Harold Washington

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Harold Washington

Template:TOCnestleft Harold Washington (1922-1987) was an Illinois State Senator, Illinois Congressman and Mayor of Chicago.

Early life

Harold Washington was born at Cook County Hospital in 1922 and grew up in "modestly comfortable surroundings".

In the late 1930s, he dropped out of high school to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal public works program established to create jobs. After several months, Washington returned to Chicago and worked odd jobs, including a brief stint in Chicago’s stockyards. In 1942, Washington was drafted into the Army and assigned to an engineering battalion, where he rose in the ranks and participated in the Pacific theater of World War II[1].

On February 22, 1983, Washington won the Democratic mayoral primary in Chicago and later was elected the first African-American Mayor of Chicago, serving from 1983 until his death in 1987.

Education/student politics

Discharged from military service in 1946, Washington returned to Chicago, took a clerical position in the Treasury Department, and, having finished his high school diploma in the Army, began at Roosevelt College. He became an elected leader in student organizations, and by the early 1950s had helped turn the Young Democrats into an important political force in Chicago’s 3rd ward. Meanwhile, Washington had finished his law degree and took several low-level political appointments[2].

Marian Despres, wife of socialist Leon Despres played a part in launching Harold Washington's political career[3].

From 1946 to 1951 she was an assistant psychology professor at Roosevelt University, where she urged a young student named Harold Washington to run for the student council presidency, which he won. As mayor of Chicago, Washington often said that Despres had launched his political career.

At Roosevelt, Washington was named to a committee that supported citywide efforts to outlaw restrictive covenants, the legal means by which minorities were prohibited from purchasing a home in predominantly white neighborhoods.

In 1948, Washington was elected the third president of Roosevelt student council. Under his leadership, the student council successfully petitioned the college to have representation on Roosevelt‚ faculty committees. At the first regional meeting of the newly founded National Student Association in 1948, Washington and nine other delegates proposed student representation on all faculty committees, and a "Bill of Rights" for students. but both measures were defeated.

Washington went to the state capital to protest Illinois legislators' coming probe of "subversives," that would outlaw the Communist Party USA and require loyalty oaths for teachers. He led students' opposition to the bills, but they passed in 1949.

Washington then studied at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago where he was the only black student in his class. In 1951, his last year, he was elected treasurer of the Junior Bar Association (JBA). During the evenings and weekends, Washington worked to supplement his GI Bill income. He received his J.D. in 1952.[4]

Rally against McCarthyism

Pauline Taylor, Coleman Young and Harold Washington all spoke at a rally at Madison Square Gardens against McCarthyism.[5]

Illinois politics

Harold Washington spent many years in Chicago's predominantly black wards working within the tangled power politics of the Democratic Party machine run by Mayor Richard J. Daley. He later helped found the Chicago League of Negro Voters in 1960, although he was elected to the state House on the Daley slate.

Washington's years in the House were marked by constant tension with Daley and the rest of the machine leadership. In 1967, he was ranked by the Independent Voters of Illinois as the fourth-most independent legislator in the house and named Best Legislator of the Year.

In the House, he continued work on the Fair Housing Act, and worked to strengthen the state's Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). He also worked on a state Civil Rights Act, which would strengthen employment and housing provisions in the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1976, Washington was elected to the Illinois Senate. There his main focus was to pass 1980's Illinois Human Rights Act.[6]

Washington attempted, in 1977, following the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley, a failed attempt to win the Democratic Party nomination for Chicago mayor.

In 1981, Washington won election to the U.S. House of Representatives from Chicago’s predominantly African American 1st district[7].

The Lumpkins

Harold Washington had a close relationship with one of Chicago's leading Communist Party USA families, the Lumpkins.

Long-time Chicago Party leader Bea Lumpkin, recalled a "rainy afternoon in the early 1970s" at which a few hundred Chicago residents gathered at a rally sponsored by the communist controlled Chicago Peace Council, to protest the war in Vietnam.

“Harold spoke strongly against the war. He was one of the more progressive legislators. I was very impressed that he spoke in the rain and grateful to him for coming and giving our rally greater impact.”

In 1978, Harold Washington served on the Committee to Elect Dr. John R. Lumpkin for the 7th Ward Alderman, Chicago.[8]

John Lumpkin was the son of Communist Party USA leaders Frank Lumpkin and Bea Lumpkin. Several Party members worked with Washington on the committee.

