I know Mayor Harold Washington’s birthday is April 15, but our students have chosen to observe it on the 14th. I write this post in his honor to coincide with our students’ observance.
Mayor Washington is one of the reasons I chose to make Chicago my home, and why I am so proud to lead the institution named in his honor. I loved Mayor Washington because he loved Chicago more than I do. Some people want to be Mayor because they want to fix things, or help accomplish things for the voters. Others seek the power for less salutary reasons. In my opinion, the greatest Mayors seek the office because with all of their heart they love the city and its citizens. Mayor Washington was one of those Mayors.
Mayor Washington was a man of courage. Two decades before President Obama chose to believe that Americans could see past race and elect a man based on the content of his character, Mayor Washington believed that about Chicago. Chicago, arguably one of the segregated cities in the nation, and among the most racially divided at the time of his election, rose above those issues and elected its first black Mayor. In the face of that resistance, he chose, at great risk, to rise above the racial politics and become Mayor of all Chicagoans. He had lived through the insults and the anger of what some believed was his “presumptuous” run for Mayor. He was called names and insulted and threatened in parts of this city. His quote from our lobby, after you know this history, brings home how much he spoke from experience: I dare you to become great. I challenge you to reach the outer limits of your ability to learn, think and achieve. I dare you to suffer against the odds to work, suffer, and sacrifice to make your dream come true. After his election, even with Council Wars and the rancor, he kept loving Chicago and kept believing in our better angels. Mayor Washington fought to make Chicago a greater city, and Chicago is greater for having him as our Mayor.
I was a college student when Mayor Washington was elected, and I was so happy to be a Chicagoan that election night. I called my friends and family in other cities to tell them, in wonder, “Did you see what Chicago did tonight? Did you ever believe this could happen in Chicago?” I decided then that I wanted to be a part of this great city, not just a visitor. I lived for a short while across the park from Mayor Washington’s apartment building in Hyde Park. I would walk by with friends and point out to them “where our Mayor lives. He lives in MY neighborhood.”
Today, I bring friends and family to tour our campus, eager to show off the students and faculty and staff who work hard every day. Upon occasion, I pause to read the quote on the poster on the right side of the lobby, the one with him reading the Sun-Times. It reminds me of what our faculty and staff do every day for our students: That which we do to help others succeed, aid our own success. On this, the eve of Mayor Washington’s birthday, I thank the faculty and staff of Harold Washington College who work hard every day to help our students succeed. I know Mayor Washington would be proud of you. I am.