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Fire on the Prairie

Harold Washington, Chicago Politics, and the Roots of the Obama Presidency

Gary Rivlin

Publication Year: 2012

Harold Washington’s historic and improbable victory over the vaunted Chicago political machine shook up American politics. The election of the enigmatic yet engaging Washington led to his serving five tumultuous years as the city’s first black mayor. He fashioned an uneasy but potent multiracial coalition that today still stands as a model for political change.

In this revised edition of Fire on the Prairie, acclaimed reporter Gary Rivlin chronicles Washington’s legacy—a tale rich in character and intrigue. He reveals the cronyism of Daley’s government and Washington’s rivalry with Jesse Jackson. Rivlin also shows how Washington’s success inspired a young community organizer named Barack Obama to turn to the electoral arena as a vehicle for change. While the story of a single city, , this political biography is anything but parochial.

Published by: Temple University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-vi

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Foreword to the Revised Edition

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pp. vii-xi

Think back for a moment to that truly historic Democratic primary race. Recall for a moment that eloquent African American candidate who threw his hat into the ring against two popular white candidates with big political names. Many questioned the audacity of his effort to unseat the favorite, a famously tenacious and ...

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Introduction to the Revised Edition. Forging Barack Obama: Harold Washington, Chicago, and the Politics of Race

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pp. xiii-xxix

Arriving in Chicago in the summer of 1985, twenty-three-year-old Barack Obama was a seeker. Son of an American anthropologist and a Kenyan civil servant—in their respective ways, they had also been seekers— Obama was a young man who had dabbled in a fairly typical series of adolescent and postadolescent ...

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p. xxxi-xxxi

First, Larry Bennett, who played any number of roles in the making of this book. He served as one of my readers back when, offering feedback to an early draft of this book, and then more recently played the role of handmaiden in the birth of this new and improved version of Fire on the Prairie. As if that ...

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pp. 1-2

Long before sunrise, people jammed the sprawling grounds of the Christ Universal Church on Chicago’s south side. A pair of black women, both well past sixty, had been the first to arrive, there since five o’clock the previous evening. Others soon joined them as twilight gave way to a raw November night. Word ...

Book I. A Racial Thing, 1983

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1. A Cry in the Wind

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pp. 5-15

From off the prairie the man arrived, settling at the bend of the great lake. There along its swampy shores he built himself a cabin. There among the Indians he made his home. His name was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. It was only years later—the land no longer...

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2. The Conspirators

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pp. 16-25

The day’s featured speaker, Harold Washington, jumped from foot to foot. Small puffs escaped from his mouth. The wind chill was near 80 below zero on that frigid Sunday in January 1982, yet the radiators weren’t working. Washington, the sort who made little time for things as mundane as adequate ...

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3. The Chosen

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pp. 26-40

In the summer of 1982, two thousand people showed up at a south side church for a daylong event that Lu Palmer had billed as a “black plebiscite.” The idea was to invite anyone who was anyone in black movement politics and, at this gathering of the clan, crown Harold Washington as their choice for mayor. Speaker after ...

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4. The Catalyst

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pp. 41-51

Early in her tenure as mayor, Jane Byrne would regularly invite Renault Robinson to her office to talk politics. Shortly after taking office, Byrne named Robinson to the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) board, a selection so controversial that, though Byrne appointed her brother’s brother-in-law to ...

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5. The Jesse Jackson Factor

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pp. 52-63

Two emissaries representing Harold Washington were ushered into Jesse Jackson’s living room on Chicago’s south side. There, Jackson’s icy reception confirmed what they already knew. Years later Renault Robinson spoke with pride of his intimate sessions with Washington during those months ...

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6. The Family Business

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pp. 64-71

Reporters working out of the City Hall press room were skeptical. To them, several hundred angry people protesting Jane Byrne’s appointments to the Chicago Housing Authority was something that made their jobs more interesting for a few days but nothing more. It hardly proved that ...

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7. The Liberal Apology

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pp. 72-81

Never had the antimachine movement seemed so ripe with possibilities. Unity, the machine’s great strength throughout Richard J. Daley’s twenty-one-year tenure, was nonexistent and potentially a fatal weakness. To no one’s surprise, in December, with the primary two months away, the ...

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8. A Tower of Babble

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pp. 82-93

Late in December, with the primary election less than two months off, Jane Byrne dumped one of the two white women she had named to the public housing board that past summer and replaced her with someone black. The party’s polls showed that, among whites, Byrne was ahead of Daley. It was ...

