On July 10, 1966, more than 30,000 people streamed into Soldier Field for a kick-off rally held by the Chicago Freedom Movement. It would be that year’s largest civil rights demonstration.
After listening to gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, and a young Detroit talent named Stevie Wonder, the predominantly black crowd welcomed Martin Luther King Jr., the keynote speaker, with thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
King spoke about the open-housing campaign that had become the movement’s focus. In the weeks following the rally, King and hundreds of others braved angry mobs of thousands—including some that hurled rocks and threats—to open real-estate markets in white neighborhoods to blacks. Those marches punctured a national illusion that racism was confined to the South.
During the rally, King also issued a pointed challenge to Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Democratic Party machine. “This day, we must decide to register every Negro in Chicago of voting age before the  municipal election,” King said. “This day, we must decide that our votes will determine who will be the mayor of Chicago next year.”
Black voters did not determine Chicago’s mayor until 1983—16 years later than King had predicted—and America was watching Chicago again.
In the early hours of April 13, 1983, Harold Washington and his fiancée Mary Ella Smith started toward Donnelley Hall at 23rd Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. A crowd of about 15,000 supporters, already hoarse from shouting Washington’s name, had been waiting all evening for his arrival.
Washington, whose campaign led to a strengthened black electorate, had toppled incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley in a bitterly contested primary. In the general election, Washington weathered tepid support from the Democratic Party, child molestation accusations and racially charged campaign rhetoric from Republican opponent Bernard Epton.
As Chicago’s first black mayor-elect strode toward the podium, his arms aloft in victory, his supporters chanted, “Harold! Harold!”
After the din subsided, Washington spoke about what his election meant: “Today, Chicago has seen the bright daybreak for this city and for perhaps the entire country. The whole nation is watching, and Chicago has sent a powerful message. Oh, yeah!”
Although inequitable social conditions in Chicago have remained largely the same since the 1960s and the 1980s, the messages sent by Chicago’s black communities have been much less powerful since Washington’s sudden death in November 1987. In the nearly 20 years since, black activism in Chicago has failed to reclaim the national spotlight, and black civic engagement has dropped substantially in the city.
Longtime activists and observers offer a range of reasons for the dip, including a leadership void, insufficient teaching of black activist tradition and the changed composition of Chicago’s black communities.
“In the 1960s, there was activism on many fronts, not just racial,” said Paul Green, director of the School of Politics at Roosevelt University. “In the 1980s activism was much more narrow. It was not so much ideology and idealism, but a grasping for power. [Washington] was the catalyst; when Harold Washington passed away prematurely, the movement passed.”
Black activism thrived in the years preceding the Chicago Freedom Movement and Washington’s death.
Starting in the early 1960s, hundreds of thousands of parents of black schoolchildren focused their energies on ousting public schools Superintendent Benjamin Willis, whose derisive attitude and inequitable appropriation of resources sparked mass action. Rather than reallocating students to alleviate overcrowding in predominantly black schools, Willis had those schools hold double sessions and build mobile classrooms, dubbed “Willis Wagons.”
A coalition of several black organizations formed the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations and opposed Willis. The council’s initial actions included marches, sit-ins and massive boycotts. On Oct. 22, 1963, more than 200,000 students boycotted school; four months later, on Feb. 25, 1964, about 175,000 students did the same. “We went house to house, community to community, church to church,” said the Rev. Willie Barrow, co-chairman of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. “People were ready because they wanted a voice. When people are looking for a voice, there is a lot of mumbling in the community. When [other] people speak out, they join them.”
The council’s activities were a major reason why King chose Chicago as the site of his first civil rights campaign in the North, according to James R. Ralph Jr., author of “Northern Protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago and the Civil Rights Movement.”
“I want to join –¦ what I consider a very significant struggle,” King said at a July 1965 rally. In January 1966, King moved to the city’s West Side to begin the campaign.
Like King, Washington was moved by the mass action of black Chicagoans. A two-term congressman, Washington initially showed no interest in leaving Washington, D.C. He said he would only agree to run for mayor if a minimum of 50,000 new voters were registered and a war chest of between $250,000 and $500,000 was raised. Washington did not expect his demands to be met, Barrow said. “I think we really surprised him,” she said.
A broad coalition of organizations spearheaded a registration effort that saw more than 230,000 voters added to the rolls, according to Washington biographer and friend Dempsey Travis. Although supporters were unable to reach his fundraising demands, Washington bowed to public pressure and entered the race on Nov. 10, 1982.
His supporters included, among others, African Americans of varying economic classes; the middle-class, the working poor and public housing residents. That mix helped Washington garner 81 percent of the black vote in the 1983 Democratic primary. He squeezed by Byrne and Daley with 37 percent of the nearly 1.2 million votes cast. Washington captured nearly 425,000 votes—about 36,000 more than Byrne, the runner-up.
In the general election, which saw record voter turnout of 79 percent, Washington received 98 percent of the black vote. Overall, he netted more than 668,000 votes—about 48,000 more than Epton.
Extensive national attention followed. Television stalwarts like Ted Koppell and Charles Kuralt, as well as reporters from The New York Times and The Washington Post covered the mayoral contest.
