Mayor Harold Washington Inaugural Address, 1983

Harold Washington Biography

Inauguration date: April 29, 1983

This speech is recorded as it first appeared in print. Archaic spelling and misspellings in the original document have not been corrected.

This is a very serious vow that I’ve just taken before God and man, to do everything in my power to protect this City and every person who lives in it. I do not take this duty lightly. I was up late last night thinking about this moment. It went through my head hundreds and hundreds of times, and words that I was reading put me in a reflective and a somber, somber mood.

On my right hand last night was a bible, which is a very good book for a new Mayor to pay attention to. And, in front of me was a report of the City’s finances which my transition team had prepared, and it did not contain very good news. To my left there was no book because the one I wanted the most does not exist. It’s the one I wish had been written by my tribesman, Jean Pointe Baptiste DuSable, who settled Chicago over 200 years ago.

And, as I reflected last night for a brief period of time, I wish he had written a book about how to be a Mayor of a vast city like ours, a repository of wisdom that had been handed down from Mayor to Mayor for all these years.

Because, after reading the report about the actual state of the City’s finances, I wanted some good solid, sound advice.

Then I realized that to solve the problems facing us, it will have to be decided between you and me, because every Mayor begins anew, and there is no blueprint for the future course that these cities, these municipalities must follow.

So I made a list of some of the things you told me during the election campaign, and I found out that you had given me the best and most solid advice.

The first thing you told me is to do no harm. You told me that the guiding principal of government is to do the greatest good. Your instructions which I heard from neighborhood after neighborhood, said to be patient and be fair, be candid and, in short, to continue to tell the truth.

And so, without malice, even remotely connected with my statement, but impelled by a sense of necessity so that I can continue my reputation for truth and live up to your mandate which requested the truth, I must tell you what we have inherited. I must tell you about the City’s finances. As I said before, I have no good news. The immediate fiscal problem facing Chicago is both enormous and complicated.

  • Our school system is not 100 million dollars short next year as we believed during the mayoral campaign. We now find that the income may be $200 million less than the expenditures of that vast bureaucracy.
  • My transition team advises me that the city government is also in far worse financial condition than we thought. The City’s general fund has a potential shortfall this year of as much as $150 million.
  • To further complicate the matter, in the waning days of the outgoing administration, hundreds of new city jobs were passed out and hundreds of other jobs reassigned. I say this with malice toward none, but simply to keep the record straight.
  • The City’s transportation system faces a $200 million deficit and no internal solution harbors on the horizon.

All during the campaign I knew that the City had financial problems and I talked about them repeatedly, incessantly. A majority of the voters believed me and embarked on what can only be described as a great movement and revitalization labeled reform.

My election was the result of the greatest grass roots effort in the history of the City of Chicago. It may have been equaled somewhere in this country, I know not where.

My election was made possible by thousands and thousands of people who demanded that the burdens of mismanagement, unfairness and inequity be lifted so that the City could be saved.

One of the ideas that held us all together said that neighborhood involvement has to take the place of the ancient, decrepit and creaking machine. City government for once in our lifetime must be made equitable and fair. The people of Chicago have asked for more responsibility and more representation at every city level.

It’s a good thing that your philosophy prevailed, because otherwise I’m not sure that the City could solve the financial crisis at hand.

Reluctantly, I must tell you that because of circumstances thrust upon us, each and everyone of us, we must immediately cut back on how much money the City can spend.

Monday, I will issue an order to freeze all City hiring and raises, in order to reduce the City expenses by millions of dollars. We will have no choice but to release several hundred new City employees who were added because of political considerations.

With malice toward none, but only in the interest of clarity and honesty and truth, we will continue.

Beginning Monday, executive salaries will be cut. Some members of my cabinet will be required to take salaries considerably less than their counterparts are now making. Holdover chiefs will be ordered to take salary cuts as well.

Unnecessary City programs are going to have to be ended, and the fat removed from all departments until there are sinew and bone left.

So that there’s no confusion, these cuts will begin in the mayor’s office.

But these measures are not enough to make up the enormous deficits we have inherited. Like other cities across the state, we simply cannot provide adequate public service without additional sources of revenue. During the election, I said that there was no alternative to a higher state income tax.

Chicago is not an island unto itself and other municipalities in this state suffer just as direly as we do. And municipal and state officials have joined us in this fight for more tax support. We must have new sources of income and I’ve joined the governor of this great state in his quest for those additional sources of income.

