Washington grew up the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, at the time the epicenter of black culture in the city. He attended DuSable High School, then a new segregated high school, and was a member of the first graduating class. In a 1939 citywide track meet, Washington placed first in the 110 meter high hurdles event, and second in the 220 meter low hurdles event. Between his junior and senior year of high school, Washington dropped out, saying that he no longer felt challenged by the classwork. He worked at a meat packing plant for a time before his father helped him get a job at the U.S. Treasury. There he met Dorothy, whom Washington nicknamed "Peaches" after her peach fuzz. They married soon after—Washington was 19, and Dorothy 17. Seven months later, the U.S. was drawn into World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
In 1942, Washington was drafted into the war and sent overseas as part of a segregated unit of the Air Force Engineers. In the Philippines, Washington was a part of a unit building runways. Although he preferred combat, at the time blacks were considered neither courageous nor smart enough for combat duty. Eventually, Washington rose to the rank of First Sergeant in the Air Force. In her biography of Harold Washington, Florence Hamlish Levinsohn surmises that the three years Washington spent in the South Pacific fighting for democracy while experiencing racial prejudice and discrimination helped shape Washington's views on racial justice in the mayoral run to come.
Washington joined other groups of students not permitted to be enrolled in other local colleges. Asians were not accepted, and Jews were under quotas at the nearby University of Chicago. Local estimates place the population of the college, 3,948 people strong, at about 1/8 black, 1/2 Jewish, with other races making up the balance. A full 75% of the student had enrolled because of "nondiscriminatory progressive principles."
By December 1946, Washington had fully involved himself in activities at Roosevelt. He chaired a fund-raising drive by students, and then was named to a committee that supported citywide efforts to outlaw restrictive covenants, which were the legal means by which minorities were prohibited from leaving their ghettos.
In 1948, after the college had moved to the Auditorium Theatre, Washington was elected the third president of Roosevelt's student council. Under his leadership, the student council successfully petitioned the college to have representation on Roosevelt's faculty committees. At the first regional meeting of the newly founded National Student Association in the spring of 1948, Washington and nine other delegates proposed student representation on faculties, and a "Bill of Rights" for students; both measures were roundly defeated.
The next year, Washington went to Springfield to protest Illinois legislators' coming probe of "subversives". The probe would outlaw the Communist Party and require loyalty oaths for teachers. He led students' opposition to the bills, although they would pass later in 1949.
During his Roosevelt College years, Washington came to be known for his stability. His friends said that he had a "remarkable ability to keep cool", reason carefully and walk a middle line. Washington intentionally avoided extremist activities, including street actions and sit-ins against segregated restaurants and businesses. Overall, Washington and other radical activists ended up sharing a mutual respect for each other, acknowledging both Washington's pragmatism and the activists' idealism. With the opportunities found only at Roosevelt College in the late 1940s, Washington's time at Roosevelt proved to be a pivotal point in his life and the city's history.
At Northwestern, Washington was the only black in his class. (He joined six women in the class, one of them being Dawn Clark Netsch). As in Roosevelt, he entered school politics. In 1951, his last year, he was elected treasurer of the Junior Bar Association (JBA). The election was largely symbolic, however, and Washington's attempts to give the JBA more authority at Northwestern were largely unsuccessful.
On campus, Washington joined the Nu Beta Epsilon fraternity, largely because he and the other minorities which constituted the fraternity were blatantly excluded from the other fraternities on campus. Overall, Washington stayed away from the activism that defined his years in Roosevelt. During the evenings and weekends, he worked to supplement his GI Bill income. He graduated in 1952.
While working under Metcalfe, Washington began to organize the 3rd Ward's Young Democrats (YD) organization. One of the primary purposes in doing so was to establish a key political base separate from the Democratic Machine, yet integral to the Machine's success in the predominately black wards. At YD conventions, the 3rd Ward would push for numerous black resolutions. Eventually, other black YD organizations would come to the 3rd Ward headquarters for advice on how to run their own organizations. Like he had at Roosevelt College, Washington avoided radicalism and preferred to work through the party to invoke change.
While working with the Young Democrats, Washington met Mary Ella Smith. They dated for the next 20 years, and in 1983 Washington proposed to Smith in an attempt to silence questions about Washington's sexual orientation. In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Smith said that she never pressed Washington for marriage because she knew Washington's first love was politics, saying, "He was a political animal. He thrived on it, and I knew any thoughts of marriage would have to wait. I wasn't concerned about that. I just knew the day would come."
