Harold Washington and Why He's One of My Heroes.

Each day I try my best to find a new podcast to listen to and last nights happened to be This American Life. The episode was titled "Harold". Little did I know, I was about to learn about someone who would quickly be added to my list of heroes.

 Photo courtesy of the Rebuild Foundation

Photo courtesy of the Rebuild Foundation

Harold was born on April 15, 1922 in Illinois. His father was a precinct captain in the city of Chicago and his mother was a singer. At the time, Chicago was the epicenter of African American culture for the entire Midwest in early and middle 20th century.  This article won't be focused on his early childhood though, his schooling at Roosevelt, career as a lawyer, or his military service, but rather his political life.

Harold was the 41st Mayor of Chicago, but that didn't come without opposition from the senators in power at the time and the white community in general. Even though this was the early 80's, racism was still commonplace in the richer neighborhoods and upper societies (similar to today, but that's a different article).

Existing patterns of racial segregation must be reversed if there is to be a chance of averting the desperately intensifying division of whites and Negroes in Chicago,
— federal district judge Richard B. Austin

Richard B. Austin had said that in 1969 and yet little had changed 13-14 years later when Harold ran for office. I may be jumping ahead a bit, but it's important to note that after Harold's death in 1987 during his second term as mayor, most of Harold's movement became scattered as most of his supporters hadn't thought of a reality without him. Chicago today still suffers heavily from racial discrimination according to interviews I've listened to and this article from 2011, but let's get back on topic.  

 Photo courtesy of Sun Times Media

Photo courtesy of Sun Times Media

Harold quickly became my hero because of how dedicated he was to bringing people together. His ultimate goal was to be "fairer than fair". He didn't want anyone put down, even the people who had once acted opposite to him. 

Before Mayor Washington, Chicago was run by either all white politicians with racial agendas or African American politicians who where bought by these racist institutions. Harold was different and above all, he seemed genuine and real. He was the champion Chicago desperately needed at the time. 

Just look at his exchange during a debate against Richard M. Daily and Jane Byrne in the fall of 1983. The moderator asked, "What would you do, if anything, about the police department's Office of Professional Standards?" This office, as described by the This American Life podcast host as the place in the police department which handles complaints about police misconduct and brutality.


I believe that the members of the police board, chaired by Reverend Wilbur Daniels, really do take that job very seriously.
— Jane Byrne

The audience talked among themselves. Then Mr. Daily answered.

I think, like anything else, there must be improvement. And there is nothing wrong with improvement in the Office of Professional Standards.
— Richard M. Daily

A very typical answer from a politician as he didn't really say anything pertaining to the question. Applause still followed though, but then Harold answered.

The precise question is, what would I do to improve the Office of Professional Standards? When I answer it, I’ll be the only one who answered the question.

The Office of Professional Standards was arrived at after a long and tortuous situation in this city in which members— not all, but members— of the Chicago police department consistently refused to be adequate and professional in their handling of hispanic, black people. It’s just that simple.
— Harold Washington

From this moment on, Harold become a beacon of light in an otherwise bleak political playing field. His power came from how well spoken and real he appeared to his supporters. A lot of people know of his legacy, but some are unaware of his role in government after his death.

[...] he was the mayor who played the largest role in American history, because of his relationship with a young man he met only once: Barack Obama. If Harold Washington had never been mayor of Chicago, Obama would not be president.  
— Edward McClelland

I find it absolutely insane that I hadn't heard of this man until I listened to this podcast episode. Everything about him inspires me to keep pushing forward. This man deserves notoriety.

I encourage you to listen to the episode the I've posted below and then watch a three part interview he did before his untimely death. You may have passed, Harold, but you and the principals you stood for will never be forgotten. You are truly an American Hero.