The veteran Chicago Public Media reporter says "Black Chicago has to stop chasing the ghost of Harold Washington:"
The spirit of Harold Washington won’t save Chicago.
Washington’s legacy as the city’s first black mayor and Democratic machine breaker is legendary. A remarkable 82 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 1983 race in which he first won. Compare that to the dismal 34 percent earlier this week. Unfathomable numbers when you pair them side by side. Voter turnout in mayoral races has usually hovered around one-third of the electorate in recent years.
His mayoral tenure is oft referred as the halcyon days. It’s a story that reads like a modern-day political fable. The unlikely charismatic candidate who stood up to the powers that be. The experienced politician the white media initially dismissed. He split the white vote and bested a white Republican contender. Once on the fifth floor of City Hall, Washington ushered in new inclusive policies while giving blacks a better share of political power and jobs.
The power of Washington’s name and legacy is real, but today, it’s almost a figment of our imagination. We’ve embraced a romanticized vision of that time and a belief that it is the template for harnessing black political power. His name is always invoked in political campaigns. When local elections creep up, the question comes up: Who is the next Harold? How do black wards agree on a “consensus candidate?” The magic of 1983 won’t likely be repeated. Ever. We will be okay.
Make no mistake. Washington is unforgettable, particularly for black Chicagoans who witnessed his rise to power. That time will always have a place in our hearts. But true black political power has many faces. It helped created the opportunity for Harold to become Harold — not the other way around.
Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk.