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Mayor Harold Washington Through the Years, in His Own Words

Daniel Hautzinger
Harold Washington on WTTW's 'Callaway Interviews' in 1980
Harold Washington on WTTW's 'Callaway Interviews' in 1980

"Our guest tonight, State Senator Harold Washington, 54 years old, born in Chicago, elected to the State Senate last year following twelve years in the State House of Representatives. Harold Washington is a practicing attorney, graduated from Northwestern University's law school with honors, did his undergraduate work at Roosevelt University, where he was president of his class and where he is now a lecturer."

That's how John Callaway introduced his guest on a 1977 episode of WTTW's Callaway Interviews before launching into a half-hour interview. To that list of accomplishments, of course, Washington would add mayor of Chicago, as well as U.S. representative. 

Unsurprisingly, Washington made many appearances on WTTW, as both a guest and a topic of conversation. He spoke with Callaway often and in depth, sitting down for the kind of wide-ranging, show-long interview public television is known for at least four times over the course of his increasingly prominent career in state and city politics, culminating in an appearance on the premiere episode of Chicago Tonight in 1984. You can watch notable excerpts from those interviews and others outlined in this story at the bottom of the page.

By then, Washington was mayor, but his first appearance on WTTW (as far as we're aware) was in 1968, on the groundbreaking show Our People, which covered news, arts, and culture in the Black community from 1968-1972. Washington was then a state representative, speaking to host Jim Tilmon about one of his early issues: credit reform, and its disparate effects on impoverished people. (The deleterious effects of credit on people living in poverty continue today.) Washington had already begun to identify the cross-racial coalition that would eventually elect him mayor, realizing that some of the same problems that affected Black people also plagued Latinos and poor whites

When he appeared on Callaway Interviews in 1977, he was making his first run for mayor in a special election to replace Richard J. Daley after his death. Michael Bilandic, who was serving as acting mayor, won the election. In that interview, Washington discussed how his childhood growing up Black in Chicago had shaped him, as well as the lessons his father had imparted and his prediction about what a historian looking back on his potential mayoralty would say about it.

Harold Washington on WTTW's 'Callaway Magazine' in 1983Harold Washington on WTTW's 'Callaway Magazine' in 1983

In 1980, Washington returned to Callaway Interviews, again to speak about the mayoralty, which had passed to Jane Byrne after she surprised observers by defeating Bilandic in 1979. Byrne had been elected in part by the support of African Americans, who had abandoned Bilandic and the Democratic machine, but she tried to consolidate support among white ethnics after the election and alienated the Black community. Washington was furious, and had instituted legislation to allow for a recall, even though Byrne was only eight months into her term. Byrne's failure to name African Americans to positions of power especially galled Washington. "It is too late in the game for one particular ethnic group, non-representative of the city, to continue to have all the power and run this city," he told Callaway. 

Two years later, Washington was running for re-election as U.S. Representative for Illinois's first congressional district, a seat he had won in 1980. Appearing in a WTTW program interviewing various candidates in the elections, conversation with Washington quickly turned away from the election at hand to his mayoral prospects. Again he brought up coalitional politics. "You cannot imagine—I certainly couldn't—any Black candidate confining his dialogue, confining his program or his campaigning or his goals to the Black community."

Washington had ridden his coalition to victory as mayor when he appeared on Callaway Magazine in 1983, and he was clearly still relishing his new role in spite of the obstructionism in City Council that would eventually be known as the Council Wars. He even told Callaway that, "I expect oversight. I demand oversight," pointing out that Chicago finally had a City Council that was not a rubber stamp for the mayor, even if the opposition was rooted in race. (This reverted back to the norm under Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, but aldermen have again begun to find independence under Lori Lightfoot.) 

Chicago Tonight premiered during Washington's first term as mayor, in April of 1984, and he was its first guest, answering questions from Callaway as well as viewers who called in. He was less sanguine about the Council Wars, declaring that, "This mayor is cooperative by nature. This mayor is cooperative by law. This mayor is not a fool." He also bristled at a New York Times reporter's characterization of his feud with Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, the leader of his opposition, especially the reporter's description of Vrdolyak as "white." "I don't use the word 'white' this and 'white' that... just like I often resent the word 'Black mayor'... it's a put-down, it's patronizing." As he launched into a diatribe against Chicago's endemic corruption and his desire to challenge it, time ran out and Callaway ended the show: "Mayor Washington, thank you very much for being our first guest on Chicago Tonight."