Mayor Harold Washington Inaugural Address, 1987

Harold Washington Biography

Inauguration date: May 4, 1987

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

The Spirit of Chicago

One hundred and fifty years ago, not far from where we stand, a small company of Americans came together to create our City of Chicago.

These Chicagoans faced the challenge of physical danger and economic disaster. They had to struggle to keep their town alive. But they weren’t afraid of a fight. They had pledged themselves to a partnership, to create a new city by the lake.

Through all their hardship, they had a spirit; aggressive, competitive, yet seasoned by cooperation; a spirit that was the essence of a youthful republic; a spirit that one day would define America’s most American city: the Spirit of Chicago.

Today, only fifteen decades later, we live in one of the great cities in the history of man. The Spirit of Chicago, city of broad shoulders, breathes into each of us new life every day; and shines through our architecture and art, our parks and avenues, the vigor of our commerce and the vitality, the diversity of our people.

And yet, once again, we are living in a time of challenge. More than ever, we need to call forth that determination and dedication that is the Spirit of Chicago. Like those early pioneers, we stand at a fork in the road. We may choose the risk and the opportunity and the sacrifice that will restore our city, or we may fall into the path of least resistance, down the road to decline.

Today, here in a setting framed by our city’s grand skyline and glorious lakefront, I want to reflect on that spirit of Chicago, on the challenges we face today, on the partnership we will need to overcome the present danger, and on the promise that is ours if we prevail.

The New Spirit

Four years ago, we inaugurated a new chapter in the history of Chicago.

Chicago had suffered from two decades of decline. We were deeply in debt, and our management was in shambles. Our schools had been bankrupt, our public housing was falling deeper into a billion dollar hole. City revenue collections were haphazard or non-existent. Contract and personnel records were a mess.

Worse, we were a city deeply divided by class and race and ethnic differences. Many Chicagoans had become dispirited, despaired of change.

Despite that climate, we began a process of renewal-changing not only how we do business, but how we view ourselves and the world around us.

In the true Spirit of Chicago, we opened city government to the fullest access by the greatest number. We affirmed the most fundamental American principles of fairness—by word and by action—righting the balance to bring an ever wider participation to the business and governance of our city.

We fought for and won the right of Chicago’s minorities to full representation in City Council.

We substituted administrators for political workers, and brought modern management to our municipal affairs—to an enterprise which had grown, from those cabins and shops, 15 short decades ago, into a $2 billion corporation, on which the livelihoods of perhaps eight million Chicagoans and their neighbors must depend.

We worked with community leaders to reinvest $300 million in the rebuilding of our neighborhoods, taking care, even in times of financial hardship, to maintain our heritage and provide for new generations.

We worked with business leaders for the prosperity of our downtown commercial district, which has grown at the rate of a billion dollars a year over this decade.

We worked with organized labor to bring fair and orderly collective bargaining practices to city employment.

We worked with the legal community and civic leaders to pass ethics legislation, seeking to eliminate both the temptation and the opportunity for corruption in public office.

We fought to empower new partnerships—of citizens, community groups, business organizations, churches and schools, and professional associations—to work alongside city government in the modernization of Chicago management.

Those four years were well spent. We have witnessed amazing change in our city, in four short years.

Across the county and around the world, we’ve made it clear: there’s a new Spirit of Chicago, building on the old.

Chicago is not simply the City that Works. The word is out: Chicago Works Together.

The Challenge

We fought for this economic and social and spiritual renewal at a critical time, and we won that struggle just in time.

Because Chicago in 1987, like every other major American municipality, is facing unprecedented challenges to its survival as a world city.

Everywhere we look, across our land, we see the American city in peril—endangered by economic challenge from abroad, and threatened by a failure of the will from within.

You hear the story over and over, in every major city in America; the cities whose greatness made America great, are losing ground. In the name of a flawed and suspect ideology, their needs are being ignored and disdained by the federal administration.

General Revenue Sharing, the fair return of your income tax to support your city, is gone. Grants and tax breaks for social services and for economic development have been drastically cut.

Funds for the hungry, the homeless, needy, elderly and disabled, women and children, as well as millions of middle-class families who depend on their cities for quality of life, are being made to suffer for failed federal economic policies that have added a trillion dollars to our national debt.

Over the past four years, we have taken the lead in demanding a fair return of our tax dollar, to keep our cities healthy and strong. Chicago has become recognized as a leader in the national struggle for an Urban Policy in the federal agenda.

Now, more than ever, Chicago is challenged to take the lead. Just as we are finally able to leave local petty political bickering behind us, the new Spirit of Chicago is aroused to greater trials, perhaps the most important challenges our generation will face.

In 1837, the same year our city was incorporated, a great national depression nearly ruined Chicago, and many other cities, wiping our land holdings and life savings.

