Book review: “Harold Washington and the Civil Rights Legacy” by Christopher Chandler

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Book review: “Harold Washington and the Civil Rights Legacy” by Christopher Chandler

chandler.washingtonChristopher Chandler, a former journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times and WBBM-TV (Channel 2), was an important press aide for Harold Washington.

He organized news conferences, planned media strategy and dealt directly with reporters and editors during Washington’s 1983 campaign to become Chicago’s first black mayor and then during the initial two years of his tenure on the fifth floor of City Hall.

Yet, in his memoir Harold Washington and the Civil Rights Legacy, Chandler writes, “I only had one serious conversation about politics with Harold Washington.

Following a news conference on the Southeast Side, as the two men waited for their ride back downtown, Washington asked Chandler who his favorite politician was.

“Bobby Kennedy.”

Washington was surprised. “I never understood the Kennedys,” he said.

As for his own favorite politician, Washington named Paul Robeson, the athlete, singer, actor and political activist who, as it happened, was one of the heroes of Chandler’s mother.

 

Progressive

Christopher Cahndler in 2011

Christopher Cahndler in 2011

Chandler, a white man, came from the sort of mid-20th century American family that described itself as progressive. His father, a clergyman, and the rest of his relatives were committed to the cause of civil rights.

So committed, in fact, that, in April, 1968, his parents and other family members were living on Fifth Avenue in the middle of the West Side ghetto. “They were part of a project by the nearby Ecumenical Institute to plant ‘stakes’ in the neighborhood to help bring about revitalization,” writes Chandler.

When riots broke out following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his family had some scary moments, including threats by six black men, one of whom carried a gun. Terrorized, the family members eventually found a way out to safety.

Later, his father was among a group of clergy who asked Mayor Richard J. Daley to rescind his infamous order to “shoot to kill” arsonists. “Daley never forgave dad for preaching to him,” Chandler writes. “He referred to my father afterward as ‘that rioter’ and succeeded in forcing him out of town within a few months.”

It’s a bit frustrating that Chandler doesn’t explain how that happened. It’s one of many such incidents in his book that Chandler mentions but fails to elaborate on. As a self-published book, available at amazon.com, Harold Washington and the Civil Rights Legacy is somewhat rough around the edges at times.

 

True-believers

Yet, the book is valuable in providing insight into the experiences of the members of Washington’s coalition whom Chandler describes as progressive whites, black nationalists and political radicals. True-believers, in other words.

“True-believers” is a term that is often used as a put-down. That’s not how I’m employing it here. I see it as a phrase that gets to the heart of the motivation that such people bring to their involvement in politics and government.

Progressives, radicals, black nationalists and other true-believers live on the far left side of the political continuum. They believe that fairness and justice trumps all. They believe in what they perceive as right. They are idealists. They think power, when obtained, should be used to do right, to make the world more just and fair.

They astonish, mystify and royally irritate professional politicians.

Consider this story from Chandler:

A weekly meeting of the Chicago Federation of Tenants Unions in the 1960s had representatives from four public housing developments, a West Side union, an Uptown organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Tenants Action Council and, from the radical Students for a Democratic Society, Rennie Davis and Benardine Dohrn.

During the meeting, someone came up with the idea that only tenants should take part. Chandler, a tenant at Old Town Gardens apartments and a delegate from the Tenants Action Council, argued that “the federation was working well, and while more effort should be made to have tenant representatives come to meetings, we should simply work toward that goal.” Nonetheless, the group voted overwhelmingly in favor of the idea.

The next week when we went to the meeting [Chandler and one other person] were the only ones there. They had in effect voted themselves out of the federation.

One can’t imagine Ed Vrdolyak voting himself out of power. Or either of the Daleys.

Or Harold Washington.

 

A professional politician

Chandler explains that the reason his short conversation with Washington about politics was their only one was because “he preferred to deal with me indirectly.”

I believe, in retrospect, that it was because I had the reporter’s attitude of dealing with everyone as an equal. He was used to some deference, as a Congressman and elder statesman of the black political independence movement.

That’s probably true to some extent, but Chandler’s book indicates other reasons as well.

For one thing, he writes that Washington relied so much on his chief-of-staff William Ware because Ware “could easily deal with white society, while Washington always felt unease.” That may be true, but I’m wondering if the Mayor’s “unease” was only with some whites.

In March, 1985, when Chandler was told by his boss that the Mayor had decided to let him go, Chandler asked why. “He said, ‘[Chandler] has his own agenda.’ ”

My thought is that the Mayor felt uncomfortable with Chandler and would only deal with him “indirectly” because Chandler was a true-believer. He was fighting for what he saw as right, and he expected Washington to fight for the same things.

Washington, though, was a professional politician. He had been a state senator and then a Congressman. His life was built around running in and winning elections.

Don’t get me wrong. Washington wanted to get a bigger share of the pie for African-Americans, other minorities and other people marginalized by society. But he knew true-believers didn’t win many elections.

He knew that, to win a campaign and do well enough in office to win another, he had to build as broad a coalition as he could. That meant that he didn’t have the luxury that a true-believer has of focusing only on making things right.

He knew that he needed to build consensus and build alliances. And he knew that the true-believers wouldn’t like that.

But some of us felt that he had moved too far to the center [writes Chandler]. His budgets trimmed waste and he took bold steps for open government and ethics enforcement…He pleased the lakefront liberals and newspaper editorial writers. But his government did not do as well on issues raised in that first campaign, like public health and education.

 

“A likable villain”

Professional politicians, such as Washington, feel comfortable with each other. They know that policy objectives aren’t the only motivating factors that determine how decisions are made. There are also the considerations of greed and ambition. It may not be “right,” but it’s real.

So, in reading Chandler’s book, I got the sense that Washington may have had an easier time understanding his arch-nemesis Edward Vrdolyak than in getting on the wavelengths of Chandler and the other true-believers.

Vrdolyak was the political genius who took over the City Council after Washington’s 1983 election and began the era of Council Wars, making himself, as Chandler writes, “the most powerful man in the city.”

Vrdolyak was a handsome, charming figure in tailored suits who had a flair for making things happen….He remained Washington’s implacable foe throughout Council Wars, but even Washington came to think he was a likable villain.

Vrdolyak may have been Darth Vader to true-believers, but, to Washington, he was a fellow politician and a worthy adversary in the field of political combat.

And, for all of Washington’s compromise and consensus-building in his five years in office that disappointed the true-believers, he made deep and permanent changes in the city’s government.

One example noted by Chandler is the set-aside program for city government contracts under which a certain percentage is awarded to businesses owned by minorities and women. Another is a relatively equal distribution of city money to each of the 50 wards for improvements such as street paving and sidewalk repair.

Even deeper, though, is the expectation that those running the government and serving on boards and councils will reflect, to some extent, the racial and ethnic makeup of the city — the rainbow government that Richard M. Daley promised when he took over the city as mayor in 1989.

Daley used these appointments, as well as money allotted to organizations in every city neighborhood as “delegate agencies,” as a means to give the appearance of shared control. But he kept the main power in his hands.

Still, that was to be expected. He was a professional politician.

Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that Chicago is a different city today because of the mosaic of people of every race, ethnicity and orientation that Washington created and that his successors have recognized the value of continuing.

Patrick T. Reardon
11.4.2014

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