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Remembering Mayor Harold Washington.

November 22, 2011

Friday will mark the 24th year since Harold Washington died.

Harold was the first elected Black mayor of Chicago and its most progressive one.

By the way, you always called him “Harold.” It was no disrespect. In fact, he would always joke, “Everywhere you go, London, Paris, Rome or China, they will ask you the same thing: How’s Harold?” And he would break into his great grin and laugh.

Those born over the past quarter century may not know much about this great progressive politician. But there is much to learn from him.

As I said, he was the first African American elected as Chicago’s mayor. The Chicago Democratic Machine opposed him at every turn. The City’s legislative body, the City Council, was made up of a corrupt bunch led by the power hungry pair of Ed Vrdolyak and Eddie Burke (who is still the Council’s finance chairman), whose only concern was personal power and serving corporate interests.

Washington was elected by an unexpected popular democratic electoral uprising. His victory confounded all predictors and pundits.

Sound familiar?

But Harold Washington knew how to fight the entrenched powers. He would not budge from his promise to open the city’s business to those who had been excluded. And when he was blocked by what famously became known as “Council Wars,” he turned to the voters and said, “Give me a majority.” And we did.

One hot summer evening at the old Quinn Memorial Chapel on the south side, we sat in the creaky wooden balcony of the church that had been a stop on the Underground Railroad. The church was packed to hear Harold, who was locked in another budget battle with the Council.

“I am not Monty Hall,” he roared. “And this is not ‘Let’s Make A Deal!”

And old Quinn Chapel shook to its foundation by the people’s response.

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