In 1847, when we were only ten years old and only 16,000 in number, even before we had paved streets, we were host to America’s first great national protest meeting. 20,000 people came to Chicago, from East and West, North and South; cosmopolitans like Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, and country lawyers like young Abraham Lincoln from downstate Illinois. They came together in this place to protest federal neglect of the cities and towns across America. They helped to focus federal priorities on the development of a continent of cities.

In the years between their protest and our contemporary plight, the federal government did indeed develop a partnership with the cities. And through mutual support, the prosperity of those cities created for America the richest, most productive society our planet has ever known.

Now, that partnership is falling apart. Cities are treated like failed industries, cut off from the central economy, left to sink or swim if they can, the survivors urged to “vote with their feet” and migrate to defense industries in the Sun Belt, the halt and the lame callously discarded like so much worn-out furniture.

Now, once again, our way of life is in trouble—and it is in our cities where we know that firsthand. America is bleeding in our streets and alleys, in our stairwells and in the corridors of our schools. America’s cities are on the critical list, and we must not be timid or halfway in our response.

We have found that we must act to save ourselves, not just in Chicago, but all across that entire commonwealth of cities that has created an urban America.

We have mobilized, through the United States Conference of Mayors, the League of Cities, and other coalitions, to take care of our people.

We have acted urgently, because the need is great.

Today, almost one-fourth of our children are living in poverty. Two-fifths of hispanic children, over one-half of black children, little ones younger than seven years old, wake up each morning suffering the physical abuse of hunger. These are the highest rates we’ve ever seen, ever in the history of this country. Their hunger is unacceptable.

Unemployment has stayed above 7% for almost six years-the last time that happened was during the Great Depression. An entire generation is growing up, going to school, studying and celebrating the 200th anniversary of the American Constitution, without any certainty they will ever join the ranks of productive, working Americans. That unemployment is unacceptable.

Nationally one-fourth of our graduating classes are not graduating, an incalculable waste for our society. In Chicago, almost half of our boys and girls never finish school, a tragic human loss for them and their families, and an economic injury for our city and our nation. That dropout rate is unacceptable.

Mothers and babies, children and youth, the elderly, all those whose shelter depends on federal assistance, are threatened by the prospect that they may join the ranks of the homeless, as 70,000 units of public housing are abandoned each year; it is reported that 900,000 federally subsidized but privately owned apartments could vanish in the next decade. That destruction of our homes is unacceptable.

The economic inequality worsens: while the overall poverty rate in America is at 11%, it is 32% for blacks, and 25% for hispanic people. That inequality, that “We the people” versus “They, the people”, is unacceptable.

We do not accept the abandonment of the people of America’s cities. We will not allow our citizens to be written off as bad debts.

Throughout Chicago history, when we have faced such crises, we have summoned our resources, and developed partnerships. We have reawakened the power to redirect our priorities. Now once again we are called to the challenge. We must apply the lessons of the past to the challenges of today.

If we have learned one thing, in this generation in Chicago, it is that bossism is not leadership, and leadership is not bossism.

The leadership that made Chicago great was not the dictate of any individual leader at any time in our history. It was not the operations of a cabal in a smoke-filled room.

The leadership that made Chicago great, from its earliest origins, was the partnership of every sector of our city’s society, working together. That partnership is the leadership that our times require.

The partnership of our full body politic must, by any means necessary, press our case at the federal and state levels. We, the leaders of Chicago, have an obligation to recover for our people the fair share of our federal taxes to which Chicago is due. Not as charity or welfare, but as investment, and as a fair return.

But it is not enough to press our claims. We must also do for ourselves. We must, each of us, find that priority where our skills are of use, roll up our sleeves and take action. We must join together and do for ourselves what must be done.

We must plan and coordinate, improvise, innovate, recombine and reinvent, and leave no options unexplored, to provide at least temporary solutions while we press our case.

The City government can’t do that alone. The cities for three generations, prospered under an active partnership with the federal government. Our institutions evolved around that traditional American partnership.

Now that American tradition is no longer dependable, and even as we work to restore it, we must build on the new partnerships we have developed at the local level.

Although our greatest problems are truly national in origin, and national in scale; nonetheless they are local in their impact. And though we must take a role in the grand strategies laid in Washington, we are the ones who will have to carry the fight here, in the trenches , on the front lines, in our cities.

With every Chicagoan, and every Chicago institution, together at the wheel, we can turn this thing around.

Our most urgent need is for jobs. Give us jobs and we’ll take care of the rest. Jobs will rebuild self-esteem; jobs will restore community pride; jobs will cut down the drop-out rate; jobs will slow down the cycles of crime, youth gangs, drugs, child abuse and abuse of women; jobs will reaffirm the justice of our economic system; jobs will reduce teenage pregnancy; jobs will ultimately end the human tragedy of welfare dependency.