In 1960, with Lemuel Bentley, Bennett Johnson, Luster Jackson and others, Washington founded the Chicago League of Negro Voters. The organization was one of the first to challenge the Machine; in its first election, Bentley drew 60,000 votes for city clerk. After dropping out of view after the elections, it resurfaced as the group Protest at the Polls in 1963. Again, Washington participated in the background planning process, not risking losing support from the Machine, but still trying to further the progressive goals of 3rd Ward YDs. By 1967, the independent candidates had gained traction within the black community, winning several aldermanic seats; by 1983, the League of Negro Voters would be instrumental in Washington's run for Mayor. By then, the YDs had begun to lose influence in the party, as more black voters separated from the Machine and supported independents.
Washington's years in the House were marked by constant tension with Daley and the rest of the Machine leadership. In 1967, he was ranked by the Independent Voters of Illinois (IVI) as the fourth-most independent legislator in the house and named Best Legislator of the Year. His defiance of the "idiot card", a sheet of paper that directed legislators' votes on every issue, attracted the attention of party leaders, who moved to remove Washington from his legislative position. Daley often told Metcalfe to dump Washington as a candidate, but Metcalfe did not want to risk losing the 3rd Ward's Young Democrats, who were more aligned to Washington than to the Machine.
In one particular spat, Washington backed Renault Robinson, a black police officer and one of the founders of the Afro-American Patrolmen's League (AAPL). The aim of the APPL was to fight racism directed against minority officers by the rest of the predominately-white department. Soon after the creation of the group, Robinson was written up for minor infractions, suspended, reinstated, and then placed on the graveyard shift to a single block behind central police headquarters. Robinson approached Washington to fashion a bill creating a civilian review board, consisting of both patrolmen and officers, to monitor police brutality. Both black independent and white liberal legislators refused to back the bill, fearing to challenge Daley's stronghold on the police force.
After Washington announced he would support the AAPL, Metcalfe refused to protect him from Daley. Washington believed he had the support of John Touhy, Speaker of the House and a former party chair. Instead, Touhy criticized Washington and then allayed Daley's anger. In exchange for the party's backing, Washington would serve on the Chicago Crime Commission, the group Daley formed to investigate the AAPL's charges. The commission promptly found the AAPL's charges "unwarranted". An angry and humiliated Washington admitted that on the commission, he felt like Daley's "showcase nigger".
In 1969, Daley removed his name from the slate; only by the intervention of Cecil Partee, a party loyalist, was Washington's name placed back on the slate. That year, the Machine quietly supported Jim Taylor, a former professional boxer, Streets and Sanitation worker, and barely literate Daley figurehead, over Washington. With Partee and his own ward's support, Washington defeated Taylor.
His years in the House were focused on becoming an advocate for black rights. He continued work on the Fair Housing Act, and worked to strengthen the state's Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). In addition, he worked on a state Civil Rights Act, which would strengthen employment and housing provisions in the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. In his first session, all of his bills were sent to committee or tabled. Like his time in Roosevelt College, Washington relied on parliamentary tactics (e.g., writing amendments guaranteed to fail in a vote) to enable him to bargain for more concessions.
Washington also passed bills honoring civil rights figures. He passed a resolution honoring Metcalfe, his mentor. He also passed a resolution honoring James J. Reeb, a priest who was beaten to death in Selma, Alabama by a segregationist mob. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., he introduced a bill aimed at making King's birthday a state holiday; it was tabled and later vetoed. It was not until 1973 that Washington was able, with Partee's help in the Senate, to have the bill enacted and signed by the governor.
As the years passed, Washington voted more in line with the Machine, partially for fear of losing its support and patronage army. By 1975, the IVI ranked Washington 42nd in the House. On the most controversial votes (e.g. a 1967 bill that would ban picketing on public streets, aimed at anti-Daley protests by members of the civil rights movement), Washington had taken to not voting as a means of voicing his protest, without casting a vote against the Machine.
In 1975, Washington was named chairman of the Judiciary Committee with the election of William A. Redmond as Speaker of the House. The same year, Partee, now President of the Senate and eligible for his pension, decided to retire from the Senate. Although Daley and Taylor declined at first, at Partee's insistence, Washington was slated for the seat and received the party's support. In 1976, Washington was elected to the Illinois Senate.