When plant closings in northern Illinois, Indiana, and southern Wisconsin pounded the Chicago region economically in the late 1970s and early 1980s with no relief in sight, "Washington could be counted on to be part of the struggle to save jobs and provide relief..."

The 1980 closure of Wisconsin Steel located in Chicago’s east side "was the final straw for many disaffected workers..."

Frank Lumpkin, a retired steel worker and husband of Bea Lumpkin, who had also campaigned for Harold Washington in his earlier state and federal campaigns, formed the Save our Jobs committee.

They organized public protests, demanding relief for workers in the form of the benefits that Harvester, the billion dollar operation that owned Wisconsin Steel, refused to pay after the mill closed. and the organization of resources to keep the mills opened. The committee circulated a petition, gathering some 4,000 steelworkers’ signatures, and delivered it to the Illinois state legislature and to members of Congress, including Rep. Harold Washington.
By the middle of 1981, the struggle to re-open Wisconsin Steel, win back benefits and to re-gain lost jobs, shifted as Ronald Reagan took power. It seemed clear that Reagan would simply defund the federal Economic Development Administration, which held the Wisconsin Steel plant, and force its closure.

In the end, the struggle was partially victorious, retirees were paid partial benefits, but the plant never re-opened. According to Bea Lumpkin in "Always Bring a Crowd, the biography of Frank Lumpkin", Washington won the support of Chicago’s steelworkers with his strong support for their struggle.

Washington’s determination to speak up on this issue enabled him to win labor’s endorsement in the campaign for mayor even as the party machine set up obstacles to that labor endorsement[9].

Supporting communist led steelworkers

The Wisconsin Steel Save Our Jobs Committee was active for 17 years, from 1980 to 1997. How was leader, and Communist Party USA member Frank Lumpkin able to keep SOJ together for so many years?

There were favorable factors that helped. First, Chicago is a union town; the United Steelworkers gave SOJ a home. The Wisconsin Steel workers also had the support of progressive public officials. These included Congressman, and later Mayor, Harold Washington; State Representative, and later U.S. Senator, Carol Moseley Braun; Congressman Gus Savage; State Senator Richard Newhouse; and State Representative Miriam Balanoff, followed by Clem Balanoff Consumer organizations such as Illinois Public Action, and later, Citizen Action of Illinois gave important support. The leftist labor monthly, Labor Today, and its editors Fred Gaboury and Scott Marshall, gave SOJ national coverage.[10]

Committee in Support of Southern Africa

Committee in Support of Southern Africa was an anti-Apartheid group active in Chicago in the early 1980s.

Members of the committee iincluded[11];

Charles Hayes, Rep. Carol Moseley Braun, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Bob Simpson, Frank Rosen, Congressman Harold Washington, Harold Rogers, Rep. Monica Stewart, Jim Wright, Alderman Danny Davis, Alice Peurala, Lu Palmer, Milt Cohen, Timuel Black.

Harold Washington and David Canter


In the early 1980s ommunist lawyer/journalist David Canter helped persuade Washington to run for the Chicago mayoralty, as did former communist front activist and journalist Vernon Jarrett.

By the early 1980s David Canter was actively trying to change the Chicago political scene. The Daley era was finally ending and Canter saw an opportunity to move City Hall to the left.

With nine others, Canter approached Democratic Party congressman Harold Washington about standing for the Chicago mayoralty. Canter had known Washington for many years.

Washington accepted the proposal. His vacant congessional seat was taken up by Charles Hayes, the identified Communist Party USA member once close to Canter's old Packing House Workers Union colleague, Abe Feinglass.

In October 2004 David Canter's son, Chicago IT consultant Marc Canter, blogged about his late father's relationship with Harold Washington[12];

One day I stumbled downstairs into our kitchen to meet Harold Washington talking to my father. Harold was the Congressman from our district and my father was explaining to him how he could split the white vote and become the first black mayor of the city of Chicago.
My father had been mentoring, encouraging and working with Harold for 15 years by then and it worked. They won the election and Harold became history...
My father encouraged black politicians to get their piece of the pie...
My father never charged for helping anyone out - and it was only until he was 65 did he ever accept a job from anyone he helped. He was one of those idealistic reds.

