again take the black vote for granted. African-Americans basked in the afterglow.

But of course, it wasn’t going to be that perfect, not even in nostalgia. Racism reared its ugly head throughout the campaign, followed by the racially divisive “Council Wars.” The acrimony eased by the time Washington won his second term, but he died suddenly of a heart attack eight months later.

Still, the energy that led to Harold Washington’s big win lives on in the memory of those who were there.  It’s also why Washington’s protégé Garcia is eager to re-create that energy in his mayoral run today.

Living through the Washington win was an absolute blast for my generation. Here’s to sharing more memorable moments in the future — whatever they may be.

If you lived through the first victorious Washington mayoral campaign and would like to tell us about those days, please share your memories in the comment section below or email me at dshelton@chicagoreporter.com with “Harold Washington victory” in the subject line. We may publish some reader submissions in a future post.