A letter asking Washington to explain the matter was sent on January 5, 1967. After failing to respond to numerous summons and subpoenas, the commission recommend a five-year suspension on March 18, 1968. A formal response to the charges did not occur until July 10, 1969. In his reply, Washington said that "sometimes personal problems are enlarged out of proportion to the entire life picture at the time and the more important things are abandoned." In 1970, the Board of Managers of the Chicago Bar Association ruled that Washington's license be suspended for only one year, not the five recommended; the total amount in question between all six clients was $205.
In 1971, Washington was charged with failure to file tax returns for four years, although the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) claimed to have evidence for nineteen years. (Top campaign aides would later say that nineteen was closer to the truth). Judge Sam Perry noted that he was "disturbed that this case ever made it to my courtroom"—while Washington had paid his taxes, he ended up owing the government a total of $508 as a result of not filing his taxes. Typically, the IRS handled such cases in civil court, or within its bureaucracy. Washington pleaded "no contest" and was sentenced to forty days in Cook County Jail, a $1,000 fine, and three years probation. (By comparison, a prominent, well-connected Chicago attorney was charged with not filing from 1973–1975; he was neither prosecuted, nor charged a penalty.)
The bill's origins began in 1970 with the rewriting of the Illinois Constitution. The new constitution required all governmental agencies and departments to be reorganized for efficiency. Republican governor James R. Thompson reorganized low-profile departments before his re-election in 1978. In early 1979, during the early portions of Thompson's term and immediately in the aftermath of the largest vote for a gubernatorial candidate in the state's history, he called for the human rights reorganization.
The Machine recognized a bill to enforce nondiscrimination as a threat to its existence. In addition, the bill would consolidate and remove some agencies completely, eliminating a number of political jobs the Machine could offer to its loyalists. In addition, many Democratic legislators would vote down a human rights measure backed by Thompson and other Republican legislators. For many years, human rights had been a campaign issue brought up and backed by Democrats. The Machine also had no interest in helping to further shine Washington's record.
Thompson's staffers brought the bill to Washington and other black legislators before it would be presented to the floor. He made adjustments in anticipation of some legislators' concerns regarding the bill, before speaking for it in April 1979. After the Machine spoke about against the bill, Washington brought in both black and white liberal opinion makers to explain how they felt about the bill. On May 24, 1979, the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 59 to one, with two voting present and six absent. The victory in the highly conservative Senate was attributed by a Thompson staffer to Washington's "calm noncombative presentation".
However, the bill stalled in the house. Congressman Susan Catania insisted on attaching an amendment to allow women guarantees in the use of credit cards; her effort was assisted by Machine operatives Jim Taylor and Gerald Bullock. In the meantime, Taylor and Bullock introduced over one hundred amendments, including the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, to try and stall the bill; this effort was assisted by Carol Moseley Braun, a civil rights advocate and liberal from Hyde Park. With Catania's amendment, the bill passed the House, but the Senate refused to accept the amendment. On June 30, 1979 the legislature adjourned.
Washington continued to work through the summer and fall supporting the bill. A governor's staffer recognized that it was crucial to have "a strong, articulate, respected black person to say that this was a good bill." In addition, Washington recognized the bill as the culmination of years of work in the legislature; he would not allow the bill to fail.was up
In the February 22, 1983 Democratic mayoral primary, community organizers registered more than 100,000 new African American voters, while the white vote was split between the incumbent mayor Jane Byrne and the other challenger, Richard M. Daley, son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. Washington won with 37% of the vote, versus 33% for Byrne and 30% for Daley.
Although winning the Democratic primary is normally tantamount to election in heavily Democratic Chicago, after his primary victory Washington found that his Republican opponent, former state legislator Bernard Epton (earlier considered a nominal stand-in), was supported by many white Democrats and ward organizations, including the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, Alderman Edward "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak. Epton's campaign referred to, among other things, Washington's conviction for failure to file income tax returns. (He had paid the taxes, but had not filed a return.) However, Washington appealed to his constituency in his mayoral political campaign, and stressed such things as reforming the Chicago patronage system and the need for a jobs program in a tight economy. In the April 22, 1983 mayoral general election, Washington defeated Epton by 3.7%, 51.7% to 48.0%, to become mayor of Chicago. Washington was sworn in as mayor on April 29, 1983, and resigned his Congressional seat the following day.
Washington's first term in office was characterized by ugly, racially polarized battles dubbed "Council Wars", referring to the then-recent Star Wars films. A 29–21 City Council majority refused to enact Washington's reform legislation and prevented him from appointing reform nominees to boards and commissions. Other first-term items include overall city population loss, increased crime, and a massive decrease in ridership on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). This helped earn the city the nickname "Beirut on the Lake", and many people wondered if Chicago would ever recover or face the more permanent declines of other cities in the U.S. Midwest.
The twenty-nine, also known as the Vrdolyak Twenty-nine, was led by "the Eddies": Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, Finance Chair Edward Burke and Parks Commissioner Edmund Kelly. The Eddies were supported by State's Attorney Richard M. Daley, U.S. Congressmen Dan Rostenkowski and William Lipinski, and other powerful white Democrats.
Washington ruled by veto. The twenty-nine could not get the thirtieth vote they needed to override Washington's veto; African American, Latino and white liberal aldermen supported Washington despite pressure from the Eddies. Meanwhile, in the courts, Washington kept the pressure on to reverse the redistricting of City Council wards that white Democrats had pushed through during the Byrne years. Finally, when special elections were ordered in 1986, victorious Washington-backed candidates gave him the 25–25 split he needed. His vote as chairman of the City Council enabled him to break the deadlock and enact his programs.
Washington defeated former mayor Jane Byrne in the February 24, 1987 Democratic mayoral primary by 7.2%, 53.5% to 46.3%, and in the April 7, 1987 mayoral general election defeated Vrdolyak (Illinois Solidarity Party) by 11.8%, 53.8% to 42.8%, with Northwestern University business professor Donald Haider (Republican) getting 4.3%, to win reelection to a second term as mayor. Cook County Assessor Thomas Hynes (Chicago First Party), a Daley ally, dropped out of the race 36 hours before the mayoral general election. During Washington's short second term, the Eddies fell from power: Vrdolyak became a Republican, Kelly was removed from his powerful parks post, and Burke lost his power as finance chair.
Thousands of Chicagoans attended his wake in the lobby of City Hall between November 27 and November 29, 1987. On November 30 Rev. B. Herbert Martin officiated Washington's "upbeat, hard-clapping funeral service" in Christ Universal Temple at 119th Street and Ashland Avenue in Chicago. After the service, Washington was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side of Chicago.
Immediately after Washington's death, rumors about how Washington died began to surface. On January 6, 1988, Dr. Antonio Senat, Washington's personal physician, denied "unfounded speculations" that Washington had cocaine in his system at the time of his death, or that foul play was involved. Cook County Medical Examiner Robert J. Stein performed an autopsy on Washington and concluded that Washington had died of a heart attack. Washington had weighed , and suffered from hypertension, high cholesterol levels, and an enlarged heart. On June 20, 1988 Alton Miller again indicated that drug reports on Washington had come back negative, and that Washington had not been poisoned prior to his death. Dr. Stein stated that the only drug in Washington's system had been lidocaine, which is used to stabilize the heart after a heart attack takes place. The drug was given to Washington either by paramedics, or by doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hosipital.
In protest of Washington's perceived "deification" by the city and citizens of Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago student David Nelson painted Mirth & Girth, a caricature that depicted Washington wearing women's lingerie and holding a pencil. The painting kicked off a First Amendment and civil rights controversy between Art Institute students and African-American aldermen. Nelson and the ACLU eventually split a US$95,000 (1994, US$138,000 in 2008) settlement from the city.
Despite the bickering in City Council, Washington seemed to relish his role as Chicago's ambassador to the world. At a party held shortly after his re-election on April 7, 1987, he said to a group of supporters, "In the old days, when you told people in other countries that you were from Chicago, they would say, 'Boom-boom! Rat-a-tat-tat!' Nowadays, they say [crowd joins with him], 'How's Harold?'!"
In later years, various city facilities and institutions would be renamed after the late mayor to commemorate his legacy. The new building housing the main branch of the Chicago Public Library, located at 400 South State Street, was named the Harold Washington Library Center (the former main library becoming the Chicago cultural center). The former Loop College in downtown Chicago was renamed Harold Washington College. In addition to the downtown facilities, the 40,000 square-foot Harold Washington Cultural Center was opened to the public in August 2004, in the historic South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville, at 4701 S. King Drive. Across from the Hampton House apartments where Washington lived, a city park was renamed Harold Washington Park, which was known for "Harold's Parakeets", a colony of wild parakeets that inhabited an ash tree in the park.