Chicago's Journey, from Washington to Obama

On Election Night, some Chicagoans literally danced in the streets, more than a few with tears in their eyes. This hard-nosed, high-stepping city proudly donned its latest moniker: hometown of the first black man elected president of the United States.

It surely beats "Beirut on the Lake." That was the embarrassing nickname the national press gave this city in the 1980s for its racially charged turf wars. To recall those years, it is startling to see the distance traveled by Chicago—and America.

Some 25 years ago, a black man running for mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, was hooted down the stairs of a Roman Catholic church by a mob of angry whites. Washington won the election in a squeaker. But in five wards on the city's Northwest Side, he carried a scant 5 percent of the vote. When he took office, he was challenged at almost every turn by a rebellious group of aldermen led by Edward R. Vrdolyak. The Council Wars made Chicago a national spectacle for its hostilities over race and the blunt bigotry voiced by whites about black politicians.

Chicago enjoys a loftier image these days, as its residents talk giddily about a new Western White House in Obama's Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side. Today those five Northwest Side wards that snubbed a black mayoral candidate all went for Obama. The city's white mayor, Richard M. Daley, was an early cheerleader of the Obama candidacy. Even his campaign manager, David Axelrod, is a former Chicago Tribune reporter. The sort of bigotry preached by some of the bare-knuckled white politicians a generation ago has fallen into disrepute. Vrdolyak, incidentally, pleaded guilty earlier this week to his part in a kickback scheme.

Larry Edwards, a 60-year-old rabbi and native Chicagoan, stood on the grounds at Grant Park, the site of the Obama victory party, and remembered the day of rage in 1968, when the police cracked heads of protesters outside the Democratic National Convention across the street at the Hilton Hotel.

On this election night, some young people carried Obama signs in one hand and the American flag in the other. A black woman wore a T shirt that declared THIS IS THE DREAM REALIZED!

Like many Chicagoans, Rabbi Edwards could scarcely contain a pride in the "Second City" for being at the forefront in breaking racial barriers in politics.

"It shows that things can change," said Edwards, wearing an Obama button and a smile. "In Chicago, all things are possible."

For many years, Tenner Hemphill, 66, had serious doubts. When she moved from North Carolina to Chicago in 1965, segregation went unquestioned, as blacks knew to stay on their side of the viaducts.

"I didn't dream I'd see this day," said Hemphill, who gazed in wonder at the victory rally, "but I'm so grateful that I did."

In the carnival atmosphere in Chicago on election night, where some signs celebrated the "Obama Palooza," it was impossible to miss scenes of whites and blacks in celebration together, a sight not so familiar, even in the Chicago of today, or in much of the rest of America, for that matter. But there were the high-fives being exchanged by white and black strangers on the streets, and hugs. As word became official, many taxicabs honked their horns. A white man in a working-class Chicago bar, where everyone sitting on a stool was white, stood and shouted at the flickering image of Obama on the screen, saying "awesome—this is what we need!"

Claudia Moss, a 26-year-old African-American student who came from California alone just to be part of the celebration, said she believed that a crucial threshold had now been crossed. "America has truly shown itself to be the melting pot it has long celebrated," she said. She said the Obama presidency would mean a historic throwing down of the gauntlet in challenge to African-Americans. "This raises the bar for us. There are no more excuses. We can't kick and blame. We've got to step up and make a difference."

President-elect Obama was the only African-American currently serving in the United States Senate. When his successor is named by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, according to prevailing wisdom in Illinois, that person is likely to be an African-American. That would put Illinois in a position of being a powerhouse of racial change in national politics. Carol Moseley Braun, one of the two African-Americans in the Senate since Reconstruction, also came from Illinois.

Don Rose, a former political consultant regarded as a warhorse for liberal causes and candidates in Illinois, insists that these days Chicago—which legendary local alderman Paddy Bauler had once famously insisted was not ready for reform—has become nothing less than the "epicenter of progressive politics in America."

There was a time, he noted, when Chicagoans traveling abroad would be asked questions about being the home of the notorious gangster Al Capone. From now on, he said, Chicagoans will be able to tell the world, "I'm from the city of Barack Obama."

Join the Discussion