Confusion And Uncertainty Take Over After Mayor’s Death, But 20 Years Later He Remains Beloved
CHICAGO (CBS) ― On a sunny day in November 1988, Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson stood before the grave of Mayor Harold Washington at Oak Woods Cemetery on the city’s South Side to examine the troubled year Chicago had seen without him. It had been a year since church bells had tolled in the midst of that gray and rainy Chicago afternoon, signaling the mayor’s death.
It signaled an end of a political era, and the beginning of a year of social turmoil, upheaval, confusion, and racial tension that had not been seen in many years. That year began with seven days after the mayor’s death, which literally changed the course of the city’s political history.
Mayor Washington died as he was just reaching the height of his political power, and he had moved quickly to consolidate it. His adversaries were on the run, and he appeared to be in control of Chicago’s destiny.
But with the mayor’s death, the city’s future seemed to be spinning out of control. Confusion reigned at City Hall, and while Chicagoans mourned Mayor Washington’s passing in the lobby, the politicians and the elected officials just one floor up in City Council chambers began a wild scramble to fill his shoes.
For the seven days following Washington’s death, whispered rumors of would-be successors filled newspaper columns and television screens. Washington supporters huddled and mapped their strategy for holding onto the power of the mayor’s office, while his adversaries plotted one last time to grab it for themselves.
Finally, it all culminated in one of the wildest City Council meetings ever held in Chicago.
The day after the mayor died, Thanksgiving Day 1987, a tearful mayor’s chief of staff Ernest Barefield announced the mayor’s memorial services, while Ald. David Orr (49th), now Cook County Clerk, agreed to serve until an acting mayor was selected by the aldermen.
The public memorial services for the mayor followed on Friday, Nov. 27.
By Saturday, Nov. 28, battle lines were being lain within City Council chambers. Those who had supported Washington wanted Ald. Timothy Evans (4th) to take over as acting mayor, while other aldermen wanted Ald, Eugene Sawyer (6th). Both aldermen were African-American, but Evans’ backers argued that those who were pushing Sawyer represented the Democratic machine and the 29 aldermen who had fought Mayor Washington in the Council Wars.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson was one of Evans’ backers.
“There’s a spark in Tim Evans that has mass appeal,” Jackson said.
Some aldermen saw this as an attempt at kingmaking.
“I don’t think the people of Chicago should have their next mayor picked at O’Hare Field, or at Operation PUSH, or at a bungalow or anywhere else,” said Ald. Edward Burke (14th).
On Nov. 30, Washington’s eulogy said it was “no time for power-brokering, no time for king-making, no time for ego trips, no time for self-serving agendas or hungry power grabs.”
But the following day, a power struggle was in full swing in City Council chambers, nearly all through the night. Demonstrators gathered outside City Hall, shouting the late mayor’s name and chanting, “Down with Sawyer!” The demonstrators swelled to the point where police shut down LaSalle Street outside City Hall.
Inside City Council chambers, the two factions went through hours of political maneuvering and parliamentary stonewalling. Unlike the Council Wars, the divisions did not break down along racial lines. Members of the mayor’s own coalition were in many instances fighting amongst themselves.
Ald. Danny Davis (29th), now in Congress, called Evans “very studious, very careful, very thoughtful, very analytical. It’s kind of like the Allstate slogan. You’re in good hands with Tim.”
But Ald. Anna Langford (16th) said: “The mayor would want us to proceed to include all of the people of the City of Chicago – not just the blacks, not just the browns, not just the whites, but all of the people of the City of Chicago,” before nominating Sawyer.
Ald. Dorothy Tillman (3rd) said backing Sawyer was tantamount to backing the 29 aldermen who had fought Washington in the Council Wars.
“Those of you who have joined forces with the 29, don’t do it! Don’t do it!” Tillman said.
But Ald. William Henry (24th) said Sawyer was the person who would bring the city together.
“We don’t need any rhetoric! We need a man that’s going to come to work. We need a person that can go across the city. We need somebody that can bring us together,” Henry said. “Gene Sawyer is that man.”
And Ald. Richard Mell (33rd) addressed his fellow aldermen standing on his desk.
Finally, Sawyer won, receiving 29 votes to Evans’ 19. He was sworn in around 4 a.m. Dec. 2. But the turmoil didn’t end there.
Division And Tension
When Sawyer took office as acting mayor, a number of Washington’s top advisers were fired. Evans lost his chairmanship of the City Council finance committee. Several other aldermen who did not support Sawyer also lost committee chairmanships – Davis, Tillman, Larry Bloom, Luis Gutierrez, Jesus Garcia, and Bobby Rush had all been former insiders in Washington’s administration and had backed Evans. All were forced out of chairmanships.
Sawyer said reorganizing the Council was essential to complete the unfinished work of Harold Washington.
“I’m concerned in the neighborhood development is held up by an alderman, when the people want to move on the development of the community; they want to clean out the filth and the abandoned buildings, and they’re not getting any help on that,” Sawyer said, “and as the mayor of this city, I’m going to make sure they get that help; I’m going to go out in that neighborhood, talk to people, continue to do that wherever I see it happening.”
But Evans compared Sawyer to a machine politician.
“Harold Washington considered himself to be mayor of all the people, and so it was a great and glorious time to be on the inside,” Evans said. “But now those who would attempt to pull us back to the old days when there was machine domination; when the insiders somehow made provisions for their friends and cronies, it’s better to be on the outside than to be in the administration.”
The city’s African-American community was divided without a leader in Washington. Sawyer, Evans, and Danny Davis were all planning to run for mayor in 1989, and political activist Lu Palmer said without anyone to act as the glue to hold the reform movement together, he feared “political catastrophe.”
Meanwhile, as the City Council that Mayor Washington had brought together was divided, so became many of the city’s people. Long-simmering racial tension among black and white Chicagoans spilled over into ugly confrontations. One of the most infamous happened at the Art Institute of Chicago, in the spring of 1988.
David Nelson was described by then-CBS 2 reporter Jim Avila as “a young white art student with a reputation for cynical, provocative works, and a smart-aleck personality.” His painting, “Mirth and Girth” depicted Washington dressed in women’s lingerie.
A group of aldermen went to the Art Institute and confiscated the painting. Those close to the late Mayor Washington said had he been alive, the aldermen would not have acted so hastily.
“They would have been in his office talking to him about before they went over,” said Alton Miller, Washington’s press secretary. “He would have picked up the telephone and talked with his friends at the Art Institute whom he knew, and it just never would have come to that.”
The unflattering painting and its unauthorized removal was not the first assault on Chicago’s race relations at the time. Mayor Sawyer had hired Steve Cokely, a black power activist and conspiracy theorist who had operated on the fringes of the Washington coalition, and who had a habit of saying frightening things – such as claims that whites and Jews dominated blacks and would go so far as to create the AIDS virus to keep the third world in check.
It took Sawyer 10 days to fire Cokely, and afterward, Cokely gained further notoriety by advancing a theory that Mayor Washington had been murdered, because he “had the position and the capability of changing the direction of the City of Chicago, and I think that presented a threat.”
At the time, Chicago’s nerves were still raw, and there was no strong leader like Mayor Washington to keep the lid on emotion and hostility.
“Had he been alive, first of all, he would have prevented the elements that tended to be more volatile from exploding, and secondly, the climate itself would have remained more stable,” Miller said.
The Resolution And The Legacy
More than half a dozen people had declared their candidacy for the special mayoral election in 1989. Among the Democrats, Sawyer, Evans, Davis, Bloom, Ald. Edward Burke (14th), former Park District Supt. Ed Kelly, and Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley all declared their candidacy.
For several candidates, including the three African-American candidates – Sawyer, Davis and Evans – and one of the white candidates – Bloom – the goal was to lay claim to the Washington legacy and on his winning coalition, and the atmosphere was hostile from the beginning. There was also a turf war in white ethnic neighborhoods, with Kelly pitted against Burke and Daley.
But Daley worked to reach beyond that base with warm words about Mayor Washington.
“Harold was a very strong type of mayor; strong leadership, strong will,” Daley said. “He provided as a spokesperson for urban problems throughout the country.”
On the Republican side, Cook County Sheriff Jim O’Grady and former Washington foe Ed Vrdolyak planned to run.
Daley defeated Sawyer in the Democratic primary in February 1989. Evans ran in the general election as an independent with the Harold Washington Party, created just after the late mayor’s death. Vrdolyak ran on the Republican side. Daley, of course, won the contest, and will soon complete his 19th year in the mayor’s office.
Two decades after his death, Mayor Washington is still regarded as a hero to people across Chicago, including many in neighborhoods that had largely opposed him.
And Sen. Barack Obama, now a presidential candidate, points out in his memoir Dreams from My Father that he first came to Chicago as a community organizer in the 1980s because he was inspired by Mayor Washington. Comparisons between Obama and Washington are often heard.
“When (Obama) says there is no black America and there is no white America, only the United States of America, you can here the echoes of Harold Washington saying he would be fairer than fair,” Ira Glass says on “This American Life.”
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