The celebration of Harold Washington’s legacy marks his historic election
On the anniversary of Harold Washington’s historic election as Chicago’s first black mayor, the city’s political dignitaries gathered to celebrate the mayor’s legacy.
Washington’s April 12, 1983 election was national news and a touchstone for a generation of Chicago politicians, many of whom were present at an anniversary celebration at Washington’s eponymous library branch in the South Loop. The event was billed as a centenary in advance of what would have been Washington’s 100th birthday, which falls on Friday.
In her keynote speech, Mayor Lori Lightfoot commended Washington’s legacy with a long list of progressive achievements that have provided access to city contracts for women and minorities, provided city services to residents regardless of immigration status, created ethics codes, and provided access to public records supporting the paved the way for further reforms. Lightfoot, who became the first black woman and first openly LGBTQ person to win the mayoral election, drew parallels with Washington’s reform legacy.
“Harold Washington, by boldly challenging the status quo and demanding justice…our great mayor truly put Chicago on the path to becoming a great, global city,” Lightfoot said.
Chief Justice Timothy Evans recalled his time as chairman of the Washington City Council during the racially polarized “council wars” that followed Washington’s victory over the white political establishment. Former US Congressman Luis Gutierrez recalled joining the coalition of aldermen that eventually gave Washington a governing majority late in Washington’s first term. US Rep. Bobby Rush – who represented Washington’s former congressional district for 30 years – praised Washington as the city’s greatest mayor.
Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who ran a maverick campaign for mayor in 2015 with former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, praised Washington for forming an interracial coalition.
“He showed us how to build a progressive coalition through good values and bringing people together,” Garcia said.
Next Monday has been declared Harold Washington Day. Harold Washington College will preview the documentary Punch 9 for Harold Washington on April 20th. JB Pritzker, who was on the podium on Tuesday, has pledged $10,000 to the fund.
Among the hundreds who gathered in the library were minor players in Washington’s administration. Former Chicago Police Officer Frank Lee headed Washington’s security detail. Lee had volunteered to provide security for Washington when the then-congressman became a first-time candidate, a duty that became more dangerous as Washington rose in the polls during the racially charged campaign.
The threats never abated, even when Washington won a second term in 1987.
“Harold Washington received more threats against him than Ronald Reagan,” Lee recalled. “But Harold was never shot.”
Lee was at Washington’s side in November 1987 – when the mayor collapsed at his desk during a meeting with staffers – and gave Washington mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before assuming command of the mayor’s trip to the hospital. Washington died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.