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.
In the mid-1980s, Obama was just out of Columbia University and was looking to build both a career and an identity as a black man. He wanted to live and work in a city where blacks were in charge of their own political destiny. At that time, Harold Washington was the most prominent black elected official in America. Obama wrote a letter to City Hall, asking for a job. He got no response. But when he saw an ad for a community organizer in Chicago, he jumped at it. Years later, accepting the Harold Washington Award from the Congressional Black Caucus, Obama said, “I originally moved to Chicago in part because of the inspiration of Mayor Washington’s campaign.”
Washington contributed to Obama’s success as a community organizer. Unlike administrations before or since, City Hall’s offices were open to do-gooders doing grass-roots work with the poor. Obama’s group, the Developing Communities Project, persuaded the city to open an employment training office on Michigan Avenue in Roseland. Washington attended the dedication, and Obama shook hands with his hero.
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.