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9. A Racial Thing

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pp. 94-103

Harold Washington could have used the city’s segregation to his advantage when he delivered a speech making his case why black Chicago should vote for him. Instead, he instructed aides to promote his talk as a major address. His choice of venues was equally defiant. He gave his talk at the Bethel ...

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10. Positively Antebellum

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pp. 104-116

Washington’s victory got prominent play on the networks. All three big morning news shows broadcast time and again a snippet of Washington surrounded by a crush of people, announcing hoarsely that he “proudly and humbly” accepted the Democratic nomination for mayor. ...

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11. A City Divided

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pp. 117-129

Leanita McClain walked into the Tribune the morning after Washington’s primary victory expecting a noisy newsroom alive with talk. She looked forward to teasing the colleagues with whom she had been jousting for weeks—colleagues who couldn’t imagine that Washington might win. If nothing ...

Book II. Council Wars, 1983–1986

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12. The Biggest Bully in the Bar

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pp. 133-145

“Fast Eddie”—that’s what the columnists and pundits had been calling Ed Vrdolyak for as long as anyone can remember. Certainly Vrdolyak wasn’t wasting any time organizing against Washington. At an informal City Council meeting held the Friday after the general election, Vrdolyak ...

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13. Balancing Acts

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pp. 146-161

The night after the big council meeting, the telephone rang late at the Vrdolyak home. “Well, Alderman, did you have a good time today?” It was Washington. He extended an invitation to talk. “You and me have to shoot some pool,” Washington said. Prior to 1983, the two would occasionally get ...

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14. Beirut on the Lake

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pp. 162-171

Ed Burke, more than Ed Vrdolyak, fought Washington on the front lines of Council Wars. Burke was the one on TV decrying the mayor’s latest proposal or cynically casting the mayor as nothing but another politician out for himself and his cronies. Burke, like ...

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15. Black Reform, White Reform

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pp. 172-187

Harold Washington didn’t take it well the time Ed Vrdolyak fluttered his arms and sang out “pretty please” in falsetto. “You’re about to get a mouthful of something you don’t want, mister,” he said, pointing his gavel at Vrdolyak. Ed Burke jumped out of his seat: “Is that a threat? If it is, ...

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16. The Chicago Experiment

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pp. 188-196

Nate Clay read with bemusement the many articles picking apart Jesse Jackson’s motives in running for president in 1984. None got it right, at least in the eyes of this man who had worked with Jackson on and off for years. What made Jesse run? First you need to understand Alexander the Great, according to ...

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17. A Midterm Blunder

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pp. 197-209

Everything was going well for the twenty-nine, mainly because things were going so poorly for Harold Washington. As the midpoint in his term approached, the prevailing image of Washington was that of a terribly outmatched bumbler up against craftier opponents. One political writer likened him ...

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18. The Continuing Saga of Clarence McClain

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pp. 210-218

And like that, the momentum shifted again. Late in 1985, the city learned that several black aldermen and a Washington appointee were videotaped accepting money from an FBI informant who was posing as a businessman. At the center of the sting was Clarence McClain. With Washington’s bid for ...

Book III. Something Less Than Hate, 1986–1987

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19. The Reckoning

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pp. 221-229

Chicago was a city that so emphatically defined itself in black and white that it seemed absurd that its Latino population could dominate local politics as they did for a brief moment in early 1986. Before there was Council Wars, a suit had been filed in federal court charging that the city’s ...

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20. Any White Will Do

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pp. 230-242

There may have been a time when Jane Byrne was considering a life beyond politics. The gossip columnists had her weighing offers as a television analyst, a college instructor, and a consultant. She sang a line in a USA Today commercial; she lent her image to a chain of Mexican restaurants. But ...

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21. Thy Kingdom at Hand

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pp. 243-250

Long after it was too late, long after the bad press and the grumbling even among loyal partisans, Harold Washington would admit that Renault Robinson was a poor choice to head the Chicago Housing Authority. Washington’s confession came in the final months of his first term, while ...

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22. The Empire Strikes Back

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pp. 251-262

Harold Washington died at his desk the day before Thanksgiving. He was talking with his press secretary, Alton Miller, when Miller, glancing at his notes, heard a “rattling, raspy sound”—the kind of crude noise, he would later say, that a man makes outdoors when collecting his phlegm to expel ...

Note on Sources

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pp. 263-265


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pp. 267-274

E-ISBN-13: 9781439904930
Print-ISBN-13: 9781439904923

Page Count: 290
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Washington, Harold, 1922-1987.
  • Chicago (Ill.) -- Politics and government -- 1951-.
  • Chicago (Ill.) -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century.
  • Obama, Barack -- Political and social views
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