Timuel Black is a civil rights activist whose powerful voice within the black community encouraged Washington to seek office. He spoke to StreetWise over the phone about why Washington was a good candidate for mayor, and his promise to open up the city to all constituencies.
African-American Politics Pre-Harold Washington
The conditions of politics in Chicago had changed drastically with the election of Richard J. Daley in 1955, so that the political power base of the black community was divided. Then blacks, if you look at the data, stopped voting. They were so discouraged. Then came Jane Byrne, who was elected by a vast outpouring from the former dissatisfied black voters, who then became dissatisfied with her. We encouraged Harold Washington because we had lost all of our other potential candidates. And, after we went through a number of potential candidates, we came to the conclusion that Harold Washington was the only one who had a possibility of winning.
Early Political Career Reflects Washington’s “Inclusiveness”
He was not a radical, he was a liberal. As the politics moved during the Civil Rights Movement towards more liberal conditions, he was enthusiastic. In the state legislature, he was the first person in the country to suggest having a day to celebrate Martin Luther King. And Harold Washington never made any pretenses that he was not a Democrat. His politics was to be more inclusive of all people, regardless; therefore, any opportunities to have a job, be able to vote, Harold supported publicly.
African-American Enthusiasm for Washington
The people were so enthusiastic about Harold Washington, getting him elected, and about his style of governing, that they were the base of dictating to him what ought to be. And there was coalition across racial and ethnic lines that appeared at almost every city council meeting to make it clear about their support.
He was able to bring about a combination of ethnic groups that he could move forward. Deep inside the Democratic organization, there was great opposition to that, from ethnic and interracial groups who wanted the old guard to control the politics, to control Chicago… Washington wanted to expand so that people in his staff, and people who were supporting him in areas outside the African-American communities too, would benefit from his policies and judgments… Harold was not just a black man, he was an American black man. His style was inclusiveness, rather than exclusiveness. If you look at the programs that he instituted, he began to include more females. There were white Jewish people who were supporting Harold against a potential Jewish candidate who was running in the Republican party. They voted for Harold Washington against Bernard Epton. So Harold was more of an inclusive person rather than exclusive.
Balancing Power and Resources
He was favorable to sharing power, but not giving up the power of being a mayor. In Chicago, according to the statutes, the city council is as strong as the mayor is weak. In the tradition of the Daley machine and before that, it had been the mayor who dictated to the city council, by control of the city jobs and everything. Not with Washington.
I think Chicago has a much more liberal style of behavior because of Harold Washington’s success. Two examples of that would be [the] election of Carol Moseley Braun and the now-President of the United States [Barack Obama] choosing to launch his political carrer in the very neighborhoods where Washington had his biggest support. But with his vision, that doesn’t mean things are perfect.