Indeed David Canter would not initially take a job under Washington, but after his 1987 re-election Canter relented and became deputy commissioner of streets and sanitation.

Marc Canter also wrote;

My brother worked for Harold in D.C. when he was still a Congressman and got a job as a lawyer prosecuting crooked cops - when Harold came to power. My father remained in the inner circle and helped out on all sorts of political and community activities.

Mayoralty bid

Having been soundly defeated in the 1977 mayoral primaries, Washington made his 1983 candidacy for mayor contingent on registering 100,000 new Black voters and raising a certain amount of funds before he would commit to the race.

But he refused to confine his appeal to African Americans. In the summer before the 1983 primary, he said, “As a practical politician, I would seek to build a coalition of Black and white campaign workers throughout the city. The issue would not be anti-race, but anti-greed and anti-corruption.

After the 1983 victory, Washington stated;

In our ethnic and racial diversity, we are all brothers and sisters in a quest for greatness. Our creativity and energy are unequalled by any city anywhere in the world. We will not rest until the renewal of our city is done. ...[W]e are going to do some great deeds here together.

Washington felt that white voters who initially resisted his candidacy could be won over if a dominant theme of his campaign and his administration of the city was to eliminate corrupt forces that also hurt the city’s white residents as much as its people of color.

Chicago journalist Ron Dorfman, who edited the photographic essay of Washington’s career, Harold!: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years, said...“Harold brought together different factions in the Black community together.” Uniting labor progressives, nationalists, and traditional civil rights people in the African American community, Dorfman suggested, was a key element of Washington’s candidacy, and “there really wasn’t anybody else who could pull that part of the coalition together.”

Within three months Operation PUSH, welfare rights organizations, African American churches and sympathetic labor unions helped register over 200,000 new African American voters in the city. Stevie Wonder, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. and communist aligned local politicians Carol Moseley Braun, Danny Davis, and U.S. Rep. Gus Savage appeared at many public events to support the registration drive.

Dee Myles, was one many Communist Party USA members who worked on Washington's campaigns. She worked in the 1983 campaign as a precinct worker and in the 1987 campaign as a ward coordinator in the independent political committee in the 7th ward.

Dee Myles described the campaign of 1983 as a real "people’s movement". She remembered "people riding on the bus to work in south Chicago wearing their blue Washington for Chicago buttons. After his election, a city ban on public musicians was lifted, and there just seemed to be more music in the city", Myles said. “It was really a period of engagement that was quite astonishing[13].”

Independent operation

Harold Washington knew he couldn’t rely on the Democratic Party to either win mayoral elections or to govern with his "reform program".

According to Washington volunteer and Communist Party USA member Dee Myles;

“It was understood that if stability was going to be produced, and progress and building support was going to be maintained from election to election, an independent operation was needed so that he wouldn’t have to depend on the regular Democratic Party machine,

Washington appealed to independent voters from a large cross-section of the city’s electorate: a broad coalition of Democrats, independent-minded Democrats, "others on the left", and still others who held no specific ideological viewpoint but were alienated form the process by corruption in or the ineffectiveness of city government. To succeed at this unorthodox approach to politics, Washington encouraged the formation of independent political organizations to boost his campaign and to promote his program.

The Chicago left set about building that "independent operation" for Harold Washington.

CWP support


The Communist Workers Party supported Harold Washington in 1983.

CBTU support

The Communist Party USA influenced Coalition of Black Trade Unionists played a big role in Washington's successful 1983 campaign for the Chicago mayoralty.

According to Chicago Communist Party USA member Pepe Lozano;

Washington’s election was the outcome of a multi-racial citywide coalition beginning within the African American community. Then immediately he included the involvement of Latino and white working-class communities representing a progressive and independent reform movement that eventually carried him to victory.
One thing that has been unsung was how the Chicago labor movement, especially Black trade unionists, led the way in registering tens of thousands of new voters, including a recruitment drive of petition signers, door knockers, phone bankers and an army of volunteer foot-soldiers on Election Day...
By 1983 when Washington decided to run for mayor, he was a respected member of Congress and became an important ally in progressive political circles throughout Chicago. Still, many people in the city’s political machine just didn’t believe an African American could win. And some – deeply influenced by racism — were extremely hostile to the idea of a Black mayor
Despite the racism, a labor coalition for Washington was formed and led by Black unionists. It became one of the most organized forces in his campaign.
Before the 1983 mayoral primary, the Chicago Teachers Union held a delegates’ meeting where pro-Washington campaign literature including “Washington for Mayor” buttons were passed out before a motion was made to have the union endorse his run.
During the meeting teachers were chanting Washington’s name, and the white and Black union leadership had no choice but to endorse him with overwhelming support. After that, support for Washington started steam rolling within some of the city’s unions.
Leaders of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, including service workers and Teamsters, endorsed Washington. It was CBTU that pressed the Chicago Federation of Labor — made up of integrated unions with white, Black, Latino and Asian memberships — to endorse Washington in the 1983 general election.

