Historical Highlights

The Resignation of Representative Harold Washington of Illinois

April 30, 1983
The Resignation of Representative Harold Washington of Illinois Image courtesy of Moorland–Spingarn Research Center, Howard University The sixth in a succession of African-American Representatives from his inner-city district, beginning with Oscar De Priest's election in 1928, Harold Washington differed from his predecessors in that he lacked the backing of the Chicago political machine.
On this date, Congressman Harold Washington of Illinois resigned from the House of Representatives to become mayor of Chicago. Before coming to Congress, Washington sharpened his political skills in the Illinois state legislature where he served for 15 years. His rebellious streak and eventual break with the local Democratic machine earned him the respect of many Chicago voters—especially African Americans who increasingly viewed the machine as a vehicle for stifling independent black politicians. In the 1980 Democratic primary, Washington challenged the machine-backed incumbent Representative Bennett Stewart for the majority-black congressional district in Chicago’s South Side. Washington captured nearly 50 percent of the vote and went on to easily defeat his opponent in the general election for a seat in the 97th Congress (1981–1983). During his short career in the House, Washington demonstrated a strong record on civil rights where he helped to negotiate an extension of sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Shortly after winning a second term in Congress in 1982, Washington announced his candidacy for mayor of Chicago. Content with his position in Congress, Washington nonetheless was convinced to run for mayor after a campaign to register voters added more than 100,000 African-American voters to Chicago’s rolls. During the campaign, the Illinois Representative used a grass-roots approach that emphasized his anti-machine record. Drastically outspent by incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley, the son of the late former mayor, Washington stunned his opponents by emerging victorious in the competitive Democratic primary. “The whole nation was watching and Chicago sent a profound message out of the crucible of our city’s most trying election,” Washington declared after his narrow win in the general election capped his historic achievement as the first African-American mayor of Chicago.

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