Washington's victory was unlikely not just because America's second city was one of the nation's most racially balkanized but also because it came at a time when Ronald Reagan and other political conservatives seemed resurgent. Washington's initial win and reelection in 1987 established the charismatic politician as a folk hero. It also bolstered hope among Democrats that the party could win elections by pulling together multiracial urban voters around progressive causes.
Yet what could be called the Washington era revealed clear limits to electoral politics and racial coalition building when decoupled from neighborhood-based movement organizing.Drawing on a rich array of archives and oral history interviews, Gordon K. Mantler offers a bold reexamination of the Harold Washington movement and moment. Taking readers into Chicago's street-level politics and the often tense relationships among communities and their organizers, Mantler shows how white supremacy, deindustrialization, dysfunction, and voters' own contradictory expectations stubbornly impeded many of Washington's proposed reforms. Ultimately, Washington's historic victory and the thwarted ambitions of his administration provide a cautionary tale about the peril of placing too much weight on electoral politics above other forms of civic action—a lesson today's activists would do well to heed.
Gordon K. Mantler is associate professor of writing and history and executive director of the University Writing Program at George Washington University. He is author of Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960–1974.
George Derek Musgrove is associate professor of history and Africana studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His research and teaching examine African American politics in the United States post-1965. He is the author of Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics: How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post-Civil Rights America (University of Georgia Press, 2012). With Chris Myers Asch, he is the coauthor of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), a Kirkus Best Book of 2017. Most recently, Musgrove released Black Power in Washington, D.C. — a web-based map of Black Power activism in the nation’s capital between 1961 and 1998. His commentary and opinions have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Root, as well as on National Public Radio. He lives with his wife and sons in Washington, D.C.