We lost hope when we lost Harold

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J. Coyden Palmer

By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader

It shouldn’t be this way. If one person goes down everyone else is supposed to step up and keep the train moving. But that didn’t happen after Nov. 25, 1987, the day Chicago lost Harold Washington.

I was a senior at Luther High School South. We were scheduled for a half-day, which meant there were going to be shenanigans by students all afternoon. But when we got the news that morning that Harold was dead, it was like a gut punch. For the first time in my young life I knew what the phrase “it was surreal,” meant.

We were all just walking around like zombies the rest of the day. We cried at our desks. We punched walls, cussed, and consoled one another. When they let us leave the school we drank, got high, had sex, people were doing anything to try to dull the pain. Nothing worked. It was a nightmare that had come to real life.

With Harold you felt you were really a part of the city, even if you were just a kid. You had a sense of pride. After dealing with years of old man Daley, Michael Bilandic, Jane Byrne and the Democratic machine, Black people felt like finally, it was our time.

One day in 1983 myself and a few other students were pulled out of class at Dixon Elementary and told we had been chosen by our assistant principal, Mr. Mosby, to participate in something special later that evening. I had to wear black dress pants with leather shoes and a white dress shirt and tie for this event. We went to St. Mark United Methodist Church later that evening not knowing what to expect. Turns out it was a campaign rally for Harold and we were serving as ushers in the main sanctuary.

The electricity in the room that night is something I can only compare to when I was in Miami for the Super Bowl in 2007 when Devin Hester returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.

When Harold walked in the sanctuary the crowd erupted with a roar that gave me chills. My classmate Stephanie Ross and I were caught so off-guard when Harold walked right in front of us on his way to the stage, smiled, shook our hands and said “thanks for being here.” He didn’t even have to acknowledge us because we couldn’t vote and he had hundreds of voters waiting for him. But that’s who Harold was and that’s why he was so beloved.

In the years that followed his election I witnessed Black people progressing in Chicago. We were gaining political and business power, getting contracts, appointments to various boards, along with just every day living; things seemed to be getting better. City services our parents paid for, but never really got were starting to come into the community. Black people were ready to ride this wave of momentum into his second term; we were firmly convinced the Vrdolyak 29 was about to get smashed.

And in one instant it was over. News outlets across the country carried coverage of the untimely death of Chicago’s Mayor Harold Washington.

And because of the political climate of the time and the stakes at hand, I’m still not 100% convinced Harold just had a heart attack and died. Yeah, his diet was horrible and he did not exercise, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has a worse diet and is bigger than Harold ever was. There has always been a part of me that believes Harold was intentionally taken from us, possibly poisoned by someone within his inner-circle.

Because the political climate at the time in Chicago, was much like it is now in 2017, with an idiot in the White House and a man who can’t be trusted occupying City Hall’s fifth floor. Black and Brown people are being targeted with policies to keep them down and stop the progress we have made.

People who wanted power back and racists who never wanted a Black man as mayor to begin with, were seething with Harold’s election and then re-election in 1987. The proof of the racist vitriol came from white Democrats voting for Bernard Epton, a Republican, who ran against Washington in the general election in 1983. In a stroke of twisted fate, Epton himself succumbed to a heart attack three weeks after Harold. I can’t prove Harold was murdered, but it’s what every instinct has told me since his death. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some element of the government was involved.

Politics is nothing more than power…. we should never forget that.

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