In the months ahead, we will be instituting some new fiscal methods and controls and I shall certainly keep you informed, if necessary on a day to day basis, as to our progress.

But when it finally comes down to basic issues, I’m only going to be successful if your are involved. The neighborhoods and the people who reside in them are going to have to play an active, creative role in this administration. I am asking you now to join that team.

In the late hours last night, while contemplating the enormity of the challenge we face together, I remembered the great words of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy at his inaugural address in 1961.

“Ask not for what your country can do for you” he said. “Ask what you can do for your country.”

In that same spirit, today I am asking all of you—particularly you who have taken the oath with me today—to respond to a great challenge: help me institute reforms and bring about the revival and renewal of this great City while there is still time.

Business as usual will not be accepted by the people of this City. Business as usual will not be accepted by any part of this City. Business as usual will not be accepted by this chief executive of this great City.

The only greater challenge in our history in Chicago was 110 years ago when Mayor Joseph Medill looked over a city burned to the ground and called for an enormous outpouring of civic spirit and resources to make the city new.

The real challenge is in the neighborhoods, as I’ve said for the past several months. I’m asking the people in the neighborhoods, all of the neighborhoods, to take a direct role in the planning, development and City housekeeping so that our City becomes a finer place in which to live.

I’m calling for more leadership and more personal involvement in what goes on. We know the strength of the grass roots leadership because our election was based on it. We want this powerful infra-structure to grow because the success of tomorrow’s City depends upon it, and the world and country look for an example as to how we can find the way out.

Information must flow freely from the administration to the people and back again. The City’s books will be open to the public because we don’t have a chance to institute fiscal reform unless we all know the hard facts. I believe in the process of collective bargaining when all the numbers are on the table and the City and its unions sit down and hammer out an agreement together. The only contracts in life are those that work and work because they are essentially fair.

Having said all this, I want you to know that the situation is serious but not desperate. I am optimistic about our future. I’m optimistic not just because I have a positive view of life, and I do, but because there is so much about this City that promises achievement.

We are a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-language City and that is not a source to negate but really a source of pride, because it adds stability and strength to a metropolitan city as large as ours.

Our minorities are ambitious, and that is a sign of a prosperous city on the move. Racial fears and divisiveness have hurt us in the past. But I believe that this is a situation that will and must be overcome.

Our schools must be improved. They’re going to get a lot better because we’re calling on students, teachers and administrators to study longer and achieve more.

I’m going to set a personal example for what we all have to do by working harder and longer than you’ve ever seen a mayor work before.

Most of our problems can be solved. Some of them will take brains, some of them will take patience, and all of them will have to be wrested with like an alligator in the swamp.

But there is a fine new spirit that seems to be taking root. I call it the spirit of renewal. It’s like the spring coming here after a long winter. This renewal. It refreshes us and gives us new faith that we can go on.

Last night I saw the dark problems and today I see the bright promise of where we stand. Chicago has all the resources necessary for prosperity. We are at the crossroads of America—a vital transportation, economic, and business center. We are the heartland.

We have a clear vision of what our people can become, and that vision goes beyond mere economic wealth, although that is a part of our hopes and expectations.

In our ethnic and racial diversity, we are all brothers and sisters in a quest for greatness. Our creativity and energy are unequaled by any city anywhere in the world. We will not rest until the renewal of our City is done.

Today, I want to tell you how proud I am to be your Mayor. There have been 41 Mayors before me and when I was growing up in this City and attending its public schools it never dawned upon me nor did I dream that the flame would pass my way. But it has.

And that flame like the buck will stop here. And we won’t quench it, we’ll brighten it. We’ll add oil and make it brighter and brighter and brighter.

It makes me humble, but it also makes me glad. I hope someday to be remembered by history as the Mayor who cared about people and who was, above all, fair. A Mayor who helped, who really helped, heal our wounds and stood the watch while the City and its people answered the greatest challenge in more than a century. Who saw that City renewed.

My good friends and neighbors, the oath of office that I have taken today before God binds us all together. I cannot be successful without you. But with you, we can not fail.

I reach out my hand and I ask for your help. With the same adventurous spirit of Jean Pointe Baptiste DuSable when he founded Chicago, we are going to do some great deeds here together.

In the beginning there was the word. Throughout this campaign you’ve given me the word. The word is over. Let’s go to work.

Thank you.


  • Chicago City Council. Journal of the Proceedings, April 29, 1983, p. 7–11.
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