Walter ‘Slim’ Coleman, an organizer who helped elect Mayor Harold Washington, dies at 80

Mr. Coleman led countless demonstrations in his six decades as an activist.

Walter “Slim” Coleman Little Village
Walter “Slim” Coleman (center) speaks at a rally in the Loop called to protest an immigration raid in Little Village in 2007. Al Podgorski / Chicago Sun-Times
Walter “Slim” Coleman Little Village
Walter “Slim” Coleman (center) speaks at a rally in the Loop called to protest an immigration raid in Little Village in 2007. Al Podgorski / Chicago Sun-Times

Walter ‘Slim’ Coleman, an organizer who helped elect Mayor Harold Washington, dies at 80

Mr. Coleman led countless demonstrations in his six decades as an activist.

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Walter ‘Slim’ Coleman, a dyed-in-the-wool radical activist of the 1960s who for decades harnessed the power of the city’s poor to challenge its power structure and achieve social justice goals, died Tuesday after a long bout with illness. He was 80.

One of his biggest accomplishments was helping to organize a voting drive in Chicago’s poor white communities that helped elect Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first Black mayor.

Mr. Coleman moved to Chicago from Cleveland in 1966 to continue his work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a mostly Black, student-run civil rights group. After the organization dissolved, Mr. Coleman began working with Students for a Democratic Society, which had headquarters at 1608 W. Madison, a short distance from the headquarters of the Black Panther Party.

Mr. Coleman became close with Black Panther leader Fred Hampton as a result.

After parting ways with the Students for a Democratic Society over what he viewed as racist conduct within their ranks, Mr. Coleman created the People’s Information Center in Lincoln Park, which functioned as the white arm of the Black Panther Party and aided thousands of poor whites and Latinos who lived on the city’s North Side.

After Hampton was killed by police in 1969, Mr. Coleman established the Intercommunal Survival Collective of the Black Panther Party in Uptown, which was also home to impoverished white families. Its purpose was to begin the same kind of survival programs in the white community — providing food, education and legal assistance — that the Black Panthers started in they city’s Black neighborhoods. The group evolved into the Heart of Uptown Coalition.

One of the radical activists that Mr. Coleman recruited to help in the effort was future 46th Ward Ald. Helen Shiller.

In the 1970s, Mr. Coleman became more active politically and worked to unseat Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, who was in command of the police officers who killed Hampton and fellow Panther leader Mark Clark in the 1969 raid. Mr. Coleman later registered voters to support Washington’s eventual path to the mayor’s office and served as an informal adviser to Washington.

Walter “Slim” Coleman
Walter “Slim” Coleman talks with reporters at the Adalberto United Methodist Church, 1205 N. Milwaukee Avenue, in 1998. Richard A. Chapman / Sun-Times

Mr. Coleman was vehemently opposed to what he viewed as the city’s racist Democratic machine that stood against Washington during the “Council wars” of the 1980s.

Congressman Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther leader who counted Mr. Coleman as one of his best friends, credited Mr. Coleman with helping shape Chicago and the country.

“There would not have been a Harold Washington, there would not have been a Carol Moseley Braun, there would not have been a Barack Obama if not for the singular contribution of Slim Coleman,” Rush said in a statement. “His life will always be a beacon to those who seek a more just and equitable life, and nation.”

Coleman created the “Fair Share” organization with his future wife, Emma Lozano, to fight gentrification in the West Town and Bucktown communities.

Mr. Coleman later became pastor and headed up Adalberto United Methodist Church in Humboldt Park.

He made national headlines in 2006 when he housed undocumented immigrant Elvira Arellano at the church so she could avoid deportation by federal authorities.

Slim Coleman at Adalberto United Methodist Church
Activist Elvira Arellano (center) cradles her 7-year-old son, Saul, in her arms with Pastor Walter “Slim” Coleman (second from right) in a prayer circle at the Adalberto United Methodist Church in 2006. John H. White / Chicago Sun-Times

Mr. Coleman was born Aug. 20, 1943, and grew up in a conservative household in Lubbock, Texas.

His view of the world changed when he was 16 and attended a Bo Diddley concert, where he was one of the only white people in the audience and befriended a Black college student who was a radical activist.

Mr. Coleman attended Harvard University on a scholarship but dropped out shortly before graduation to begin his life in activism (although he later finished his degree).

Mr. Coleman, tall with his slicked-back hair and a Southern drawl, became a recognizable protest leader.

Walter Slim Coleman 2010
Walter ‘Slim’ Coleman speaks to someone attending a City Council meeting in 2010. Al Podgorski / Chicago Sun-Times

He was a champion for the poor whites in Uptown, many of whom had Appalachian roots and were pejoratively cast as the hillbillies of the North Side.

Michael Klonsky, a friend who served as national secretary of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, called him a “supreme organizer.”

“Slim believed the real power was in organization, putting people in the streets and packing people into government meetings, and building alternative institutions that served people and put pressure on mainstream institutions to reform, or otherwise face the fear that radicals like Slim would defeat them,” Klonsky said.

Mr. Coleman also served as an immigration policy aide to former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez.

Walter “Slim” Coleman listen Capitol Hill 2001
The Rev. Raul Martinez (from left) and Walter “Slim” Coleman listen as Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., meets with reporters on Capitol Hill in 2001. Ron Thomas / AP

Helen Shiller’s son, Brendan Shiller, a political policy consultant, remembers growing up in the presence of Mr. Coleman and other activists.

“He was a very smart dude who ended up being around a bunch of other smart dudes during a time and period when it was easy to become radicalized, and when you’re that smart, it’s hard not to have an ego, and he had a huge heart and big brain and lot of ego, and that combination makes you a very driven person,” he said.

An obituary released by his family said that Mr. Coleman left behind a “legacy of community leadership and activism in Chicago on behalf of justice for people and communities fighting for fairness and access to resources and power.”

Mr. Coleman, who died at his home next to the Lincoln United Methodist Church in Pilsen, loved music — mostly country, blues and folk, and playing guitar.

He is survived by his wife, Emma Lozano, and children Robert Rico, Anita Rico, Tanya Lozano, Joline Lozano and Roberto C. Lopez and six grandchildren.

Services are pending.