Harold Washington, Chicago’s charismatic first black mayor, died 30 years ago on the day before Thanksgiving.
He was a remarkable man, a child of the Chicago Democratic Machine who broke that machine to his will.
But I suspect that in some retrospectives, one thing might be lost. And I don’t want it to get lost.
Because what happened 30 years ago, as Chicago’s black politics tore itself apart after Washington’s death, still reaches across the decades and shapes the political face of the city today.
The Washington ascendancy story involves the struggle, and hope and promise of African-Americans who had been denied so much in a city mired in racist politics.
But the story after he collapsed — the story that isn’t often told — is about the death of black political power in Chicago.
It was killed in a vicious black-on-black Chicago political war, full of racial invective and identity politics.
“It’s not a nice story to tell; some might not want to hear it, but that’s what happened,” said professor Robert Starks of Northeastern Illinois University, who was one of the young black organizers for Washington.
“What’s sad about it all is that we had the power. We fought for it for decades, fought the machine; and then, after he died, we fought among ourselves and handed it right back.
“We just gave it away. That’s what’s sad,” said Starks.
There are prominent black elected officials in Chicago. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County States Attorney Kim Foxx and also Kurt Summers, the city treasurer, to name a few.
And that fellow who learned his politics here and was himself belittled in ugly racial terms, not by whites, but by black Chicago Democrats: Barack Obama, who was told he wasn’t black enough.
Obama’s office was the presidency. But still, the office of the mayor of Chicago is the mark of power in this town.
“The mayoralty is the whole ballgame,” said Starks. “And the black community had that power. And in a terrible, self-destructive fight, we cut each other’s hearts out and it was over.”
I was there. Starks was there. And there are still reporters and politicians who were there, who saw it firsthand when black politics died in Chicago.
After Washington’s death, there was an inevitable fight for power.
On one side was Ald. Tim Evans of the 4th Ward, a protege of the notorious Democratic machine boss Claude Holman, backed by blacks and whites and Latinos of the city’s political left.
On the other was Ald. Eugene Sawyer of the 6th Ward, backed initially by several black aldermen who had to withdraw their support, leaving him to rely on white aldermen who had opposed Washington.
It was Sawyer’s 6th Ward political organization that delivered for Washington in his historic 1983 election. The 6th Ward pulled in the most votes for Washington citywide.
In college at Alabama State in Montgomery, Sawyer and other young men from the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity would stand guard around the home where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed during the 1955 bus boycott. They put their bodies in the way of violence to protect him.
But in the days after Washington’s death, it was Sawyer who was demeaned, loudly, publicly, as an Uncle Tom, as a race traitor. And Claude Holman’s protege? They named him Washington’s true heir.
It was nonsense. But it was backed by skillfully applied racial invective, and the raw emotion of black Chicago after Washington’s passing left African-American voters vulnerable to the suggestions.
The Evans forces, led by Washington’s tough political director Jacky Grimshaw and pro-Washington aldermen were determined to keep power. Evans wouldn’t have run things. Evans was their front man.
So in the days between Washington’s death and the Chicago City Council meeting to appoint a new mayor to fill Washington’s term, the Evans forces hit on a perfect plan. It was desperate. It was ugly. And it worked.
They held a Washington memorial service that was in reality a political rally for Evans. City Hall buses hauled thousands to the UIC Pavilion. It was the perfect setup.
At the Evans rally, his backers rhetorically peeled Sawyer’s skin and denounced him as a race traitor. The loudest was the late Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett, a longtime friend of Washington’s and the city’s leading African-American journalist.
Shouting, emotional, Jarrett compared Sawyer to African militia killing African babies. He said black aldermen who favored Sawyer were like those freed slaves who voluntarily returned to the plantations.
He compared black politicians supporting Sawyer to the Klan.
“Treat those black enemies like you treat the Ku Klux Klan,” Jarrett shouted as the crowd roared.
As Starks recalled that night as we spoke the other day, he said:
“When Vernon started, I thought: ‘It’s all over. Black politics is over.’ The Daleys were loving it. They saw the fracture.”
The late activist Lu Palmer, one of the true founders of the Washington movement, warned about turning the memorial into an anti-Sawyer rally that would rip the black vote apart.
And since that time I’ve been wary of emotional appeals in politics, to turn the heads of vulnerable voters in the cynical exercise of power.
After Sawyer was selected by the City Council, Evans went to court to force a special election. The Chicago media were decidedly pro-Evans. Sawyer was politically decapitated.
I drove south recently to the 6th Ward, to speak to Sawyer’s son, Ald. Roderick Sawyer.
“It hurt my father deeply,” Sawyer told me. “They called him Mayor Mumbles, they called him Uncle Tom, the media piled on. And what’s odd about it all is that my dad provided more jobs to black people than almost anyone except for John Stroger’s 8th Ward.
“All he wanted to do was fill out Harold’s term, then he would have retired. He died bankrupt, and the ones around Evans, they did OK for themselves, didn’t they?”
Sawyer only served about 15 months before the special election, forced by Evans, was called. And the angry rhetoric of those times, the strident attempts to define black political aspirations, all the shouting gave white liberals the chance to peel away.
And they backed Richard M. Daley, son of Boss, for mayor. He promised to quiet the angry voices in Chicago. He ruled for two decades and spent the city into near bankruptcy. And he begat Rahm Emanuel.
If Sawyer’s enemies had not lowered themselves to casting him as a race traitor, there’s a good chance Chicago would have a black mayor today.
But it was Daley. As if by coincidence.
Evans became the longtime and undistinguished chief judge of the Cook County Courts.
Former pro-Evans alderman and now U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush — who once said Obama wasn’t black enough to challenge him — has had a long career, although he’s not known for a thing.
Former pro-Evans alderman now U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis isn’t known for legislation either. But he is known for once carrying a golden crown on a satin pillow for the wealthy Korean businessman Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who proclaimed himself a messiah at a ceremony.
Former pro-Evans alderman now U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez has built a nice power base. He won’t die bankrupt.
They got along just fine with Daley.
“But the scars on the black community haven’t healed,” Roderick Sawyer said. “They should have treated my father better. … After that rally, it was over. And 30 years later, we haven’t had a serious black candidate for the office of mayor.”
This isn’t the rosy version of Chicago history. But that’s what happened in those days after Harold Washington died.
Listen to "The Chicago Way" podcast with John Kass and Jeff Carlin — at http://www.chicagotribuneem.com/category/wgn-plus/thechicagoway.