Some years ago, when Daley was king, I lived and worked for a couple of years in Chicago. After the workday, I sometimes ventured to the predominantly white North Side primarily to hear the wonderful musicians for whom Chicago's nightclubs were a must stop on any national tour. After the singing, however, deep into the night, my talk with friends would drift to politics and the frustration of making the democratic system work there. "In Chicago?" we'd conclude in redundant misery.
It took a while to do it, and the racial and political wounds incurred were the size of the Grand Canyon, but Chicago finally instructed the nation in how to make the democratic system work.
Chicago put into practice the words of Martin Luther King Jr: "We feel that one of the most significant steps that the Negro can take . . . is that short walk to the voting booth."
That the system worked this time for blacks is particularly noteworthy. Blacks have been so disheartened by the system's realities that they have not believed it would work for them. Just before the election, an editorial in a national black weekly newspaper, The National Leader, stated: "Mr. Washington's battle in Chicago . . . should teach the nation a lesson. The lesson is that democracy still is not practiced in America; it only exists in textbooks and classes where naive children exist."
Despite the boldly conspicuous racism of the campaign, I think that line could now be rewritten.
Chicago is a defeat for the cynicism some blacks felt before the campaign, and it enlarged the democratic process because blacks there who have been driven away by the failures of the democratic process have now come back.
Washington's win was a clear signal that after a decade marked by a degree of aimlessness, blacks nationally are again becoming serious about participating in the political process. Right here in the District, young black professionals, as well as established minority businessmen, working with local Democrats, sponsored fund-raisers to raise money for Harold Washington. Deputy Mayor Ivanhoe Donaldson, an experienced political operative, worked for a couple of weeks in Chicago's get-out-the-vote campaign that, with the massive voter registration, laid the foundation for Washington's victory.
The events in Chicago made blacks across the country care what happens to other black people and feel differently about themselves as well. For them, as well as for black Democratic leaders, the drive to elect Washington became a movement, and the high voter turnout is sharply shaping the strategy for l984, including the possible fielding of a black presidential candidate.
But beyond the black leadership, the week's events touched others in unexpected ways. One local professional, Robert Bates, a former worker for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and now a lobbyist for the Mobil Oil Corp., put it this way: "As a boy growing up, when I heard the statement 'Anybody can be president,' I never felt that applied to me. But now I'm finally beginning to believe in that phrase . . . . It's made me feel much better about being part of the political system and about being black--it's uplifted my racial pride."
Bates is part of a group that will a conduct a fund-raiser Wednesday in Washington for Melvin H. King, a black former Massachusetts state representative who will make a second bid to become Boston's mayor in this fall's primary.
But Chicago was not merely a shot in the arm for blacks; it was a victory for all of the people--the Hispanics who increased their turnout sevenfold over the primary, and the whites who disregarded race to join with blacks to give Washington his slim margin of victory.
What happened in Chicago is what people do in a democracy--albeit done to sad and bitter excess. They debated and disagreed and then followed King's dictum and marched into the polls and settled the matter within the privacy of the voting booth--without violence.
So even the losers won, for in expanding the democratic system to include blacks, it was a victory for the process, and when that creaky process works for the formerly excluded, its potential worth is expanded for all.