Obama in his University of Chicago law school office with a photo of Harold Washington and a Project Vote poster
Did personal dynamismand not social or political movementspropel our highest-profile black leaders to power?
Originally published in the Chicago Reader on April 10, 2008.
By Michael Miner
January 15, 2009
Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, came out of the south side 25 years ago and took over City Hall. Barack Obama came out of the same place and in a few months may take over the White House. Surely the road from Washington to Obama constitutes a dramatic chapter of Chicago history, and surely Salim Muwakkil would be the right person to explain it to me. I gave him a call.
Muwakkil’s been fascinated by Harold Washington since 1976, when the writer, new to Chicago, heard Washington describe the intrigue in City Hall after Richard J. Daley died as “Kafkaesque.” “I hadn’t heard many Chicago politicians with literary sensibilities,” Muwakkil says. Today he’s a senior editor at Chicago-based In These Times, and Obama is, of course, a preoccupation—but Washington remains one too. Muwakkil provided the text for the recently published Harold! Photographs From the Harold Washington Years, a collaboration with Antonio Dickey, who was Washington’s official photographer, and Marc PoKempner, who took pictures of the mayor for the Reader and other publications.
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Last November 25 was the 20th anniversary of Washington’s death and April 12 is the 25th anniversary of his election as Chicago’s first black mayor. Besides the book, these dates have occasioned a series of forums on Washington’s life and legacy, and Muwakkil has been involved in many of them. (Another forum takes place at the Harold Washington Library on April 12 featuring Gary Rivlin, a former Reader staff writer and author of the Washington chronicle Fire on the Prairie, along with several Washington cabinet members.)
But almost to his own embarrassment, Muwakkil has concluded there is no road: Washington just happened, and years later Obama just happened. “I had initially subscribed to the notion that the people produce the leadership,” he wrote in the March 18 ITT, “but my look back at the Washington years forced a change in my thinking. Washington’s success was largely a product of his personal dynamism and unique political virtuosity.”
As for Obama, Muwakkil perceived that after Hurricane Katrina “many social critics were describing our current racial climate in increasingly dismal terms.” How, then, “to account for white America’s apparent willingness to hand the nation’s reins to a black man”? What changed “is the prominence of a movement created by one black man’s presidential campaign. That movement would not exist without Barack Obama.”
I’m OK with the idea that one person can turn history on its ear (though I suppose it was Lee Harvey Oswald who taught me). Muwakkil is less OK. “I’ve kind of rejiggered my thinking,” he tells me. “I was pretty comfortable with my former beliefs that the movement is all important and you have to organize the people to express their discontent. That’s where my fervor is.”
One chapter of Harold! is titled “The Movement Finds the Man.” But Muwakkil doesn’t believe movements always find what they’re looking for. He calls Washington and Obama each “sui generis,” and although he marvels at Obama’s “absolute uniqueness, both biological and sociological,” which gives him “the bona fides to speak his reconciliation message,” he doesn’t think Obama, back in the day, could have commanded the kind of near-total support from black Chicago that put Washington over. On the other hand, “I don’t think Harold Washington could have ever had the success Barack has had on a national scale.”
Race relations in Chicago were raw and infected in the early 80s when Washington answered the call to run for mayor. Today I think the nation suffers from racial fatigue. When an Al Sharpton is certain to hold a press conference tomorrow to denounce whatever stupid thing a Don Imus says today, surely there’s a feeling among millions of Americans of all races that we’re getting too old for this. And as a black man who seems to think so too, Obama benefits.
Muwakkil agrees up to a point, but he observes that racism isn’t the only sore tooth the country’s nursing. “The discourse might have been that we need a feminine touch,” he reflects, “and now here’s Hillary—she’s the one for that.” A charismatic woman running in wartime as an alternative to default belligerence might have intoxicated young voters the way Obama has. But Hillary Clinton isn’t that woman. Does anyone expect Clinton to respond to men who can’t imagine voting for her with a 37-minute speech on the tangled history of men and women together?
Or John McCain to reflect at length on the place of the old in a society that makes a fetish of youth? McCain, at 72, would be the oldest president ever to move into the White House. Muwakkil sees how his age might work for him: “You could say that with the looming demographic bomb of baby-boomer retirees, we could be looking for some older figure,” he says. “When Bill Clinton was elected I was thinking, ‘Wow, the president is my age.’ It’s always nice to have a president who’s a little older.”
But McCain has been running against his age, and boomers who vote for him because of it are more likely to be in a state of denial than reconciliation.