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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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Operation PUSH

1983

"I felt like I was a part of something... I was a small person in the corner, wouldn't get the big headlines, but I made it happen."
—Rosie Mars, African American voter

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Tired of conflicts with Chicago's elected public officials, African American activists resolve to elect the city's first black mayor. Focusing on issues their community cares most about, they launch a grassroots campaign. To entice U.S. Congressman Harold Washington to run, they set a goal of registering 50,000 new voters. They gain double that number by the deadline, thanks to local organizing and convincing speeches by leaders like Jesse Jackson, whose Chicago-based organization, Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity), has been working for social justice for over a decade. Despite trailing incumbent Jayne Byrne in the polls, Washington wins the Democratic primary -- and later, the general election -- backed by a large black voter turnout.

During the campaign, Jackson is disappointed when nationally prominent Democrats Edward Kennedy and Walter Mondale endorse Washington's opponents. Jackson concludes that the only way to change the major political parties' disregard for black voters' concerns is for more African Americans to run for national office. This realization will lead to Jackson's candidacy in the 1984 and 1988 presidential elections. Though his bids fail, he has more impact on the elections than even he anticipates, delivering two memorable convention speeches in those years, and, in the words of journalist and professor Roger Wilkins, expanding "the idea in the heads and spirits of Americans of who could aspire to be president."

Context

Other Events: 1983

In October, a terrorist truck bomb strikes a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 American servicemen.

A hit movie, "Flashdance," creates a fashion trend of torn sweatshirts and makes its biracial star, Jennifer Beals, into a sex symbol.

Guion Bluford, Jr. becomes the first black person in space, flying on the first of his four Space Shuttle missions.

In Bob Jones University v. the United States, the Supreme Court rules that the Internal Revenue Service may revoke the tax-exempt status of private institutions due to their racial policies (dating between races is prohibited by the school).

James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, resigns in disgrace after describing some of his commissioners as "a black, a woman, two Jews, and cripple."

At the Grammy Awards, Michael Jackson wins for his album "Thriller" and for the single "Beat It," and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis wins Grammies in both the classical and jazz categories.

"The Day After," a made-for-television movie about the aftermath of a nuclear attack, draws more than 100 million viewers.

Press

The Detroit News, February 25, 1983

Editorial: The Election in Chicago

...U.S. Rep. Harold Washington's upset victory in the Chicago primary Tuesday should bring substantive change. The pertinent question for Mr. Washington is: How much change?...

...If he tries to dismantle completely the patronage system that is the underpinning of the machine, he will make powerful enemies. If he introduces no change, he will betray the people who elected him.

Finding the right balance will be an awesome task.

The Chicago Tribune, March 5, 1983

Voice of the People: Reactions to the campaigns for mayor of Chicago

Harold Washington has run a successful campaign and has won the Chicago Democratic mayoral primary. However, it is puzzling to me why black voters who will vote for Washington because of race are simply exercising their right, but white voters who will cote for Bernard Epton, the Republican candidate, because of race are bigots and racists.

Marty Serbick
Berwyn, Illinois

The New York Times, April 5, 1983

Letters to the Editor: Chicago: Ethnic Voting vs. Racist Voting

...Voting as an ethnic or cultural bloc is both a basic and longstanding feature of electoral behavior in democratic societies, here and abroad. Afro-Americans, an ethnic group of color, who back a black candidate as a means of advancing their political presence in city, state and Federal governance are not committing a racist act -- any more than, say, Jews who vote en bloc to elect New York State's first Jewish-American Governor...

...Such ethnic-bloc voting (or its equivalent among women voters, agrarian voters, trade union voters, etc.) is a valid means for the political empowerment of ethnic groups who must overcome the vicious forms of ethnic negation imposed upon them by American society...

...Ethnic-bloc voting for the purpose of excluding groups from parity of political and social status is what racism is all about.

Martin Kilson
Professor of Government, Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

The Washington Post, April 7, 1983

Letters to the Editor: Racism in the Race

...a significant chunk of the electorate has abandoned its tradition of supporting the Democratic nominee and has defected instead to the Republican nominee, Bernard Epton. What is interesting about this defection is that it is manifested in distaste for Mr. Washington, rather than satisfaction with Mr. Epton.

An ugly Palm Sunday demonstration against Mr. Washington and behind-the-scenes racial commentary indicate that this defection of white support is racially motivated. Hence, the defection points not to a breakdown of the democratic coalition, as suggested, but rather to a breakdown of the coalition of humanity...

...A campaign of reassurance by Mr. Washington is incapable of overcoming such deeply entrenched racism.

Alvin Hickson
Washington, D.C.

The Birmingham Post-Herald, April 15, 1983

Editorial: Chicago...

The mayoral campaign that has embarrassed Chicago before the nation for several weeks finally is over.

Now it is up to winner Harold Washington to pick up the pieces, and that won't be easy...

...Virtually all blacks voted for Washington and most whites voted for Epton, which demonstrated to the bitter end the racial nature of the campaign...

...No doubt there will be endless speculation on what the election of Chicago's first black mayor means for national politics. Our guess is that it won't mean much in terms of overall political alignment of blacks and whites or on the issues that affect national elections...

...The old Democratic machine put together by the late mayor, Richard Daley, has been tottering in recent years and Washington's victory may mean its ultimate demise. The city's establishment will have to deal with new faces...

...It's time for this great and important city to put the bitterness of the campaign behind it.

Video

Operation PUSH
Duration: 0:59 min
Watch the Video

Reverend Jesse Jackson speaking to a church audience, describing the relationship between African Americans and the Democratic Party.

Footage provided by BBC MOTION GALLERY.

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