Swans Commentary » swans.com June 16, 2008  



Special Convention Fever Issue -- Chicago '68


Harold Washington
A Mainstream Radical Against The Machine


by Xolela Mangcu





(Swans - June 16, 2008)   In order to fully grasp the historical significance of Chicago in 1968 we ought to understand exactly what the protesters were responding to and what it is that they also prefigured. Some years ago I came to the United States to study city planning at Cornell University. I was rather intrigued by the changes that had propelled Harold Washington to become the first black mayor of Chicago in 1983. Washington was not only the first black mayor of Chicago but also the first truly progressive mayor of this notoriously racist and corrupt city. Naturally, in writing about Washington I had to go deep into the political culture of the city and ultimately into the political culture of the United States. I argued that the evolution of the political machine in Chicago was a logical outcome of the politics of interest group pluralism that was consolidated in Chicago in the 1930s under the leadership of successive mayors. However, it was Richard J. Daley who extended the reach of the political machine to the black community. Daley built a black "sub-machine" with the help of William Dawson, a powerful black Democratic Congressman who held sway all over the South Side by providing jobs, contracts and governmental services for black immigrants fleeing oppression and poverty in the southern states in return for their political support for the Democratic Party. As a ward committeeman he approved city, county and federal appointments from his ward. A senior committeeman such as Dawson could dispense about 2,000 patronage jobs at any one time. However, by the early 1960s Daley had become increasingly uncomfortable with Dawson's power. He started making black appointments to city government without consulting Dawson. For example the mayor appointed Ralph Metcalfe -- a silver medalist on Jesse Owens's victorious team in the 1932 Olympics -- as ward committeeman and then as alderman of the Third Ward over Dawson's objections. This was part of Daley's strategy to create alternative sources of power that he could manipulate within the black community. When Dawson died in 1963, Daley anointed Ralph Metcalfe as his successor. Civic notables such as Metcalfe provided the mayor with the "credibility" he sought in the black community. In reality they were derisively described as "the silent six." But the machine also needed intellectual justification. Prominent American scholars such as Robert Merton, Edward Banfield and James Q. Wilson argued that the machine provided the mayor of any big city with an instrument for informal control without which it would be almost impossible to govern. This was an instrument for providing material incentives in return for votes. This is the political culture that prevailed in many American cities before the rebellions of the 1960s.

The urban movements that mobilized against the Daley machine in Chicago justified their actions in terms of political principles such as racial and economic equality. As early as 1963 there was open protest against Daley. For example, he was booed off the stage during the 1963 Chicago NAACP Convention. However, Chicago's racists would not take things lying down. When Martin Luther King brought the civil rights struggle to northern cities he encountered the greatest resistance and was even physically attacked in Chicago suburbs such as Cicero. The city saw social unrest after the death of Martin Luther King, and Daley gave the infamous order for police "to shoot to kill or maim." Police repression accompanied the Democratic Convention of 1968. The civil rights activist Fred Hampton was killed in a hail of bullets by the city's police in 1969. This was the violent context within which Harold Washington emerged a dozen years later. Did he make much difference to race relations in the city, and did he prefigure a different kind of political culture from the days of the machine?

As far back as the 1950s organizations such as the Chicago League of Negro Voters had rejected the hollowness of black representation by Daley's "Uncle Toms." They demanded that one of the top party spots in the city's local government should go to an African American of their choice. Thus they nominated Lemuel Bentley for city clerk in 1959. Although Bentley lost, he obtained about 50,000 votes. The League's Executive Director Albert Janney saw the campaign as marking the beginning of a new era and the end of "boss rule" in the city. As the rejection of the political system intensified, the machine became more and more vulnerable. Little could be done to stop these radical movements by offering material incentives. The machine was also challenged by a growing neighborhood development movement in the white communities. Many of these people came out of the 1960s movements and subsequent protests against the Vietnam war. Community groups targeted the mayor's downtown redevelopment efforts. A Coalition to Stop the Chicago 21 Plan was formed to fight the resulting gentrification and displacement. By the mid-1970s a large network and infrastructure of training institutes, research organizations and funders had been established to provide alternatives to machine policies (The Chicago Rehab Network, The Center for Neighborhood Technology, the Center for Urban Economic Development, the Chicago Association of Neighborhood Development Associations and the Community Workshop on Economic Development). These local movements fed off similar movements that had begun to take place in cities throughout the United States.

Like all aspirant politicians in Chicago, attorney Harold Washington had paid his dues in the Democratic Party through party precinct work. He had taken over as precinct captain after his father died. For a mayor like Daley, who was constantly looking to expand his control over black politics, Washington had the potential to be an effective ally. He was young, educated, intelligent, and had the right political upbringing. Daley then hired him as Assistant Corporation Counsel. But Washington turned out differently from what the mayor had expected. He proved to be much more independent in his politics and less tolerant of racism within city hall. Even as his political fortunes rose and he joined the state legislature, he did not always vote the party line. He even sponsored a bill in the state legislature to institute an independent police civil review board, much to the chagrin of Mayor Daley. He openly aligned himself with the Afro-American Patrolmen's League -- an organization that was filing federal discrimination suits against the mayor. His first direct challenge to the machine occurred in the 1977 mayoral election. He won in all of the black wards on the South Side. It was an important symbolic victory considering that this had historically been the black sub-machine's playground. But his campaign was not well organized and wealthy black individuals in the community were still not prepared to finance a black candidate. The failure of the 1977 campaign taught him a few lessons about campaigning, defining the issues, networking and fundraising. But Washington was also not the prototype anti-machine activist, and did not directly come out of the street protests. He worked from within the system -- by getting himself elected first to the state legislature and then the US Congress. According to Gary Rivlin, author of Fire on the Prairie, Washington was a "savvy parliamentarian" more interested in building coalitions around his political agenda. Still, black people, including black radicals, respected his independent record in the state and federal legislature. Washington ran again in 1979 and lost to Jane Byrne. [*] Byrne won that race with 63% of the black vote. Washington would later describe Byrne's victory as really the first breach of machine control of Chicago politics. But Mayor Byrne took a number of policy decisions that reduced black representation on important city institutions, including the Board of Education. This led ultimately to the mobilization of the black community under the leadership of the radical black nationalist talk-show host Lu Palmer. This changed the political dynamic drastically in Chicago. Palmer started calling for direct black representation through a black mayor -- consistent with the black nationalist theme of self-determination. He used his radio talk show to agitate for a black mayoral candidate in the 1983 elections. He would end his shows by saying "We shall see in '83." Palmer also convened a series of meetings with the city's black leaders to discuss the idea of a black mayor. The black nationalists were, however, not well suited for the general election. Washington knew he needed to build a multi-racial coalition. That was the movement that ultimately swept Washington into power, and subsequently provided the basis of his administration.

Washington's victory was viewed by political observers as "a great awakening." Chicago political writer Studs Terkel called Washington's victory an American "Soweto." Other writers conveyed a similar sense of awakening. Jesse Jackson viewed the campaign as "a political riot an unprecedented act of disciplined rage." Alkalimat and Gills described the whole thing as "a historic event of great significance. Black adults demonstrated that under specific conditions they will defy all expectations and mobilize at unprecedented levels." Manning Marable described Washington's election as "the most recent and most politically advanced expression of a very deep protest tradition which is part of Black Chicago's history." Chicago Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett said the elections represented "a zenith in black aspirations." According to State Senator Alice Palmer, Washington was a catalyst that brought all the arms of the movement together: "Because progressive people from all walks of life had been looking for a home for a long time, Harold's campaign became that place." Clavel and Wiewel describe Washington's period of governance as "one of the high points in the history of American cities. His reforms marked the end of the notorious machine identified with Richard J. Daley."

