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Harold Washington Elected Mayor 30 Years Ago Today

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Mayor Harold Washington

Mayor Harold Washington (Credit: AP)

Updated 04/12/13 – 3:54 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — Thirty years ago today, history was made in Chicago. Harold Washington became the city’s first black mayor.

To honor Washington’s memory, a month-long tribute to the late mayor begins Friday.

The observance includes a “Commemorative Election Reception” Friday night, a number of forums at area universities, and a closing celebration on April 29.

CBS 2’s Jim Williams looks back at Washington’s epic campaign against two other Chicago political heavyweights: then-incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne, and Richard M. Daley, who was then Cook County State’s Attorney, but would become mayor two years after Washington’s death in 1987.

“You want Harold? Well here’s Harold!” Washington said after winning the 1983 mayor’s race.

“For sheer excitement? Nothing like it,” said Roosevelt University political professor Paul Green.

The campaign saw Washington defeat Byrne and Daley in the Democratic primary, then best Republican Bernard Epton, whose campaign slogan “Before It’s Too Late” had fueled racial strife in the city.

It was riveting political theatre.

Jacky Grimshaw, a key political advisor for Washington, said his victory was a moment of “euphoria.”

“It was probably one of the best days of my life,” she said.

Washington’s road to the 5th floor of City Hall had been tumultuous. In the Democratic primary, the two term congressman beat the incumbent mayor, Jane Byrne, and a future mayor, Richard M. Daley, who was also the son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley.

In heavily democratic Chicago, such a victory would have normally meant an easy win in the general election, but not in 1983.

“I think it’s a horserace,” Epton said at the time.

After Washington’s victory in the Democratic primary, many white Democrats jumped ship, supporting the Epton, a little-known Republican state legislator.

Opposition to Washington was, at times, ugly. Grimshaw was his precinct coordinator at the time.

Asked if Washington was discouraged by some of the racism he saw during the campaign, Grimshaw said, “He did not grow up with a bag over his head. He knew what he was facing.”

For his own part, Washington said he was thinking about writing a book about the campaign, and joked the title would be “Barracudas.”

Washington campaigned furiously until Election Day, drawing enormous and wildly enthusiastic crowds, who chanted “We want Harold. We want Harold.”

Still, Green wondered at the time if Washington could pull it off.

“I had seen the poll on that Thursday before the election; Harold Washington was losing.”

Washington himself was confident.

“We’ve run the course, we’ve kept the faith, we’re going to win,” he told a cheering crowd.

On April 12, 1983, by a slim margin of 51.7% to 48.0%, the 60-year-old Washington was proven correct.

Two years later, a young man arrived in Chicago to be a community organizer. President Barack Obama has said Washington’s victory inspired him to come to Chicago, where he started the political career that would vault him to the White House within 12 years of winning his first elected position, as a state senator in 1996.

Washington died in November 1987, just months after winning his second term.