Thirty years after his death, Harold Washington continues to inspire us

November 24, 2017
Statement from the Clerk

This Saturday will mark the 30th anniversary of Mayor Harold Washington’s death. Harold was a great friend and mentor to many, including myself, and a leader whose legacy as mayor will never fade.   

He will always be missed, and each Thanksgiving season is a reminder of those sad, and later tumultuous, days in Chicago’s history.

Harold’s popularity and charm worked to get even the most disinterested politically engaged and involved in the civic processes that determine the fate of their communities. 

Scores of activists, organizers and progressives were encouraged to get into politics by Harold’s example, to those who joined his campaign and administration, to subsequent people such as Barack Obama and most recently the many people, young and old, who have become leaders in the Black Lives Matter, immigration rights, LGBTQ equality, and other movements. He remains an inspiration to those who stand and fight for a more just, more equitable, city, state and country.

In the days following his death, thousands of Chicagoans waited in the cold outside City Hall to see Mayor Washington one last time. His most fervent supporters filled the lines that wrapped around City Hall, but among those thousands were Chicagoans who didn’t vote for him, who may have taken to the streets previously in opposition to him. In his four and a-half years as mayor he had earned their respect.

As much as the opposition forces nearly tore Chicago apart merely for their own gain, Harold’s work as mayor brought Chicagoans together.

Harold reformed the way politics took place in Chicago. The neglected finally got some attention, the ignored were at last recognized and the underserved now had a voice at the table. His election as mayor gave hope to people who had not seen hope for some time.

Harold Washington was a mayor for all Chicago – not just downtown or a few select or politically-connected neighborhoods. 

He changed the flow of power in Chicago so that it went from the neighborhoods to City Hall, not the other way around. He knew that the heart and the backbone of this city was in its often neglected neighborhoods, and he didn’t turn his back on them in favor of downtown.

Harold ushered in a new way of business at City Hall, a new approach to fairness, whether it was ensuring that a certain percentage of firms that did business with the city were woman or minority-owned, or opening up the city’s books and making government more accountable. He brought in fresh air and new ideas.

In the years following Harold’s death, I have worked to carry on and champion the principles he fought for in government -- openness, accountability, transparency, and making the lives of our fellow citizens better – and we all need to continue to fight to uphold these principles every day, at every level of government.

Harold and I spoke just a day before he died, and looking toward the initiatives progressive Chicagoans desired, he said that he could not do everything himself, that everyone who wanted change had to remain active, continue to build coalitions, and work to make the change happen. One person, one leader, can never do it all alone – that’s why we needed the active involvement of everyone in their communities then, and now, especially.

The youth of the city, often quite cynical – and with good reason – about politicians, respected Harold and knew his mayor held great promise for them, for the city.

We should heed the words that he spoke in his inaugural address in 1987 -- that Chicago not only be "the city that works," but the city that "works together."

Harold Washington changed this city forever - since his death those who work for social justice and equality have seen dark days in this city and country. But we can always look to his accomplishments and be reminded of the possible, and be inspired to bring that hope to new generations, build new coalitions, dig in and never give up fighting for what is right.

David Orr
Cook County Clerk