We must not be satisfied with anything that can be achieved on the local level alone. We must work to change America’s priorities, to turn our welfare programs into jobs programs, to redirect defense spending into domestic spending that creates jobs.

But we must also do for ourselves: We must apply ourselves, in partnership across our city, to the successful jobs programs we have created, in Hire the Future and Chicago First: and small business loan programs that have created or retained 20,000 jobs in our city over the past four years.

Jobs are our top priority—for unless the young and the working-age city dwellers go back to work again, nothing else will matter.

An equal priority is our educational system. We need the full partnership of the body politic to recognize their stake in the success of our schools; to join in the effort to provide a supportive environment for the very young, reinforcement for those in the middle grades, with special attention to problems of literacy; and career counseling with job incentives for high school students.

Every student who drops out of high school is a personal tragedy for whom each of us must feel personal responsibility.

We must work with the State of Illinois to provide the network of resources the challenge requires. And we must respond to the national crisis in education, and work with other cities to insist on new funds from the federal level. But we must also do for ourselves. We must work together over the next four years, through our Educational Summit, and the Learn-Earn incentives and a host of new church and community and corporate efforts, to help our young people excel in school.

The problems of housing are no less urgent—created by the failed attempt, a generation ago, to seal off our housing problems in monolithic cellblocks—badly designed and under-funded, then stripped and robbed in the financial marketplace.

The crisis in housing affects not only the poor condemned to sub-standard shelter. It also touches everyone who lives in our city, in every neighborhood of Chicago. For which of us can be serene and secure in our own home when we know that our brother and sister are living in such sad discomfort?

We must press for the needed funds from the state and federal level, for these Illinoisans, these Americans, who deserve affordable housing. But we must also do for ourselves: develop new programs like our successful Chicago Housing Partnership, to leverage the resources of the private sector. And we must bring Chicago once again into the forefront of modern housing construction techniques, to accelerate the rehabbing of our housing stock. We must find ways to combine efforts and create jobs to solve our housing problems.

Jobs, education, housing, transportation, health, environmental concerns, including the preservation of our beautiful lakefront: although these are all national issues, affecting every city, beyond the resources of each city alone, it is still in our individual cities where we feel the pain.

And so, it is in the cities where we must do for ourselves. We must recognize our responsibility, gather our forces, summon the spirit that made us great, and fight for fundamental change.

The Promise

The promise and the potential of Chicago requires no less of us. The Spirit of Chicago compels us. It is a spirit we must fight to sustain.

But our motivation is more basic than just idealism and altruism. We are also mindful of the self-interest that inspires us.

Chicago in four years has brought together black and white, Asian and hispanic, male and female, the young, the old, the disabled, gays and lesbians, Moslems, Christians and Jews, business leaders and neighborhood activists, bankers and trade unionists—all have come together to mix and contend, to aruge and to reason, to confront our problems and not merely to contain them.

We didn’t come together out of love for one another. Where that is lacking, that will follow. A civil society—a civilization—a city that works—requires simply that we behave well toward each other. And our present danger requires even more, that we work together, and do for ourselves.

And so, citizens of Chicago, I ask every man, woman and child of you, for your help over the next four years, as we do for ourselves to realize the promise that is Chicago.

I ask you to join with me in the national movement to restore our cities as American priorities. I ask you to exercise your rights as Illinoisans and Americans, to win Chicago’s fair share at the state and federal level. But I also ask you to roll up your sleeves, so we can do for ourselves.

To the millions of our neighbors outside our city, who depend on a healthy Chicago for your quality of life, I ask you to join with us, to support us both in our fight for a fair share and in our effort to do for ourselves.

To the leaders of business, industry and trade, foundations and philanthropic societies, city, state and federal government, community organizations, schools at all levels, churches, professional association, organized labor, educators ands the media, I ask you to become directly, personally involved in the programs that address Chicago’s most pressing needs, to help us do for ourselves.

To the political leaders at every level of government, I ask you to consider the importance of a healthy Chicago to your constituency, to your party, to your own responsibilities of public office, and lend your efforts to our cause, to join forces, to strengthen our effort to do for ourselves.

To every man, woman and child listening to me today, I ask you to consider the need and examine your skills, and find a way to contribute to the salvation of your city. Together we must form a human safety network that provides, in time and talent, what Chicago could never afford in its taxes and budgets.

In return for your investment, in return for your sacrifice, I promise you this: that you will be the richer for what you invest, that you will be the happier for the troubles you absorb, that you will be healthier for the afflictions you confront, for the sake of our city, Chicago.

And that you will remember until you’re past remembering, and you will take pleasure every time you recall, that you responded to your city in her hour of greatest need. That you found injustice and inequity unacceptable. That you fought for a fair share. And that you joined in, rolled up your sleeves, and helped Chicago do for ourselves.


  • Chicago City Council. Journal of the Proceedings, May 4, 1987, p. 52–59.
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