Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Election of Chicago’s first Black Mayor: An Excerpt from “The Multiracial Promise”

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of Harold Washington’s election as the first Black mayor of Chicago. Washington’s victory 40 years ago was unlikely not just because America’s second city was one of the nation’s most racially balkanized but also because it came at a time when Ronald Reagan and other political conservatives seemed resurgent. In The Multiracial Promise: Harold Washington’s Chicago and the Democratic Struggle in Reagan’s America Gordon K. Mantler takes us into Chicago’s street-level politics to explain how Washington was able to achieve the unthinkable. The following is an excerpt from chapter 6 of Mantler’s new book, available wherever books are sold.

Race and a New Democratic Coalition

FOR MANY Washington supporters, April 12 could not come soon enough. Although they sensed that if the election had been held a week or two before, he may have lost, the campaign had simply been far less exhilarating, far more exhausting, and a pretty disconcerting commentary on race relations in the city. The campaign was finally over, and it represented a narrow but clear triumph, the result of weeks of grueling campaigning and community work and decades of grassroots organizing by African Americans and their progressive allies. With 1.29 million Chicagoans voting, Washington won 51.7 percent of the vote—a margin of 47,549—in the city’s closest mayoral race since 1919. The election revealed, not surprisingly, a “degree of racial polarization” that only could be described as “striking,” noted Paul Kleppner. Nearly 85 percent of African Americans turned out, surpassing both their participation in the primary and that of every other group. An astounding 99 percent of them voted for Washington. The congressman swept most South Side and West Side wards, garnering 99 percent of the vote in eight wards. Meanwhile, Epton predictably dominated on the North and Northwest Sides, receiving 95 percent of the vote in three wards. The contrast was even more striking at the precinct level; Epton won every precinct on the Northwest Side of the city. Clearly, just as in the primary, African Americans remained the heart of Washington’s base. Without them coming out in record numbers, he would not have been mayor. That narrative remains essential to understanding Washington’s victory, especially when viewed as the culmination of Black Chicago’s rejection of white machine politics—a process fifty years in the making.

With 1.29 million Chicagoans voting, Washington won 51.7 percent of the vote—a margin of 47,549—in the city’s closest mayoral race since 1919.

But while this transformation in Black politics was crucial to victory, the same must be acknowledged about the other elements of Washington’s coalition—a reflection of the delicate balancing act progressive urban politicians like him performed in the 1980s. Scholars who call the discussion of other groups irrelevant risk missing the greater importance of Washington’s victory. When viewed beyond the immediate context of Chicago, the importance of the fragile coalition he formed becomes increasingly clear. Without Latinos, without progressive whites, without gay men and lesbians, Washington would have lost—narrowly, yes, but he would have lost. Without them, his campaign may have been relegated to a footnote. Seventy-eight percent of Latinos and 12 percent of whites, disproportionately from the Lakefront wards on the North Side and in Washington’s home of Hyde Park, backed the Democrat. Even though their turnout still did not top 50 percent, Latinos, most of whom were working class and lower income, had made up almost all of Washington’s margin of victory, with an estimated 43,286 votes. A majority of each Latino group backed Washington, with 87 percent of Puerto Ricans leading the way; even a majority of Cuban Americans, disproportionately middle class, ended up voting for Washington. As a result, the Democrat won a bare majority in Little Village and the Twenty-Second Ward and a near majority in the Twenty-Fifth Ward, home to Pilsen. Moreover, while Washington lost the home wards of Vrdolyak and Daley, he managed to poll 34 percent and 25 percent in the Tenth and Eleventh Wards, respectively. In other words, some working-class white Catholics—whether out of party identity, opposition to Epton’s fiscal conservativism, anti-Semitism, or something else—pulled the lever for a Black Democrat.

Some election observers acknowledged the role of other groups right away, usually as part of recognizing the grassroots effort that made it possible—a position then reinforced by scholars. Some argued that Latinos were key. Others made the case for white voters, including gay men and lesbians, who were increasingly involved in city politics, as well as those “good government” whites interested in fiscal and political reform and an overall weakening of machine politics. But the influence of white voters on the North Side has been overstated as well. As some scholars have argued, the so-called Lakefront liberals did not make the difference, as progressive whites did in cities such as Philadelphia and New Orleans. It remained crucial that Washington’s campaign emphasized Latino and white voters down the stretch. They made the difference between winning and losing, and the candidate’s decision to campaign everywhere again signaled that Washington was not just the “Black candidate” with mainly South and West Side support. He was genuinely interested in their votes, and they took notice. Thus, the best way to describe Washington’s support was a multiracial coalition led by African Americans, but with a crucial and diverse set of allies that allowed him to claim victory.

Washington’s support was a multiracial coalition led by African Americans, but with a crucial and diverse set of allies that allowed him to claim victory.

As to be expected, African Americans and progressive whites and Latinos were overjoyed and relieved by Harold Washington’s victory, both in Chicago and across the nation. “Washington Wins, Dirtiest Election Is Over—Amen!,” the Chicago Defender declared. More than 10,000 well-wishers packed McCormick Place and gave him a fifteen-minute standing ovation in the wee hours of the morning, while his triumph swept the national news and immediately stoked the discussion of a Black presidential candidate in 1984. In the city, Washington also had a new, more reform-minded council to work with, as seven machine-aligned aldermen were defeated in the general election by the likes of Bobby Rush, Anna Langford, and other independents. “The City Council will be a freer and much more independent institution,” said Langford, who previously served when the Daley machine dictated most city business. “It means we have the ear of the mayor. We are not the enemies of the fifth floor anymore.” But others were warier of the future. Survival had characterized the general election more than anything else, and it suggested that healing would take some time, as well as a lot of energy that already had been expended campaigning. “On February 23, I thought I could go on vacation,” laughed Jacky Grimshaw, but instead, the election took six more weeks of hard work amid some of the ugliest rhetoric seen in the city’s politics. For his part, Epton did concede the following day, but with the same edge he had used most of the campaign. “I wish Harold luck … he’ll certainly need all the good help and talent he can get,” Epton said, before twisting the rhetorical knife. “His expertise in the area of finances certainly leaves a lot to be desired. But maybe he’ll learn to pay bills promptly and certainly pay his taxes promptly.” The vanquished Republican’s tone would be a warning sign of the continued resistance to come.

As Washington, Grimshaw, and the rest of his supporters soon found out—as other Black politicians had before and after him—winning an electoral campaign was far easier than governing. This was especially the case when Washington’s supporters, after surviving the roller coaster of two campaigns, then were blindsided when his mostly white political opponents did everything possible to kill his administration and agenda in their infancy.

Gordon K. Mantler is associate professor of writing and history and executive director of the University Writing Program at George Washington University. He is author of Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960–1974.