Kai EL’ Zabar Editor-at-Large
Walking into the “Here’s Harold!” event was like a reunion with all the Harold Washington campaign workers as the music of the Alexis Lombre Quartet played softly in the background. The room was full of dignitaries, power players, influencers, politicians and the very rich and prestigious along with the rest that make the city work. The celebration of Harold Washington’s legacy on the day of his election April 12, (1983) and the week of would have been his 100th (on the 15th) birthday filled the Winter Garden room at the Harold Washington Library Center located in the South Loop with the gaiety of such and auspicious moment in history.
The view was like eye candy to one who grew up being aware of the game-changers in the room. In clear view were Reverend Jesse Jackson in conversation with Roland Burris, Business mogul George E. Johnson chatting with artist Madeline Murphy Rabb; continuing to glance around the room I could see Carol Adams, Ernesto Borges, the Honorable Chief Judge Timothy Evans, Peggy Montes, Honorable Luis Gutierrez, President Toni Preckwinkle, Congressman Bobby Rush, Zenobia Black, and Marsha Howard, just to name a few and so many more. I chatted for a moment with Don Rashid, and my old colleague Mary Datcher briefly, after which I joined Monifa Diane Chandler, Jo Jackson and Jacqueline Marshall to enjoy the evening.
Radio personality Richard Steele was the MC/Master of Ceremonies and the perfect man for the task ahead. His opening was on point and set the tone of the evening, painting a portrait of Chicago’s first Black mayor.
Richard began the tale . . . Prior to Harold’s campaign people believed that Chicago would never have a Black mayor, but in 1982 activist and Journalist Lu Palmer said, “We shall see in 83!’”
The climate of Chicago was turbulent and Reverend Jesse Jackson announced on his radio show that Mayor Jane Byrne had descended on her promise to the Black community. Instead of diversifying the board of the Chicago Housing Authority Byrne appointed three whites and had the audacity to say, “Reverend, I don’t owe you anything.”
That led to the decision to boycott the mayor’s signature event—Chicago Fest. The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s boycott deprived ChicagoFest — billed as America’s largest annual music festival – of two of its headline acts, Stevie Wonder and Kool & the Gang.
Consequently, Chicago’s Black community decided that it was time for a Black mayor. As a direct response to that choice, phenomenally, 200,000 Blacks registered to vote for the first time. Blacks on every level rallied to give of their, time, skills, and money to help organize, campaign, register voters and do whatever else needed to be done to get Harold Washington elected. Blacks were all in.
I remember actively participating with the Young Black Professionals for Harold Washington under the leadership of Dwain Kyles. We raised money like everyone else to get Harold into office. Grassroots fundraising took on another reality. Barrels were strategically distributed through Chicago with signage that read, “Drop your Washingtons for Washington.” People sold candy, cookies, cakes and pies; Friday night fish dinners and hosted Bid Whist parties, and more to raise money for the campaign. Then they showed-up at the polls on April 12, 1983, and punched #9 for Harold.
Steele said, ‘On the night of his election, during his acceptance speech the newly elected Mayor Harold Washington said, famously, “You wanted Harold, so Here’s Harold,’ . . .Tonight, we are here to celebrate a resounding victory! We have fought a good fight. We have finished our course and we kept the faith. We fought it with unseasoned weapons and a Felix of people who mostly have never been involved in a political campaign before. Maybe this has happened before but if so, I know not where.”
The most important thing about Washington is that he was relatable as many noted throughout the evening. He could speak to anyone. And get his point across. And even though his vocabulary would send many a journalist to the dictionary he connected to the ordinary man and woman. They may not have understood all his expansive vocabulary, but they felt him, and he resonated with them.
Harold Washington represented at seat at the table for everyone.
CONFIRMING HAROLD WASHINGTON’S LEGACY
The program continued with a word from Josie Childs, a former aide to Washington and administrator during his tenure as mayor, presented an update on behalf of the Harold Washington Legacy Committee, which she founded. She was happy to announce the establishment of the Mayor Harold Washington Legacy Endowment Scholarship at his Alma Mater, Roosevelt University, December 10, 2021. Their goal is to raise $100,000 dollars in 2022.
Governor JB Pritzer, took the stage following Ms. Childs (who had remained seated) providing some comic relief as he said, “Well Josie while you were talking, Reverend Jessie Jackson leaned over to me as you spoke about the ‘Legacy Scholarship’ and when you said everyone in here ought to give money, he grabbed my hand and tried to raise it, so in honor of him and in honor of you and of course Harold Washington I want to contribute $10,000.00.”
Notably, the governor stated that “Harold Washington is remembered as the mayor that shook up the status quo of Chicago politics–and 30-years later, his shake-up still reverberates with his soul. Harold’s public service put people first, from building a grassroots movement across this city to making the workforce look like the city he served. The loss of this great man was devastating. . . That’s why we must each take steps great or small to stand up for his legacy. It’s our responsibility to continue his legacy.”
Sharon Stone, Harold’s niece represented the Washington family sharing insight into what manner man he was outside of politics. She said that he wasn’t that complicated, that what Harold wanted for hie family is what he wanted for the city of Chicago—“Our concern is to heal.” This would happen according to him by bringing people together and providing fairness and equity across the board on all frontiers.
Illinois Congressman Jesus Chuy Garcia spoke of Mayor Washington as his mentor and is remembered as the mayor that broke the mantle of racism, greed and power and who showed us how to build a coalition through respect. He was always forward thinking, so he declared Chicago the first sanctuary city where everyone is welcomed. He taught us that the future lies with the young people so it’s our responsibility to prepare our youth to lead in every area and aspect of life. “Let us vow to . . . always embrace the people . . .and build a legacy of leadership which embraces what Harold Washington represents –Real representation of Democracy!”
Rebecca Sive, author and activist, spoke of her mentor in the late 70’s whom she worked with to sponsor the Human Rights Bill. When Harold accepted the bid for mayor she joined forces with three other women Rev. Addie L. Wyatt, Rev Willie Beatrice Barrow and Nancy B. Jefferson to form The Women’s Network for Washington which became Washingtons Women’s Commission after his 1983 election win. Her greatest lesson from Harold was to work for the ‘Arc of Justice.’
Peggy Montes stepped to the podium and spoke her truth, “If it were not for the Women’s Network, the men’s work would not have been.” She followed up her declaration by reminding those in the room that it is necessary to complete Harold’s legacy by fulfilling his efforts to have a Du Sable Park and asked Mayor Lightfoot’s that it be completed by the end of her first term.
Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton, stepped to the podium sharing her personal story about ‘Harold,’ which gave her the impetuous to persue politics. She then segued to her most important task of the evening which was to introduce the Mayor Harold Washington Legacy Lifetime Award to 15 recipients: George E. Johnson, former founder President/CEO Johnson Products Company; Congressman Danny Davis; Congressman Jesus Chuy Garcia and; Edward Gardner, founder & CEO Soft Sheen Products; Congressman Luis Garcia; Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., Founder Rainbow PUSH Coalition; Renault Robinson, retired Chicago Police officer and Chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority; Peggy Montes, Founder of Bronzeville Children’s Museum & Former Commissioner Women’s Commission; Reverend Walter ‘Slim’ Coleman, Pastor Adalberto United Methodist Church; David Orr, former Mayor and Alderman; Congressman Bobby Rush; Helen Schiller former alderman and community activist; Jane Ramsey, President Just Volunteers LLC; Rebecca Sive, author & Activist
Those awarded Posthumously: Timuel D. Black Jr, Ph.D., educator, historian/activist; Lu & Jorja Palmer, journalist & activist; Honorable Eugene Sawyer former Mayor and Alderman; Dolores Woods, executive Secretary to Mayor Washington
Mayor Lori Lightfoot began her evening message by acknowledging Mayor Harold Washington’s hard work to dismantle the Chicago Machine. She said, “Harold Washington stated, “I hope to be remembered as the mayor who cared about people and was fair.” I think that we agree that he exceeded his goal. But most people have no idea how hard it is to have done what he accomplished as he faced the Council Wars” – Twenty-nine aldermen formed an opposition group led by Aldermen Ed Vrdolyak and Edward M. Burke known as the “Vrdolyak 29” who voted as a solid bloc from 1983 through 1986 thus creating legislative gridlock. She went on to say as the first Black female Mayor of Chicago, she embraces the spirit of Mayor Washington and is proud to have his example as one to emulate. Her closing words were, “Harold Washington was the spirit of acceptance and respect for all, and his example is one that Chicago must continue as a path to travel.”
The parade of dignitaries was nonending but noteworthy. Each speaker was as interesting as the next, each imparting a fresh and different perspective on the beloved man of the night. He was many things to many people and in the end they all walked away with two things: one, they recognized Harold Washington’s immense power to push through the challenges with integrity and two, his love for people and his commitment to have all people share equality in the American Democracy.
OLD FRIENDS RECAP HAROLD WASHINGTON’S MESSAGE
The Honorable Chief Judge Timothy Evans, a major player on the Washington team said that “Harold led a movement that stood for an open accessible responsive government. In the process he championed human rights and economic fairness for every segment of society. During his tenure as mayor, he was confronted by many challenges and there were those who stood up with him at city council known as the Washington 21. The 1986 special election of Luis Gutierrez the 26th Ward gave the mayor 25 supportive aldermen. Although 25 votes in the city council do not suffice to pass legislation it did allow the mayor to cast a deciding 26th vote. And just like that power shifted.
Congressman Gutierrez joined Tim on stage and began with, “Two things, first, I stand on the shoulders of the Black women and men who sacrificed their lives in the 50’s and 60’s to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. And two, I stand on the shoulders of Harold Washington for going to Congress to make the voting right better. When asked by the Court what did he think about the accusation that the Latino community was disproportionately represented in Chicago’s council, Washington answered, “guilty.” Gutierrez pointed out that Washington empowered the Chicago Latino community with that move and that’s what he did for progressive whites, Asians, Blacks, and all people.
Congressmen Bobby Rush and Danny Davis though present their speeches via video. Both served as aldermen and were part of the Washington 25. Videos of their messages were presented. Congressman Rush declared that “Harold ‘s first love was politics and consequently he was the best politician that we have produced in sometime.”
Congressman Danny Davis made the point of saying that Harold Washington was the best mayor Chicago has ever had in the history of Chicago. “He was a transformative figure.”
The shock of the evening was Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr.’s message, also delivered by video though he had been present. But the real shock is that he was the only speaker that kept the 2-minute limit. The Reverend sad this, “Harold Washington won the election—he won on his strength and character. He broke the machine and he made Chicago work for everyone. He will always be remembered and loved.” Bam! That was it.
Jackie Grimshaw, Vice President for Governmental Affairs Center for Neighborhood Technology, whose history with Harold Washington included political advisor to him and Director of the Mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, took the stage to share the beginning of the HW campaign of which she was a major strategist. She broke it down as having three major components 1. Fundraising 2. Structured Strategy and 3. Sound and Light. Of course, she provided details that made the difference such as recognizing that they didn’t have the deep pocket money from corporations and businesses. What they did have was the enthusiasm, commitment, and belief of the people that Harold could win. So, they met the people where they were. The community came up with the idea of placing barrels distributed throughout the South and West sides. The community could give a dollar and they did. t Harold’s campaign took place before the internet, so she spoke of her human computer who made a spread sheet of all the precincts and from that they surmised Harold’s strongholds and weak points. And finally, they saturated the city with visibility via posters, sound trucks, posters, rallies, radio programs, churches making visits to the community in addition to canvassing. High visibility in underserved communities was the key. This sort of detail specific to our community made a huge difference and in the end the effort and work led them to victory.
Dick Sampson, Professor of Politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former alderman for the 44th ward came to podium the with history. He served on the transition team that advised, Mayor Harold Washington in 1983. He helped shape HW positions on ethics, fair hiring practices, citizen participation, and efficient, local government. You should know Harold Washington created the Ethics Commission; instituted the fist Affirmative Action Program requiring business be awarded to minorities and women; opened City government to public scrutiny; Harold shut down the patronage system changing the balance of power by crippling the machine and though it’s not dead, dead, dead like he promised he got us close, close, close and so it’s our job to bring the final blow to the machine so that it never rises again.”
Though not spoken we all knew that had he lived he would have succeeded. So, we are left to slay the machine and carry out Harold’s legacy of a Chicago for all people.
And last but not least, Senator Mattie Hunter, proudly informed the audience that she has secured $400,000 dollars to commission an artist to create a statue of Harold Washington to be placed in Springfield at the Capitol Building.
To our surprise Robert Starks of the Mayor Harold Washington Legacy Committee approached the podium and was joined by its male members, Tim Wright Esq; Clarence Jenkins Dave Rozelle, Thomas Wortham, Auggeretto Battise, and Stanley Young following the Harold Washington example and recognized the women/Loisteeen Woods for her exemplary work in the organization of the night’s program with a plaque. Kudos to the Mayor Harold Washington Legacy Centennial Planning Committee, Denise Bransford, Edward Hamb, Sasha Dalton and Wynona Redmond…
As Richard Steele said in closing out the evening taking a line from the famed Chicago R & B group the Dells, “Oh What a Night!”
• Event was Hosted by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and First Lady Amy Eshleman
Honorary Co- Chairs: Governor JB Prizter
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle
Reverend Jesse L. Jackson
• Produced by the Mayor Harold Washington Legacy Committee