Wednesday, October 5, was the 40th anniversary of “Come Alive October 5,” the movement that swept Harold Washington into office as the first African American mayor of Chicago.
Josie Childs, president of the Harold Washington Legacy Committee, wants everyone to remember the GOTV slogan that helped Washington win the historic 1983 mayoral election.
On the night Washington won with 96.4 percent of the city’s 2,914 precincts counted, Washington had racked up 640,738 votes or 51.5 percent of the vote compared to his Republican, virtually unknown challenger, Bernard E. Epton’s 599,114, or 48.2 percent of the vote.
The 60-year-old Washington had won 80 percent of the Black vote and had awakened “the sleeping Black giant” as many Black activists touted. His recipe for victory was diverse, getting support and endorsements from Blacks, Hispanics, and whites from the north lakefront.
Washington’s personality, a sense of oneness and a connectedness to the electorate drew a historical voter turnout. Blacks truly came alive on October 5 and continued that GOTV excitement to the night of April 12, 1983.
While the polls were still open Washington, who ran as a reformer, sent for this reporter who was at the Donnelley Hall awaiting his arrival, and another reporter from the Chicago Tribune. Washington had a driver take me to the Ritz Carlton Hotel where he was watching the returns.
As he sat at the edge of his bed, eyes glued to the TV and the totals that kept coming in, he answered several of my questions and gave me great quotes. Suddenly, he stood up, rolled his sleeves back down, put on his cuff links, turned and said, “it’s time to go.”
Washington put me in a car traveling behind his vehicle that included an African American male ABCTV reporter. Drivers of both cars raced to R.R. Donnelley Hall on Cermak Road where he gave his acceptance speech.
There, Mayoral-elect Washington said, “Out of the crucible… Out of the crucible of this city’s most trying election, carried on the tide of the most massive voter turnout in Chicago’s history.
“Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Jews, Gentiles, Protestant and Catholics of all stripes have joined hands to form a new Democratic coalition. And…and to begin in this place, a new Democratic movement.”
But then Congressman Harold Washington often told this reporter and many others he loved his job as a congressman. Blacks had begun turning their backs on Mayor Jane Byrne, the first female mayor.
It was Reverend Jesse Jackson, who during an interview on WBMX took a call from a man who challenged him to boycott the mayor’s ChicagoFest.
The idea took off with Black singers like Stevie Wonder boycotting the event. It wasn’t a campaign that elected Washington. Rather, it was a movement that began in the basements of many churches and dining rooms across the city.
The idea of electing a Black mayor had ignited and indeed awakened the Black sleeping giant. Blacks began to register new voters and the voter rolls surged.
But white supporters like activist Walter “Slim” Coleman, stood by Washington and helped to organize about 500 mostly poor whites, some Blacks, and Hispanics to protest Mayor Jane Byrne who had moved into Cabrini-Green, which her detractors say was a political ploy.
Coleman said, “The Black community that lived there was saying that was a charade, that she really intended to turn Cabrini-Green into condominiums and in the meantime was just ripping them off.”
Coleman said Byrne “had gone back on a series of agreements that would have built about 5,000 units of low-income housing at a time when the gentrifiers were moving on Uptown.” He felt Byrne wanted to “gentrify the inner city and run us [poor people] out.”
Coleman said he had to fight to get the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners to send deputy registrars. They would not let him and his supporters go inside Public Aid offices to register people. Rather, they wanted him to have a van where people could register to vote.
Coleman then filed a lawsuit against the city to allow him and others to register voters inside Public Aid offices and helped boost voter registration by more than 96,000 new voters of the 250,000.
“We wanted to get rid of Byrne,” Coleman said. “We wanted respect.”
“This is an example of the power of voter registration,” said Childs. “We registered. We voted. We won and today, we are encouraging people to vote.”
To the young people, Childs said, “It pays to register and vote. We excelled what he [Washington] had demanded of us, and we won. We can do the same come November 8. When you don’t vote, you get what you get.”
However, Northeastern University emeritus professor Robert Starks disagrees with Childs saying, “I don’t believe Blacks will come out and vote, especially young Black men.”
He said most voters are women who go to church. Starks said young Black men feel they have no reason to vote and don’t see any benefits of voting.
“While I was excited during the ‘Come Alive October 5,’ I don’t think we can duplicate that today,” Starks stated.