Harold Washington, who died 25 years ago Sunday, wasn’t Chicago’s greatest mayor, or its most powerful. Those honors go, respectively, to Carter Harrison Sr. and Richard J. Daley. But he was the mayor who played the largest role in American history, because of his relationship with a young man he met only once: Barack Obama. If Harold Washington had never been mayor of Chicago, Obama would not be president.
Before Washington, the highest office a black Chicago politician could aspire to was U.S. congressman. Washington showed it was possible to aim higher, and his competent administration demonstrated to whites that the world wouldn’t end if they voted for a black candidate. As a result of Washington's success, Chicago was the one place in America where there were no limits to the ambitions of a young black politician. Obama’s first venture into politics was Project VOTE!, a 1992 voter registration drive that aimed to add 150,000 blacks to the rolls. It was modeled on the registration drive that led to Washington’s election, and it succeeded because Carol Moseley-Braun -- a black politician inspired by Washington -- won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate that year.
When Obama began his political career, in 1995, he wanted to follow Washington’s path. He had it all mapped. He was going to run for the General Assembly, where Washington served from 1965 to 1980, then he was going to run for Congress, then he was going to be mayor of Chicago. It didn’t work out that way, but I’m sure Harold Washington would have been happier with the way it did work out.