Mayor Harold Washington: Champion of Race and Reform in Chicago

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If you’ve read Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon Johnson, you know what it’s like to be kidnapped by a historian who’s also a great story teller. The reading lamp burns late.

I’ve just finished a new book on Illinois history that will do the same thing for you.

It’s Roger Biles’ Mayor Harold Washington: Champion of Race and Reform in Chicago, just out from University of Illinois Press. I checked it out from the Urbana Free Library.

Biles has a thesis. It’s that Washington has been mistakenly portrayed as a gifted campaigner but an ineffective big-city mayor, one who accomplished little and simply shifted resources from white to black constituencies.

Instead, Biles lays out the evidence that Washington, mayor from 1983 to 1987, pursued a fully thought-out progressive reform agenda for all of Chicago, based on more equitably shared economic growth and development, affirmative action in hiring and contracts, and open, consultative government.

Progress was slow, Biles writes, because of a four-year, near-total wall of opposition in the City Council on the part of Democrats from the old Daley-Byrne machine.

After finally achieving a majority of supporters in the council and narrowly winning reelection, Washington was in position to achieve real progress on his reform agenda for Chicago. Had he succeeded, he might also have furthered the cause of social justice nationally as well.

Instead, he died tragically and unexpectedly in November, 1987 of a heart attack. Much of his agenda died soon after, Biles writes in a summary that brings this story forward to the Trump era.

Biles, emeritus professor at Illinois State University, makes a strong case for reevaluating Washington’s career. He also covers pivotal elections with a flair for detail and suspense that locks you onto the page.

This is a book that will reshape the way you think about Illinois, Chicago and Harold Washington.

John Palen is a retired journalist and journalism educator who moved to Urbana from Michigan in 2011. He teaches courses at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) on journalism issues, and is also a published poet.

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