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The Origin and Development of Chicago’s First African American Mayor


This is part one of a 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.

“I stand here like you sit here—as a result of 400 years of travail and struggle in this country. And that travail and struggle has come up with a product called “us.” We’ve been through the crucible. We’ve been pushed around, shoved around, beat, murdered, emasculated, literally destroyed. Our families have been systematically disrupted. There’s been an unfair distribution of all the goodies. No system works for us. We influence no institutions in this country except our own. We have no power. We have no land. But through all that struggle we’ve stayed together… We’ve become more courageous…We’ve been giving white candidates our votes for years and years, unstintingly, hoping that they would include us in the process, deep-seatedly knowing that they probably would not. And so now it’s come to the point when we say, “Well, it’s our turn. It’s our turn.” And we don’t have to makes excuses for it.”

Harold Washington,
14 November 1982

The great political movements and battles that African Americans in Chicago have taken on the last several years have been historic and important to the development of our struggle in this city. The major outcome of this movement was the level of unity displayed in the African American community in the election of Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington.

The quest for the attainment of Black political empowerment has deep roots in this city’s history. The idea of an African American person running for mayor in Chicago can be traced back to 1958, when a small group of African Americans led by Congressman Gus Savage, ran Lemuel Bentley for City Clerk. In 1963, another group of African Americans considered the idea. In the late 1960s, Dick Gregory positioned himself to run for mayor and in 1971 Reverend Jesse Jackson put his hat in the ring. After the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1975, several African Americans attempted to run for mayor. The idea was becoming a reality. Remembering the school board crisis brings to mind some other historical facts that led to the development of the movement that elected Chicago’s first African American mayor.

In April 1980, word leaked out that former Mayor Jane Byrne wanted Commonwealth Edison magnate, Thomas Ayers to be appointed to the school board. Several community groups came together when it was learned that not only did Jane Byrne want Thomas Ayers appointed to the Board of Education, but she was backing him for the presidency.

Research on the part of this group spearheaded by Lu and Jorja Palmer, with the assistance of Reverend Al Sampson, revealed that Thomas Ayers did not live in Chicago. The board regulations clearly stated that one had to be a legal resident of Chicago in order to serve on the school board.

Under the leadership of Lu Palmer, several community groups were called together to discuss strategy on the Chicago school board. Historically, no more than three African Americans have been allowed to serve on the school board at any given time. However, the population of African American students in Chicago Public Schools had risen to 65%.

Interestingly enough, the meeting called by Lu Palmer at the Bethel A.M.E. Church Education Building was chaired by Harold Washington who at that time was a State Senator. The outcome of this meeting led to two specific strategy formulations. The first strategy was to identify numerous African American people that community groups felt were qualified to serve on the Board of Education. The group agreed that African Americans needed to have the majority of representatives on the school board because African Americans represented a majority of the school population.

The second strategy to unfold was to file a law suit against Thomas Ayers’ appointment to the board.

Mass mobilizing of the African American community around this school board fight became one of the major issues in our community. African Americans led mass rallies, demonstrated at the board, and wrote letters in support of 35 African Americans whose names were submitted to Jane Byrne for consideration. As a result, five African Americans were appointed to the board and Thomas Ayers was forced to resign when he was unable to prove he lived in Chicago. This victory was the beginning of a unity movement in Chicago’s African American community that laid the foundation for the election of Chicago’s first African American mayor.

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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