NOTE: NBC Chicago will air a special panel discussion with those who knew Harold Washington to celebrate his legacy Friday noon. Watch live here.
Harold Washington’s election as Chicago’s first black mayor ushered in a new era for the city, but from his election to his battles for power to his untimely death while in office, Washington’s story lives on. in more ways than one.
Friday marks what would have been the late mayor’s 100th birthday, a moment that has brought the stories of his life and legacy to the forefront of many discussions.
Washington was first elected as city leader in 1983, thanks in part to 100,000 newly registered voters, including a coalition of black and Latino voters who became key to his success. He defeated notable candidates like Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley in the primary elections that year, then was elected Chicago’s 51st mayor on April 12, 1983, just days before his 61st birthday.
Washington, one of four children, was born in Chicago in 1922 and attended DuSable High School until 1939, although he did not graduate until after completing his military service, serving during the World War II before being honorably discharged in 1946, according to his biography at the Chicago Public Library.
He then graduated from then Roosevelt College in 1949 and Northwestern University Law School in 1952, beginning his own private practice the same year.
He rose through the ranks to become an assistant Chicago city attorney in 1954, then precinct captain in the 3rd Ward to an arbitrator for the Illinois Industrial Commission in 1960 to serve in the Legislative Assembly and Congress. of Illinois until he was elected mayor.
Although the road to his election was not easy, his term as mayor was not either.
During his first term, challenges erupted as a majority of aldermen refused many proposals from Washington. The group was known as Vrdolyak 29, led by Ald. Eddie Vrdolyak and Ald. Ed Burke. In response, Washington was forced to use its veto right from the start.
Among one of his first actions as mayor, Washington promoted women to his cabinet.
“His word meant something,” said Washington cabinet member Peggy Montes. “His goal was to help people.
William ‘”Doc” Walls, a Washington aide, said the city “learned” from him.
“They’re more tolerant in an average, everyday sense,” Walls told NBC 5.
During his tenure as mayor, Washington created the ethics committee, opened up government with a freedom of information executive order, opened the city’s budget process to the public, and launched a cultural plan for the city that led to other neighborhood festivals and events, among others. achievements.
Washington was re-elected in 1987, but his term as mayor shockingly ended just seven months into his second term.
On November 25, 1987, Washington died of a heart attack, leaving not only Chicago but the nation in shock. He was 65 years old.
Many believe Washington paved the way for other black leaders who made history, including former President Barack Obama and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, to serve as an inspiration that changed Chicago politics forever.
“The Mayor of Washington boldly challenged the status quo and courageously demanded fairness and justice for communities that had been underserved for generations,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. “It’s a real honor to be able to continue this work and walk in his footsteps today.”