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The Origin And Development Of Electing Chicago’s First African American Mayor

This is part five and the final installment of the five part series on the origin and development of electing Chicago’s first African American mayor. In this political climate in America, it is important to remind African Americans in this country, and particularly in Chicago, of the development of this historic movement. I hope the reading of this series will facilitate discussions and actions that will rebuild this movement.

The Chicago Fest Boycott was a grand success in terms of its impact on the African American community. Less than one percent (1%) of those who attended the Fest were African Americans. More importantly, the Chicago Fest Boycott was used as a major mobilizing tool for serious discussion of the potentiality and possibility of electing Chicago’s first African American mayor.

The 11 days of picketing by hundreds of African Americans at Navy Pier, the site of Chicago Fest, provided an opportunity for a great deal of discussion and exchange by the picketers on the question of electing an African American mayor. The most prominent name that surfaced in many of those discussions on the picket line was Harold Washington.

MAYOR WASHINGTON (far left), Ginger Mance (daughter of parade organizer, Azell Mance), and Dr. Worrill (far right) at victory parade and celebration in Washington Park, May 1983.

Upon completion of the Chicago Fest Boycott, the anxiety was beginning to build in our community concerning what qualified African American person was going to announce their candidacy for mayor. It appeared that large numbers of African Americans were in support of Harold Washington as the most likely candidate from our community who could win.

Lu Palmer called a meeting with key activists and political leaders to discuss with Harold Washington his intentions regarding the upcoming mayoral primary. After a lengthy discussion on this subject, Harold Washington indicated he would strongly consider running if at least 50,000 African American people registered to vote and if a substantial war chest would be raised.

Voter registration fever began to catch on in the African American community. Lu Palmer and CBUC (Chicago Black United Communities) began distributing a questionnaire throughout the African American community as to our choice for mayor. The results of this questionnaire were presented at the famous plebiscite meeting at Bethel A.M.E. Church.

Over 2,000 cheering and enthusiastic African Americans attended this most historic meeting in the latter part of August 1982. Everyone was anxious to hear the results of the questionnaire.

DR. WORRILL LEADING the Victory Parade and celebration with Mayor Washington following with other parade participants in Washington Park in May 1983.

At the meeting, Jorja Palmer indicated in her report that over 17,000 African Americans had filled out the questionnaire and the overwhelming choice was Harold Washington. The spirited crowd of African Americans were joyous to hear that Harold Washington was the favorite candidate, of so many of our people to run for mayor.

Between July 1982 and November 1982 , over 150,000 African Americans registered to vote. It was becoming clearer every day in the community that the chances  of an African American winning the mayoral primary was great, particularly since both Richard M. Daley and Jane Byrne had announced their candidacies.

By late October 1982, Harold Washington, the favorite choice of many African Americans, had not announced his candidacy for mayor. Again, Lu Palmer called a meeting of over one hundred activists, community leaders, and elected officials at the Robert’s Motel, to discuss this dilemma. The real concern of participants at this meeting was when Harold Washington would announce his candidacy, and if not, who would be the likely alternative?

Harold Washington made his announcement on November 10, 1982, at the Hyde Park Hilton Hotel. Thousands of African Americans showed up at this historic press conference, showing clearly that we had a new political unity movement in Chicago.

Harold Washington won the primary election in February 1983 and went on to win the general election in April of the same year, becoming Chicago’s first African American mayor. Mayor Washington was reelected in April 1987. Mayor Washington made his untimely transition on November 25, 1987. The Washington administration had a great impact that has been documented in numerous publications. This period in Chicago’s electoral political history will continue to be written about and analyzed.

The internal battle that ensued after Harold Washington’s transition produced a major split in the African American community between Eugene Sawyer and Timothy “Tim” Evans. We still have not recovered from this split to this day in being able to solidify Black political unity.

Dr. Conrad Worrill, Professor Emeritus, Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies (CCICS). New office location is at 1809 E. 71st Street, Chicago, Illinois 60649, 773-592-2598. Email: [email protected] Website:

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