Harold Be Thy Name | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Harold Be Thy Name

A new documentary follows Mayor Washington's star.

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By Cara Jepsen

For former speechwriter Brian Boyer, the first years of Harold Washington's administration were like trench warfare. "We used to get down to City Hall before seven," he recalls, "and I don't think we'd ever get out before nine at night. It was like that seven days a week. It was nonstop. It was like a political campaign that never had an election to settle it. But it was a great deal of fun, because Washington wasn't afraid of a fight, so nobody else was either."

A who's who of friends, family, politicians, and observers remember the Washington era in Boyer's documentary-in-progress, Harold Washington: The Council Wars. On Tuesday, the tenth anniversary of Washington's death, the hour-long video will be screened twice: at the Harold Washington Library Center at noon and again at the Duncan YMCA at 6 PM. The video examines Washington's childhood and college years, his career as a state legislator, his trouble with the IRS after failing to file taxes several times during the 60s, his impact on local and national politics as Chicago's first African-American mayor, and the City Council free-for-all that followed his death.

"He was a mystery and a secret to north-siders," says Boyer. "But he was certainly well-known on the south side and came from an enormously respected family in the African-American community. As I learned doing the documentary, he was born into politics. He wasn't a first-generation but a second-generation politician." Washington's mother was a social worker; his father, an attorney, served as a precinct captain and ward committeeman, and ran for alderman. Boyer says Washington combined a "passion for equality" with "the hands-on practical political skill of a politician who's interested in gathering power and wealth."

As a Sun-Times reporter in the late 60s, Boyer got a firsthand look at how power worked in Chicago. In December 1969 he covered the raid on the Black Panthers' west-side headquarters, when Chicago police officers shot and killed activists Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, claiming self-defense. Boyer and Marshall Rosenthal, a writer for the alternative paper The Seed, examined the crime scene. "All the bullet holes were going into the apartment, and none were coming out," he says. Boyer filed his story and headed out for a late dinner, vowing that he would quit if the story were "butchered or buried." He returned to a screaming headline about a gun battle started by Black Panthers who were resisting arrest. Boyer's story had been reduced to three paragraphs on page 32. He quit. Later he got a chance to tell what he'd seen in a special edition of the Chicago Journalism Review; several local reporters had started the publication after the 1968 Democratic Convention convinced them that the city's dailies would not honestly report police brutality. The issue on the Black Panther raid revealed that state's attorney Edward V. Hanrahan had given the Chicago Tribune doctored photographs of the tragedy.

Boyer "starved for a while" before landing a job at the Detroit Free Press as night city editor. His 1974 book Cities Destroyed for Cash: The FHA Scandal at HUD was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and he's coauthored several true-crime books with John Wiseman, one of which (Prince of Thieves) was recently optioned by Hollywood. Boyer worked as a producer for Bill Kurtis's "Special Focus" unit at WBBM TV and for 20/20; eventually he started his own company, Satellite Productions. After winning the 1983 Democratic primary Harold Washington hired Boyer as his traveling press secretary and eventually made him his speechwriter. Writing for Washington was "like bringing coals to Newcastle," says Boyer. "It was wonderful fun because he loved words, loved making speeches. His administration was filled with wordsmiths."

During the two years he worked for Washington, Boyer says, he saw the mayor lose his temper only twice. "The first was during the 1983 campaign, when a hostile person shoved into his hand a scurrilous piece of literature accusing him of being a child molester. If he could have put his hands on the person who did it, I believe he would have killed him." The second time Washington's anger was directed at newsman Walter Jacobson, though Boyer can't recall the incident that set him off. "Jacobson used to peck at him and peck at him and peck at him. It wasn't any one thing he said--it was overall. You have to remember, [Washington] was subject to daily criticism in the press. He realized it came with the territory, but what he especially hated was when false information was given to reporters and they would go ahead and publish it as the truth because it was given to them by Burke or Vrdolyak. And often they would not attribute it."

Boyer says that Alderman Ed Burke and former alderman Ed Vrdolyak refused to be interviewed for his video; during the Council Wars era, machine stalwarts led by the two aldermen controlled the majority of council votes and used their power to block Washington's initiatives. "The political opposition was intent on stopping, reversing, or destroying Washington's administration," says Boyer. "There was a sense that the machine had an inherited right to remain in power, essentially forever. There were 40,000 jobs, the city budget, and contracts at stake. Jane Byrne had come in making promises to reform things. But she didn't have the same base as Washington did, and she wasn't as effective a politician as Washington was. Washington came in vowing to turn it over and change it, and he did. But when you set about doing that sort of thing, you're bound to have a powerful and long-standing disagreement. The fact that the battle still goes on is attested to by the ongoing corruption charges in the City Council."