Lozano quotes Elwood Flowers, former vice-president of the Illinois AFL-CIO and a close friend of Washington.

“We saw Washington as a viable candidate and we endorsed him wholeheartedly, and we felt he was more qualified than those before him...But we as labor were just one arm of the Washington movement.”

Several Black labor leaders were important allies for Washington and played influential roles in his administration.

Flowers cited Charles Hayes, vice president of the United Packinghouse Workers Union, who won Washington’s Congressional seat after Washington was elected mayor.

Other important allies included Addie Wyatt, who was vice president of the Packinghouse Workers and Jim Wright, who was the first Black director of United Auto Workers Region 4. Jackie Vaughn, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union was also instrumental in Washington’s administration. All were leading members of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists[14].

The Rainbow

According to Paul Ortiz;

Likewise, there were many Obama activists who had campaigned for the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988. It is impossible to imagine Senator Obama's victory without the precedent of Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. The Rainbow excited and recruited tens of thousands of gay, Latino, Native American, white, Asian, and African-Americans into electoral politics, social movements and union organizing in the US in the 1980s. The Rainbow sustained and supported numerous progressive politicians, including Paul Wellstone, Tammy Baldwin and Harold Washington. The Rainbow Coalition - and Jackson as leader - had many limitations. Even so, the organization provided one of the few spaces for progressive movement organizing to take place in the Age of Reagan. The Rainbow increased working-class voter registration, promoted Shirley Chisholm for vice president, stood in solidarity with the Pittston coal strike, and was a counterweight to the conservative Democratic Leadership Council.[15]

Latino support

Pepe Lozano's father, Communist Party USA ally, Rudy Lozano also played a big role in mobilizing Latino support for Harold Washington's 1983 campaign[16];

In the predominantly Latino communities of Pilsen and Little Village, my father, the late Rudy Lozano was also a key ally in Washington’s labor-based coalition.
He was also a community activist and decided to run for alderman in the 22nd Ward, a predominantly Mexican and Mexican American neighborhood. Although he narrowly lost, Lozano was a rising political star and leader that advocated for multi-racial coalitions and worker unity. He rallied and mobilized the Latino constituent base to vote for Washington.
Lozano understood the need for Black, Latino and white working class unity, especially the importance of union solidarity among all workers including undocumented immigrant workers. Lozano’s independent and grassroots-based organizing, along with Washington’s mayoral victory, sparked a movement throughout Chicago’s Latino communities, which hardly had any representation in City Council. Washington’s victory galvanized the majority of the Latino electorate and soon new Latino leaders emerged as viable elected officials under his administration.

Rudy Lozano was among several organizers within the Latino community who helped put together a strong base of support both for Washington’s candidacy. . Lozano, who had also been a key figure in Frank Lumpkin's “Save Our Jobs” campaign, was based in the 22nd ward and led the formation of that ward’s independent political organization[17].

The organization that Lozano and his allies put together in the 22nd Ward was an unrivaled model of grassroots organizing. Get-out-the-vote campaigns mobilized huge sections of the population who had not participated before behind Washington’s reform program. Some people close to Lozano also suspect that his assassination in June 1983 was directly linked to his efforts on Washington’s behalf.

Zimmerman/Katz team

Bill Zimmerman and Marilyn Katz were the media consultants to Harold Washington’s successful 1983 Mayoral campaign in Chicago.[18]

Socialist connections


Harold Washingto enjoyed a close relationship to the Chicago Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and to its successor Democratic Socialists of America

In 1981 Washington MCed the socialist's annual Thomas-Debsdinner[19].

Right: Chicago Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee dinner, 1981. Left Carl Shier, Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, founding member in 1982 of Democratic Socialists of America, Centre Egidio Clemente-ex? Socialist Party USA. Right Democratic Party Congressman and soon to be Mayor of Chicago,Harold Washington[20].

However Washington had to cancel out of the 1983 event[21];

The 1983 Norman Thomas - Eugene V. Debs Dinner was held at the McCormick Inn on Saturday, May 7... Newly elected Mayor Harold Washington was unable to attend at the last minute. Carl Shier, who was to have introduced him, read a message from him instead, and spoke of DSA's considerable role in Washington's election campaign.

"Knows about" DSOC"

Nancy Lieber, International Committee chair of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, wrote a June 30, 1981 letter to Danielle Page, a staffer for Canadian Member of Parliament Ian Waddell.

Dear Danielle Page,
I'm sending along a list of Congresspeople and senators who know about us, democratic socialism, and -- perhaps Canada.
Only the first one is an open socialist, but the others are sympathetic in varying degrees.

The list was;

Hope this is of help and you recruit them to the cause!
In Solidarity,
Nancy Lieber
Chair, Intl. Committee

DSA support


In 1983, Chicago Democratic Socialists of America threw its support behind the Harold Washington mayoralty bid.

In 2002 Chicago Democratic Socialists of America member Bob Roman wrote[22];

DSA's role in the 1983 Washington campaign is one of the more interestingly unreported, unrecorded aspects of that campaign...

Socialist staffer

Steve Askin has been an anti-racist activist since my teen years, "when I volunteered in the campaign for civilian review of police violence in New York City. I later worked in Chicago progressive politics, serving as Congressional press secretary for the late Harold Washington."


In 1987 Harold Washington was a Member of the Executive Committee of Chicago based Comprand (Comprehensive Research and Development)[23].

Labor C'ttee for the Re-election of Mayor Washington

Near 50 trade unionist met over a weekend in early September 1986 to organize a Labor Committee for the Re-election of Mayor Harold Washington. Rep. Charles Hayes, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and an executive vice president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists played a leading role in the gathering.

Other leading participants include;

DSA Award Ceremony

Award program book

Harold Washington was scheduled to present an award to the 1987 Chicago Democratic Socialists of America Debs Dinner, but he died of a heart attack before he could attend the event.


From a circa 1983 HWAC Mayoral Campaign list.



  1. http://www.politicalaffairs.net/article/articleview/6528/1/318/
  2. http://www.politicalaffairs.net/article/articleview/6528/1/318/
  3. http://www.chicagojewishnews.com/forums/showthread.php?t=60
  4. PW, Today in black history: Harold Washington won the mayoral primary in Chicago, by: Special to PeoplesWorld.org, February 22 2013
  5. [1]
  6. PW, Today in black history: Harold Washington won the mayoral primary in Chicago, by: Special to PeoplesWorld.org, February 22 2013
  7. http://www.politicalaffairs.net/article/articleview/6528/1/318/
  8. Committee to Elect Dr. John R. Lumpkin letter, Sept. 10, 1978
  9. http://www.politicalaffairs.net/article/articleview/6528/1/318/
  10. Joy in the Struggle, Bea Lumpkin, page 209]
  11. CSSA supporters letter Sep. 4 1981
  12. http://blog.broadbandmechanics.com/2004/09/23/who_was_david_s/
  13. http://www.politicalaffairs.net/article/articleview/6528/1/318/
  14. http://communistpartyillinois.blogspot.com/2008/02/harold-washington-wore-union-label.html
  15. On the Shoulders of Giants Tuesday, 25 November 2008 16:16 By Paul Ortiz, t r u t h o u t
  16. http://communistpartyillinois.blogspot.com/2008/02/harold-washington-wore-union-label.html
  17. http://www.politicalaffairs.net/article/articleview/6528/1/318/
  18. [http://inthesetimes.com/article/14958/an_untold_story_of_harold_washington/, In These Times, May 7, 2013 Harold Washington and the Elephant in the Room]
  19. http://www.chicagodsa.org/d1981/index.html
  20. http://www.chicagodsa.org/d1981/index.html
  21. http://www.chicagodsa.org/d1983/index.html
  22. http://www.chicagodsa.org/ngarchive/ng85.html
  23. Comprand Letterhead Sep 29 1987
  24. PWW Sep. 10 1986, page 2, "Unionists organize to re-elect Washington, by Marcia Davis