When considering the history of black political power, look back and consider what our rise in prominence has done for the greater good of the African American community. Has black political power benefited all African Americans, or just the powerful and wealthy few? Have African American communities grown from this power, or have they continued their steady decline? Are our children going to inherit a brighter future, or will the problems we face today be theirs to solve later?
Unfortunately, the latter of these questions has been true for most of the time since African Americans have gained political power. You could probably name more examples of African Americans abusing their positions of power for their own gain rather than for the advancement of their community. Some of these politicians include former Chicago Alderman Willie Cochran, who was caught stealing city funds meant for poor children and seniors of his community, and Former U.S. Congressman Jessie Jackson Jr. was indicted for using campaign funds for personal use, which included the ridiculous purchases of a Michael Jackson fedora and cashmere capes. These crooked politicians are not exemplary people of our community. They represent greed, thrift, and corruption. They should not be held up as role models for our children to look up to.
And so the question must be asked: is there ONE black political leader that we can turn to in today’s era? This begets another question: what qualities should the person we look up to have? Well, in today’s era of politics a leader of the African American community must be one who is honest, trustworthy, selfless, and someone who speaks truth to power with integrity. Who exemplifies these ideals? Well, let me reintroduce you to one of my role models, someone who personifies these ideals and more: Harold Washington.
Harold Washington was an Illinois State Representative from 1965-1976, an Illinois State Senator from 1976-1980, U.S. Congressman from 1980-1983, and Mayor of Chicago from 1983 until his death in 1987. During his time in the Illinois General Assembly, Washington fought for the passage of a human rights bill in Illinois to protect the vulnerable from discrimination, and as a Congressman he worked to extend the Voting Rights Act despite calls for the law to be eliminated. He also stood against proposed cuts to social programs such as Social Security and Medicare, but what he is most known for was his tenure as Mayor of Chicago, where his struggle to protect and strengthen the African American community met its biggest resistance: the Vrdolyak 29.
It was the way Washington dealt with these racist obstructionists that makes him my role model and a role model for many African American politicians. He didn’t just succumb to their whims and capitulate to their demands—he fought. Using his veto power, along with 21 allies on the Council, he successfully resisted many of Vrdolyak’s maneuvers and proposals, and when a judge in 1986 ordered new wards to be drawn and new elections to be held, Washington had successfully weathered the storm, and had a majority on the Council until his untimely death.
I use Washington as an example of a true leader of the African American community because he always kept people at the heart of what he did as a political leader. He didn’t cozy up to the machine, he didn’t help those that weren’t already struggling, and he didn’t use his position to help his friends. He helped marginalized individuals, those that needed help the most. Too often, African Americans that come into politics with the goal of helping their community end up embedding themselves in the corruption and nepotism that their forefathers would never dare step into. We can no longer afford to be phony. With President Donald Trump reminding us what we stand to lose, we can no longer afford to pretend that every black politician we elect is a saint. We must do better. We cannot continue to do this to ourselves.