Black engagement in civic affairs continued, as well. In his book, “Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race,” Gary Rivlin quoted one source saying, “You walk up and down 47th Street and you got dope fiends and wine heads and prostitutes and folk hanging out on the corner discussing the damn city budget or who was appointed to sit on some board.”
In 1987, Washington won a more decisive election victory over Alderman Ed Vrydolyak. Having secured support from a majority of aldermen in the City Council, Washington looked forward to a lengthy tenure, according to Alton Miller’s book “Harold Washington: The Mayor, the Man.” When asked about his post-mayoral plans, Washington leaned back in his chair and smiled broadly.
“Shit,” Washington declared. “I’m going to be mayor for life and die at my desk.” Washington said he looked forward to governing until 2003. But, like King’s prediction of black electoral clout, Washington’s forecast was off by 16 years. On Nov. 25, 1987, he suffered a massive heart attack and died at his desk. Black activism in Chicago has not been the same since.
Votes garnered by African American mayoral candidates have plummeted in the 20 years since Washington’s first election, reaching its lowest point in 2003 when the Rev. Paul L. Jakes Jr. received nearly 65,000 votes, a more than tenfold drop from Washington’s 1983 total.
“After the death of Harold Washington –¦ things came to a halt, not in any organized fashion despite the efforts of people like Jesse Jackson,” said Timuel D. Black, a community leader who marched with King and was a key figure in the 1982 voter registration effort that led to Washington’s first campaign. “The feeling has just not been there. The unity is not there.”
Harold Rogers, chairman of the African-American Studies Department at Olive-Harvey College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, attributed what he sees as the lower levels of civic engagement to a combination of changed family structure, greater concern with material possessions and a more globally oriented economy.
Green of Roosevelt University noted that the composition of the black community has shifted in the nearly 20 years since Washington’s demise—a change that has impacted the level of civic engagement. “More blacks have moved to suburbs than whites, percentage-wise, in the past two decades,” Green said. “There is class element to [the decline]. Washington galvanized a lot of folks who hadn’t seen any prospects for change.”
Bishop Arthur M. Brazier, pastor of Apostolic Church of God and a veteran of social justice struggles, pointed out that there is no unifying figure around whom African Americans can rally, as they did around Washington. “We have a lot of leaders, [but] each one has his mind of various things,” he said. “We may have regressed because we have a lot of leaders, and no one person we can coalesce around.”
The Rev. Al Sampson, pastor of Fernwood United Methodist Church in the Washington Heights community, said that having many black leaders is a positive feature for a changed social landscape. “The good thing about it is there’s a large enough army of leadership on many levels that is doing so much,” said Sampson, who worked with King and was a member of the Task Force for Black Political Empowerment. He cited individuals like 3rd Ward Alderman Dorothy Tillman, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. of Trinity United Church of Christ and young hip-hop activists.
But, unlike the social movements of the 1960s, which focused on legislation to create access and opportunity, today’s movements must focus on economics and international issues, Sampson said. “It’s economics now because the barriers of access have opened up doors and now it’s costing somebody to stay in the door and go into these particular institutions that historically have locked us out,” he said.
The Rev. Addie Wyatt, emeritus pastor at Vernon Park Church of God in the Calumet Heights neighborhood, said many African Americans must learn more about their civil rights history. “We learned about our pioneers,” Wyatt said. “We used to sit down together in meetings, in our homes, community places, labor movement places … [and] they taught us about the struggle, how we could improve our lives by uniting together and organizing.
“[Today] people don’t know the history, don’t know those who are still here and who have been there to communicate, to learn from them, to be challenged,” Wyatt said.
But some people are trying to learn from the city’s past and rekindle the flames of activism that raged so fiercely in the 1960s and 1980s.
Dale Asis, director of the Coalition of African, Arab, Asian, European and Latino Immigrants, said the immigrant community has been consciously reaching out to African American organizations to identify areas of collaboration. Along with six other organizations, the group sponsored a June forum at the Mexican Fine Arts Museum. Participants sought to understand how Washington and others promoted and built a multi-racial coalition as a way to be effective now. Asis said: “[We want] to spark ideas and build those bridges, not only of the past, but really of the current [situation]. The past inspires us, but we are more pragmatic.”
Kale Williams, former head of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, a product of King’s Chicago Freedom Movement, and others in the movement are seeking to accomplish a similar purpose during a conference in July.
Titled “Fulfilling the Dream: The Fortieth Anniversary of the Chicago Freedom Movement, 1966-2006,” the sessions at the Harold Washington Cultural Center in Bronzeville will honor and tap the knowledge of experienced activists while convening forums to help younger people deal with contemporary concerns. “Three-fourths of the conference and activities will be on the current issues,” Williams said. “We are just using the history to add some richness and interest to it.”
And William “Dock” Walls III, a former Washington aide, announced his candidacy for mayor in late April.
Although acknowledging that he expects his base to be strongest in the black community, Walls said his message of multi-cultural unity and citywide economic development is resonating throughout Chicago. Voters support candidates they “know, like and trust,” according to Walls, who said he started campaign preparations more than three years before the election. This gave him sufficient time to build those relationships and succeed where black candidates like Jakes and U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush had previously failed, he said.
“My job has to be to compel [people] to act,” he said.