Saturday, April 14, 2012

Washington’s (as in Harold) birthday

I’m not sure whether to be reassured or see it as hypocritical the ceremonies that were held this past week to mark Thursday – which would have been former Mayor Harold Washington’s 90th birthday anniversary.
WASHINGTON: Harold, Harold!

If he were still alive.

BECAUSE WE ALL know that Harold Washington died at his desk at City Hall on that day before Thanksgiving in 1987. He was not quite 65, but was carrying excessive weight at the time.

Personally, I have faint childhood memories of the Daley (as in Richard J.) years, and can remember the days of Jane Byrne. But a lot of my own political observations began forming in those years of the Washington administration.

I was about to finish high school when he got elected in 1983, and had just finished college at the time of his death in ’87. I remember the ugliness of those years, what we now like to dismiss with the phrase “Council Wars” without having to relive the mean-spiritedness and hatred of the era.

Which may be good. Personally, I don’t feel the need to relive every insult spewed by every political geek (some of whom are still relevant in this century) who was bothered by Washington’s complexion.

OR, AS WASHINGTON himself once joked, “Maybe they don’t like the way I part my hair?”
DAWSON: His legacy in dispute

But when I read the accounts of what happened at the downtown public library (the big building named for Harold Washington himself), it seemed like someone was determined to go to extremes to forget the ugliness.

The theme pushed that day is that modern-day Chicago is very much a product of Harold Washington – even though I’m sure there are many who want to view it as solely the vision of Richard M. Daley and his 22 years as the Man on Five.

Harold got credited for envisioning a Navy Pier that wasn’t a decrepit relic and could actually be the site of a tourist attraction and the idea that there could be a downtown theater district that didn’t consist of theaters showing old pornographic flicks.

PERSONALLY, I THINK as I write this on Friday while the Chicago White Sox are desperately trying to hold onto a lead to win their home opener for 2012 against the Detroit Tigers that this event wouldn’t have happened at U.S. Cellular Field if not for Washington.

He was the one who was insistent that the ball club had a bond to its location between the Bridgeport and Armour Square neighborhoods – at a time when many others would have been eager to ditch the site.

But the Washington years are trivialized if we merely try to remember them for a few projects that became reality and actually succeeded. I believe if Washington himself were to arise from the grave, he’d be the first one to call such trivia nothing but b.s.

I will always believe that the ultimate legacy of those mid-1980s years is that Chicago was forced to confront the possibility that its black population was significant enough to warrant political influence of its own.

THE DAYS OF political people such as William L. Dawson, the long-time South Side congressman who cooperated with the regular Democratic organization (a.k.a., ‘da Machine’) and took the crumbs administered by white leaders for his black district were gone.

Perhaps to crush such a condescending attitude, it took an in-your-face spirit such as Washington’s mayoral stint to make people realize that Chicago would not slide off the face of the prairie and into Lake Michigan just because a non-Irish ethnic person held the top job.

Which in my mind brings us to the present in our federal government, where a  fellow Hyde Park neighborhood resident happens to have the top political post and has encountered partisan hostility from the day he declared his candidacy.

A lot of the activity that comes from the most partisan of Republicans reminds me of the antics of Council Wars, with some of the language toned down. Although a part of me wonders if it will get ratcheted up a few notches should Republicans manage to win majorities in both the House of Representatives AND Senate?
OBAMA: A similar legacy?

WILL WE GET the even-more-blatant hatred that will feel no need to mute itself – because it will believe that it represents a majority of the people (largely because it lives so isolated in our society that it rarely comes into contact with anything unlike itself).

I have consistently believed that we’re now going through on a national level what Chicago went through back in those summers of ’84 and ’85. We’re all going to have to learn that the United States of America isn’t going to the ghetto just because it has a president whose ethnic origins trace (in part) to Kenya.

Which makes me wonder; does this mean some time around the year 2030, we’re going to be getting sanitized tributes to Obama – telling us of his accomplishments while ignoring the fact that a segment of society was determined to thwart him at every turn?

The day we hear a conservative ideologue of the future praise Obama’s health care reform initiative (or criticize it ONLY because it didn’t go far enough) is when we’ll know the revisionists are out to sanitize their nonsense-talk just as much as they’re doing now with their memories of Harold.


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