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Eyes on the Prize
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We Must Have a Black Mayor, 1983

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In a 1983 interview, Chicago mayor Harold Washington discussed the Democratic political machine and the need for more African Americans to participate in the political process.


...the question is, "where now?" The black community in Chicago is approximately forty percent of a three million population. We are around a million two. The black potential vote is around 850,000. The black registration is about a half million or 500,000. The unregistered is anywhere from 300,000 to 350,000. The black turnout in primary elections is something like thirty-five percent. Quite clearly, if we maximize our registration and our turnout for votes, we can control any primary election. In 1979, 815,000 votes were cast, Bilandic got 400,000 and the mayor got 415,000 in rounded figures. We have more voters than that. So clearly, the direction for the black community in Chicago is laid out. It is not a racist thrust. Black people, like everyone else, we want our place in the sun, we want the Holy Grail or the brass ring. The trouble is every time we get close, they change the [expletive] rules, and we're constantly struggling to grab that fella, and it's moving, shifting like shifting sand.

We're not racist, we simply have pride of kind, as the Irish do, and did when Kennedy was elected. It was hosanna. Irish Catholics all over the world celebrated and we celebrated with them because we exulted, as they exulted in their gains and goals. Had I been Polish, when they had gotten a Polish Pope, I probably would have drank whatever the Poles drink when they feel good; it felt good. We could empathize with the Jews when Frankfurter went to the Supreme Court because we felt the same way when Thurgood Marshall went to the Supreme Court. Our position is we are positive in terms of our own group getting all that it is entitled to within its potential, just like other groups do. We are not negative toward anybody, and therein lies the difference. So when people say, "Why must you have a black mayor?" Just like the mountain climber says, we must have a black mayor because the mountain climber says, "I climb the mountain because it's there," like every other group does. It's just a love of kind, a desire to excel, and so forth and so on.

So we must do this thing and we must also do it because we have an ingredient which has been honed and instilled in us. We've gone to the crucible and we understand the real problems of this world, we understand the misery of the world. We understand being the outsider, the invisible person, we know the depths to which one can go and feel and how degrading it can be when you're just shunned aside. That's the kind of feeling which breeds a certain sense of strength, which I think black people in this country owe not just to themselves but they owe to the development of this country. We are a natural continuum, there is a manifest destiny that is wrapped up in our history that says to us and to others "we must do this thing."

We must move into the area of executive power. We are proliferating in legislative circles but the legislatures, the power is diffused. You can't localize it, you can't focus on it, it's scattered between too many peoples. When the legislator moves, and gives over to the executive the power to do things, the executive will always find those areas of discretion, patronage, to abuse or disabuse. The lesson of the 1960s is simply this: you can't pass laws and sit back and wait for them to be self-executed. You've got to make certain they're executed, and based upon wisdom and the world as it is, black people understand that we cannot trust. We cannot trust others to execute those laws to our advantage, so we must do the same. It was true in Gary, it was true in Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, Pasadena, Compton, New Orleans, Atlanta, Birmingham, and about a hundred fifty other cities in this country. Blacks have understood that they have got to reach out, and if not control completely by being elected to executive office, at least be the serious kind of threat which will force the executive to execute the laws which are on the books.

Source: Video interview with Harold Washington, 1983. The e-Black Chicago Project, Northern Illinois University Libraries Digitization Unit, http://dig.lib.niu.edu/blackchicago/index.html.

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