Yet Boyer himself was accused of questionable ethics in February 1985, when the Tribune reported that Satellite had produced a promotional videotape for Applied Products, a company that had a $3.1 million contract to manufacture garbage cans for the city. According to the Tribune, "Boyer used on-duty city garbage crews and supervisors as actors in the videotaping before it was halted...by Lester Dickinson, commissioner of the Department of Streets and Sanitation." Boyer dropped Applied Products as a client and reimbursed the city for the garbage crews' time. He now says he was not on Washington's payroll when the video was made and refers to the incident as a minor flap, though he says he was startled when the story first appeared. "The media was largely opposed to Harold Washington," says Boyer. "The mayor had no problem with it at all."

In the last decade Boyer has continued to produce and direct documentaries and promotional films; one of them, Bill Kurtis's special on the first 100 days of Newt Gingrich's 104th Congress, aired on the Arts & Entertainment Network in 1995. Boyer says he decided to chronicle Washington's life and career after completing A Still Small Voice, which examined mystical experiences. "I wondered if Washington was enlightened, or if he was a person who had an ineffable experience that changed him. I wanted to know what made him tick. It was less a question of what you come from than how did you get to where you are."

The result is both a personal portrait and a snapshot of a city undergoing immense political upheaval. Senior producer Chris Carr of the Museum of Broadcast Communications has pulled together an impressive collection of news reports, still photos by Antonio Dickey, and rarely seen film footage, and Boyer's interviews explore the racial politics that produced Washington's 1983 upset victory over Byrne and Richard M. Daley in the 1983 primary. One of the video's funniest moments, shot by Reader contributor Bill Stamets, captures Byrne as she leads her supporters in a painfully slow, off-key, and somehow poignant rendition of "Silent Night." Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, a Washington protege, points out that Washington succeeded partly by uniting two segments of the civil rights movement: political figures with a personal interest in power and religious leaders who lacked political savvy. And Monroe Anderson, a former political reporter and one of the few African-Americans working at the Tribune at the time, remembers the night Washington won: "The blacks [at the paper] were delighted. The whites looked as if their mother had died. The Tribune had a huge funk in the air. The few blacks that worked there were so elated... but were afraid to show it."

On the personal side, Washington's fiancee Mary Ella Smith reminisces about Washington's sense of humor, and Washington's brother, Ramon Price, remembers him as a popular and handsome athlete at DuSable High School. Yet Boyer isn't sure the video solves the mystery of Harold Washington: "The closest anyone comes to saying it in the documentary is [Illinois Chief Justice] Charles Freeman. He said that after the tax trouble and other things, Washington decided to do for other people, and he changed. My sense is that Washington had a powerful experience in which he either rediscovered or renewed the promise that he was going to make a difference in the world, and he set out to do it."

Boyer says that Washington slept about four hours a night, read voraciously, and extended his workdays by taking ten-minute catnaps between engagements. "He liked government and politics so much it was never work for him. It was not a sense of somebody forcing themselves to do something. It was more a sense of play, a sense of when you're on a roll and it's so enjoyable you think, 'God, I feel sorry for people who aren't doing this.' That's the sense that Washington had." Yet the video footage clearly shows the pressure taking its toll: at his last public appearance, a ground-breaking ceremony for a south-side housing development, Washington staggers after throwing a shovelful of dirt. He died of a heart attack later that day.

According to Boyer, the tide was turning by the time he left the Washington administration: "The press was starting to take him seriously, and his administration had a very strong hand on city departments and were starting to bring his programs to utilization. The city was no longer going broke. Things were good and getting better. I don't think most Chicagoans or reporters realized the incredible precariousness of city finances when Harold Washington came into office. The city had no money, was about to lose its bond rating. It was paying its bills six months delayed." But the coalition that put Washington in office fractured after he died. "Nobody could put it back together again," says Congressman John Conyers in the video. "That's his final political epitaph--his highest compliment is that it all fell apart."

"Washington had the gift of truth," says Boyer. "Since he had nothing to fear--his conscience was clear on every level--he wasn't afraid to speak the truth as he saw it. He wouldn't go out of his way to be rude to anyone. He was a man of exquisite courtesy. But ask him a direct question, and Washington was compelled to tell the truth." Another of the video's funnier moments is an interview Walter Jacobson conducted at the mayor's home. Jacobson asks Washington to look at some pictures "and tell me what you think of them." Seeing pictures of Burke and Vrdolyak, Washington lets out a string of caustic, G-rated epithets worthy of Jonathan Swift.

In assembling the video Boyer found that Washington had not been forgotten. Most of those who contributed to the documentary worked as volunteers, and while Burke and Vrdolyak wouldn't sit for interviews, others have taken Boyer to task for not including them. "People feel that this was a major part of their lives, that Harold Washington's story is their story and you can't separate the two. And they're right. Washington's life and times is the history of a lot of people. And because I have my poem about him doesn't mean it's the only one that can be done." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Brian Boyer photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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