Some analysts have questioned Washington's legacy by pointing to the return of the machine through Richard M. Daley. They place the blame on Washington's failure to build a more lasting progressive political base in Chicago. Manning Marable argued that "the lesson of Harold Washington is that black leadership in the civil rights and Black Power periods depended too heavily upon personalities. The charisma of Harold Washington was no substitute for an effective political organization." While this is certainly a valid observation, there are a whole number of legacies that can be seen to come from the Washington administration. There is now a growing recognition, especially in the wake of the Obama campaign, that charisma is not unimportant. Individuals are able to influence the nature and trajectory of politics in ways that movements sometimes cannot. The other lesson is that Harold Washington opened up spaces for individuals and communities who never would have had a chance to participate in government under the political machine. Some of these people are now operating and applying that experience in different areas of American local and national life. Some cities as far as Italy modeled themselves on the Washington administration. In some Latin American cities Washington was treated like a visiting head of state. The cultural meaning of the Washington administration lay in the legitimization of the rights of African Americans, women and other minorities to be full participants in their own governance. But Washington also represented something that has often eluded progressive leaders: He was a product of the movements of the 1960s who remained true to the spirit of that era while also prefiguring a progressive government for the city.

As a South African I saw many parallels between what was happening in Chicago and what we had experienced under apartheid. That racist government had employed somewhat similar strategies -- albeit on a much grander and brutal scale. For example, it established the homeland system and all manner of local authority structures as a means of controlling the black population. As in Chicago the responses in the black community ranged from "Uncle Toms" to moderate leaders and ultimately to radical liberation movements. However, what I did not anticipate in my study of Chicago was that instead of following Harold Washington's model of urban leadership and reform, the African National Congress (ANC) government followed the model of the political machine perfected by Richard J. Daley. No sooner had Thabo Mbeki and his peers assumed the levers of power than they began to remodel the ANC as a political machine. The slogan "you gotta go along to get along" took on a frighteningly urgent momentum as former liberation fighters plundered the nation's resources. The most dramatic example was the so-called arms deal, which ultimately saw the former deputy president of the country and now president of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, being indicted on corruption charges. Zuma's court appearance is in August 2008, but the matter is unlikely to be resolved any time before the general elections scheduled to be held next year. The new ANC leadership has, however, insisted that Zuma will lead them into the elections. While the ANC leadership is determined to have Zuma lead it in the general elections, it remains unclear how the rest of the country will respond. It may well be that there will be a decline in voter turnout, and ultimately a weakening of the ANC. As South Africans we are therefore still very far from the leadership represented by Harold Washington. On the contrary the United States holds the prospect of continuing the tradition set in motion by Harold Washington. The presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States, Barack Obama, who lived not far from Harold Washington in Chicago, has in many ways modeled his campaign on Harold Washington, trying to walk the tightrope of race in America. His strategy can perhaps be described as divide-and-rule in reverse. But it's a divide-and-rule with potentially healing implications for the United States. Given the history of racism and inequality in American cities Obama reminds us of Washington's idealism. However, should he become US president Obama will not escape a question that was often asked in the wake of the Harold Washington administration in Chicago -- to what extent did he translate his electoral mandate to make significant improvements in the lives of ordinary Americans?


[ed. This article was set to be published on June 2, 2008, in our Special Convention Fever Issue -- Chicago '68, but we received it after that issue had been published.]
Correction:  Harold Washington did not run against Jane Byrne in 1979. He was not on the ballot. He ran in a "special" election in 1977 and then in 1983 when he was finally elected. [ed. added on June 17, 2008.]  (back)


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About the Author

Xolela Mangcu was born in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. He is the author of To The Brink: The State of Democracy in South Africa (2008) (See Swans review, March 24, 2008) and co-author of Visions of Black Economic Empowerment (2007). He edited The Meaning of Mandela: A Literary and Intellectual Celebration (2006) with contributions by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cornel West, and Wole Soyinka. He is Chairman of the Platform for Public Deliberation at Wits University, Johannesburg. He is a very active journalist and a university lecturer who has been a fellow at Harvard and M.I.T.



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Published June 16, 2008