Foreshadowed by his roots and bottle-rocket-like rise, Barack Obama’s legacy is one of betrayal and what might have been,… From the outset, he courted and was courted by the pillars of counter-revolution, his very blackness a cloak for his Manchurian mission.
by Jon Jeter
Part 2 - Harold Washington and his Chicago mini-revolution
With his Motown baritone, the soaring cadence of a Baptist preacher — and a striking resemblance to Ossie Davis — a congressman representing Chicago’s 1st District, Harold Washington, had them at hello. As part of the Daley machine, Washington had dutifully complied with orders to shun Martin Luther King Jr’s 1966 visit to Chicago, but that experience — combined with the 1969 police assassination of the charismatic 21-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, Fred Hampton — had caused Washington to defect.
Still, Washington was a pragmatist and a mayoral bid struck him as a tad quixotic; he agreed to the campaign but only if the group registered at least 100,000 new voters and raised $200,000 by the fall of 1982.
Palmer, and his wife, Jorja, accepted the challenge, and began teaching political education classes — modeled on the Black Panthers’ efforts — at the nonprofit organization the couple had founded and funded, Chicago Black United Communities, on the city’s South Side.
As Palmer recalled in a 1992 interview: “After every four-week period we would have a graduation, and every graduation speaker was Harold Washington. He’d come by, make a nice little speech, give out the citations. The first graduation we had was on the coldest day in Chicago history when the wind-chill factor went down to 80 something below zero. We were so poor we had no heat in the building and so the people kept their scarves on, and I mean you could see the breath coming out of their mouths. But nobody left. I turned to Jorja and said ‘these brothas and sistas are ready’ because you know how our people are about the cold.”
By the fall of 1982 — as Chicago’s black radio station, WVON, crackled with Palmer’s clever taunt, “We shall see in 83” — the CBUC had unleashed 2,000 trained grassroots organizers on the streets, who not only met Washington’s initial demands but eclipsed them, adding 180,000 new voters to the city’s registration rolls, and delivering a war chest of nearly half-a-million dollars.
With the incumbent Jane Byrne and the late Mayor Richard J. Daley’s son Richard M. dividing white Democrats, Washington won a bitter primary, then squeezed just enough white votes from his Rainbow Coalition to win the general election against a bipartisan white electorate that was unified in its contempt for him. For black Chicago, said Robert Starks, a political science professor at Northeastern University and a key political strategist for Washington, the campaign “took on almost a religious or gospel character . . It became almost a civic religion.”
Despite stiff opposition from white aldermen and state lawmakers, Washington’s administration began to deliver the spoils to his constituents almost immediately, as he worked assiduously to cut everyone in on a sweet deal that had previously been reserved for a privileged few. He rescinded a municipal ordinance prohibiting street musicians from putting out a hat, issued an executive order forbidding municipal employees from enforcing immigration laws, computerized city departments, and extended collective bargaining rights for public trade unions whose rank-and-file members were often kept in the dark about the labor contracts struck between their corrupt leadership and the Daley machine.
He opened up the city’s budget process by holding public hearings around the city, increased the number of women and Blacks at City Hall, capped campaign contributions for contractors doing business with the city at $1,500, and professionalized the city’s workforce by banning patronage hiring and firing — all of which would’ve been unimaginable under the old machine. He even mothballed the city’s limousine, for an Oldsmobile 98.
“We had built Chicago to a peak of Black solidarity by the time it came to elect Harold,” Palmer said in 1992. “You’d better not even think about not voting for Harold Washington. I mean it better not even come in your mind, or somebody would go upside your head.”
Short-lived as it was, Harold Washington’s City Hall was the crowning achievement of a nationwide revolution that had begun 50-years earlier at the height of the Great Depression, when organized labor integrated its ranks and its leadership, and workers of all races banded together to transform bad jobs into good ones. The essential actors in that rebellion were the descendants of chattel slaves, who not only helped imbue the economy with unprecedented buying power, but articulated a coherent, shimmering vision of what a racial democracy — a Beloved Community — might look like in practice.