Reckless Eyeballing

Harold Washington: One of Obama’s undiscovered Heroes?

It was in a 1993 Chicago Magazine article “Vote of Confidence” that we learn the 1992 election saw more voter registrants in the 19 primarily black wards then in the 19 primarily white wards (consider: in 1930, less than seven percent of Chicago’s population was black) — 676,000 to 526,000. Who helped accomplish this task? A young Barack Obama:

In 1984, after Columbia but before Harvard, Obama moved to Chicago. “I came because of Harold Washington,” he says. “I wanted to do community organizing, and I couldn’t think of a better city than one as energized and hopeful as Chicago was then.”

Harold Washington. There’s a name you don’t hear often. The first black mayor of Chicago, his election culminated – well, almost – the “Manifest Destruction” of the Second City. As has been documented at SBPDL, Chicago has merely limped along like a once proud, now lame race horse waiting for someone to put it out of its misery.

Washington would defeat Republican Bernard Epton by fewer than 50,000 votes (of the more than 1.3 million cast) in 1983 election.

Black turnout was 85 percent – two percentage points higher than white registration. Washington won over ninety-nine percent of the black vote – or, as one Epton adviser put it, every black “except for the accidents.”

It’s in Gary Rivlin’s book Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race that we learn a key anecdote that, not inconcidentally, played a factor in the 2012 Presidential election (p. 195):

The Latino vote proved key to Washington’s victory. Washington had won only fifteen percent of the Latino vote in the primary despite Latino activists who tried to convince voters of a natural alliance between minorities. In the general election Washington captured around 82 percent of the Latino vote. Had the opposite occurred – had 4 of the 5 vote Latino voters gone with Epston instead – Washington would have lost. 

Ninety-nine percent of the black vote; 82 percent of the Latino vote. Roughly 33 percent of those votes cast by white liberals who lived along the north lakefront.

What does this election, one from 1983, remind you of?

Rivlin supplies a key quote in his Fire on the Prairie that deserves deep reflection: Washington’s campaign was seen as largely ineffective and disorganized, with political columnists in Chicago lampooning him for financial mismanagement early in his career that forced him to serve a prison sentence. Could he run a city with a budget of $2 billion? (p. 190):

“I’m no racist, and I resent the way that word is hurled at whites who are voting for Epton,” said a white woman featured in one of [Chicago Tribune’s Anne] Keegan’s columns. “There are blacks and whites alike that are voting because of race. But there are a lot who aren’t. Why are only whites labeled racists?”

Why indeed?

White people in America will cling to their abstractions until the bitter end, pointing to some mythical Constitution that safe-guards their freedoms while that same document is used to strip them of all dignity.

The race for mayor of Chicago in 1983 offered a glimpse of this; the 2012 race for the Presidency of the United States offered yet another.

Never forget that Barack Obama went to Chicago based on Harold Washington. Never forget the night Washington won the Democratic Primary, he would give this speech (p. 147):

“We’ve been pushed around, shoved around, beat, murdered, emasculated, destroyed,” Washington said. “There’s been an unfair distribution of all the goodies. No system works for us. We influence no institutions in this country except our own. We have no power. We have no land. …

“We’ve been giving white candidates our vote for years and years, unstintingly hoping that they would include us in the process, ” Washington said. “Now it’s come to the point where we can say, ‘Well, it’s our turn. It’s our turn.”

Manifest Destruction… in a nutshell.



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