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The Multiracial Promise

Harold Washington's Chicago and the Democratic Struggle in Reagan's America

Gordon K. Mantler

Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Imprint: The University of North Carolina Press
Published: 03/2023
Pages: 366
Subject: Political Science, Social Science, History
Print ISBN: 9781469673851
eBook ISBN: 9781469673882


In April 1983, a dynamic, multiracial political coalition did the unthinkable, electing Harold Washington as the first Black mayor of Chicago. 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.