The Multiracial Promise: Harold Washington's Chicago and the Democratic Struggle in Reagan's America

Gordon K. Mantler

In this bold reexamination of the Harold Washington movement and moment, the election of the first Black mayor of Chicago reveals both the promise of multiracial coalition in the 1980s and the peril of placing too many resources in electoral politics alone. A dynamic coalition did the unthinkable, electing Washington not once, but twice, in one of the most balkanized cities in the United States. His electoral victories not only established the charismatic Black politician as a folk hero, but also underscored the great potential for the era’s progressive, mostly Democratic urban politics when Ronald Reagan and other political conservatives appeared resurgent. Yet what could be called the Washington era revealed clear limits to electoral politics when decoupled from neighborhood-based movement organizing. Drawing on a rich array of archives, oral histories, periodicals, and other sources, the book paints a rich tapestry of Chicago politics, including how white supremacy, deindustrialization, dysfunction, and voters’ own contradictory expectations stubbornly impeded many of the administration’s reforms. Ultimately, Washington’s historic victory and administration proved a cautionary tale about the risks of placing too much weight on electoral victories above other civic action – a lesson activists may want to heed in the 21st century.

Where to Buy: