Mayor Harold Washington in 1983.
Mayor Harold Washington, pictured in 1983, died 35 years ago this week. Here are 10 ways to learn about him and remember his legacy. Chicago Sun-Times

Watch, read, listen: 10 ways to learn about Harold Washington 35 years after his death

Your guide to “the people’s mayor.”

Mayor Harold Washington, pictured in 1983, died 35 years ago this week. Here are 10 ways to learn about him and remember his legacy. Chicago Sun-Times
Mayor Harold Washington in 1983.
Mayor Harold Washington, pictured in 1983, died 35 years ago this week. Here are 10 ways to learn about him and remember his legacy. Chicago Sun-Times

Watch, read, listen: 10 ways to learn about Harold Washington 35 years after his death

Your guide to “the people’s mayor.”

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Thirty-five years ago, on the eve of Thanksgiving 1987, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington died unexpectedly after suffering a heart attack just months into his second term.

The story of that “cool and gray” Nov. 25, as WBEZ described it at the time, as well as Washington’s political rise and the racism he endured are documented in a recent feature-length film about Chicago’s first Black mayor, Punch 9 For Harold Washington. The footage is a remarkable reminder of the role race played both in the campaign and later in the infamous Council Wars of Washington’s first term.

Mourners and well wishers waiting to file past Mayor Harold Washington’s casket in City Hall on Nov. 29, 1987.
Mourners and well wishers waiting to file past Mayor Harold Washington’s casket in City Hall on Nov. 29, 1987. Chicago Sun-Times

Decades later, Washington’s name continues to play a role in City Hall politics. Candidates — like current mayoral hopeful Jesús “Chuy” García — tout their ties to Washington to boost their standing among Chicagoans who remember the late mayor as a larger-than-life figure credited with building coalitions, making city government more transparent and taking on Chicago’s machine politics.

Washington’s appeal comes alive in Punch 9, which serves as a rallying cry for a new generation of changemakers. For younger Chicagoans looking to know more about Washington — or longtime residents who want to brush up on some history — here are 10 ways to learn more about the former mayor.

What to watch:

1. Punch 9 for Harold Washington. After making the rounds at film festivals, the documentary was briefly shown in Chicago theaters this fall, where it was met with praise. If you missed it on the big screen, or just want to watch it again, the film’s website says the movie will be on a streaming service “soon.” While we wait, here’s the trailer to give you an idea of what the hype is all about.

2. A video “reunion” of Washington-era insiders. Hosted by the Chicago Sun-Times’ Laura Washington and Lynn Sweet, panelists who all worked for or reported on Washington’s administration break down the 1983 mayoral primary election in a wide-ranging conversation. Harold Washington took on incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and then-State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley. The three candidates met in a series of debates, where Washington gave performances that have become somewhat legendary.

“The debates, without them, I don’t think Harold wins. The debates were critical,” said former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, who worked on Washington’s campaign and was later an alderman and city council ally to Washington. “You put them on the stage and it was clear who was the most eloquent.”

Take a listen:

3. This American Life’s “Harold” episode. Originally broadcast 10 years after Washington’s death, host Ira Glass gives a crash course on the Chicago political machine, talks with people who were close to Washington and chronicles the racism during the campaign.

When This American Life re-aired the episode in 2007, for the 20th anniversary of Washington’s death, Barack Obama was in the throes of his first presidential campaign. Obama has said he originally moved to Chicago, in part, because he was inspired by Washington’s campaign. “It’s hard to forget the sense of possibility that he sparked in people,” he later said.

4. Archival tape from WBEZ. Included in our archives is a broadcast from Christmas Day in 1986, when then-WBEZ host Ken Davis paid Washington a visit at home.

“A very sincere thanks for doing this,” Davis said to the mayor. “It’s really above and beyond the call of duty even for a mayor to have to have all these people invade your home on Christmas morning.”

“I’m deeply honored, I think,” Washington responds with a laugh.

In the special holiday broadcast, Washington discusses various aspects of his job and Chicago politics, plays Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick records, and takes calls from listeners.

Also from our archives, WBEZ reported on Washington’s death in ’87. In the clip below, which was compiled as a submission for a Peabody award, you’ll hear a WBEZ news anchor describing the station’s efforts to cover the shocking news.

5. A conversation on WBEZ’s Reset. Featuring Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet and Chicago Public Library archivist Stacie Williams, the segment discussing Washington’s legacy originally aired last April to mark what would have been his 100th birthday.

Add to your reading list:

Alton Miller, former press secretary and speechwriter for Harold Washington, with his book 'Harold Washington: The Mayor, the Man.'
Alton Miller, former press secretary and speechwriter for Harold Washington, with his book ‘Harold Washington: The Mayor, the Man.’ Nancy Stuenkel / Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

6. Washington books. Courtesy of the Chicago Public Library, these books for all ages include Fire on the Prairie by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Gary Rivlin and Harold Washington: The Mayor, the Man by former Washington aide Alton Miller.

7. Noteable Washington speeches. Read Washington’s own words in this digital collection of his speeches. The catalog has everything from the annual State of the City addresses to high school and college commencement speeches.

Included is a 1986 speech during Bishop Desmond Tutu’s visit to Chicago. Washington says it’s an honor to welcome the “unifying leader in the campaign to forever dismantle apartheid in South Africa” to Chicago, which the mayor called “the most active anti-aparthied city in America.” And then there’s Washington’s second inaugural address in 1987, in which he asks for every Chicagoan’s help in the next four years.

“I ask you to consider the need and examine your skills, and find a way to contribute to the salvation of your city,” Washington said. “Together we must form a human safety network that provides, in time and talent, what Chicago could never afford in its taxes and budgets.”

8. This 2019 essay by WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore. She writes about her own childhood memories of Washington and the day he died, as well as the ways Black politics in Chicago have changed since Washington.

“The power of Washington’s name and legacy is real, but today, it’s almost a figment of our imagination. We’ve embraced a romanticized vision of that time and a belief that it is the template for harnessing black political power,” Moore writes. “His name is always invoked in political campaigns. When local elections creep up, the question comes up: Who is the next Harold? How do black wards agree on a ‘consensus candidate?’ The magic of 1983 won’t likely be repeated. Ever. We will be okay.”

Inauguration of Mayor Harold Washington in 1983.
Inauguration of Mayor Harold Washington in 1983. Chicago Sun-Times

Take a field trip:

9. Spots in Chicago that are named after Harold Washington. From parks to university buildings and, of course, the downtown library headquarters, here’s a list compiled by WBEZ’s Meha Ahmad:

  • Harold Washington Memorial Park, 7710 N. Paulina St.

  • Harold Washington Apartments, 4946 N. Sheridan Road

  • Harold Washington College, 30 E. Lake St.

  • Harold Washington Social Security Center, 600 W. Madison St.

  • Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St.

  • Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. Martin Luther King Drive

  • Harold Washington Playlot Park, 5200 S Hyde Park Blvd.

  • Harold Washington Hall, Chicago State University at 95th St. and Martin Luther King Drive

10. An exhibit all about Washington. On display at the Harold Washington Library, of course, the exhibit, “Harold Washington: A Centennial Reflection,” features photographs, campaign posters and documents from his administration.
Construction barricade and sign being at the building site of the new Harold Washington Library Center in 1989.
Construction barricade and sign being at the building site of the new Harold Washington Library Center in 1989. Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

WBEZ’s media archivist Justine Tobiasz contributed. Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.