Race and Unity: Harold Washington in His Own Words

As the city grapples with issues of race and equality in the wake of the Laquan McDonald video, today marks the 28th anniversary of the death of Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington.

Washington was the first guest on "Chicago Tonight" when the show premiered in 1984.

Washington’s rise to the fifth floor of City Hall in 1983 saw racial tensions flare up. After beating incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and then-Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley in the Democratic primary, Washington headed into the general election against Republican candidate Bernard Epton, who campaigned with the slogan “Before It’s Too Late.”

Once in office, Washington faced opposition from a large bloc of mostly white aldermen in the City Council, dubbed the “Vrdolyak 29” after then-Alderman Edward Vrdolyak. The group constantly fought Washington on his agenda in what is commonly referred to as “Council Wars.” 

After winning a second term in 1987, Washington suffered a massive heart attack at his desk in City Hall and died Nov. 25, 1987. 

Hear Washington talk about growing up in Chicago to John Callaway in 1977 during his first, unsuccessful bid for mayor.

Though he failed to unseat Mayor Michael Bilandic in 1977, Washington shared what he thought it would mean for the city if he were elected as mayor. 


Below is a “Chicago Tonight” news clip of the aftermath following Washington’s death and the fight in City Council to appoint a successor.