Washington’s legacy lives on in symposium held in his honor

By Caitlin Parton

The Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University held a two-day symposium to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Harold Washington’s election as the first black mayor of Chicago this weekend. The symposium facilitated discussions about the state of contemporary racial politics and explored the changing landscape of racial politics in Chicago since Washington’s term.

The first session was held on Friday, October 24 at the Chicago Historical Society, and the following day’s proceedings were held in Assembly Hall at International House on campus. Both sessions were free and open to the public, and were co-sponsored by the Chicago Historical Society and the International House Global Voices Program.

“As discussions around politics in communities of color become more critical with the approaching presidential election, we at the Center believe that there is a need for informed deliberation about the state of contemporary racial politics,” said Rosalind Fielder, associate director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University.

A roundtable discussion on Friday addressed the changing state of race and politics since Washington’s election. Participants in the discussion included Representative John Conyers, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and ardent civil rights activist; Leon Dash, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author of Rosa Lee; Jeff Epton, executive director of the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project from 2000-2001, son of Bernard Epton, who ran against Washington in 1983, as well as publisher of In These Times, a progressive magazine; Akiba Solomon, editor-at-large for TheSource.com and contributing writer to ColorLines and BET.com; and María de los Angeles Torres, former Executive Director of the Commission on Latino Affairs under Washington, currently associate professor of political science and the Latino/Latin American Studies Program at DePaul University.

An exhibit entitled “Harold Washington: The Man and the Movement,” featured at the Historical Society, also accompanied the discussion. “The Historical Society exhibit is extraordinary,” said Phil Thomas, University alumnus and symposium attendee. “I was impressed by the variety of perspectives and the comprehensive historical analysis. I was particularly impressed by the organizers and speakers—[they] give us hope for the future.”

On Saturday, four hour-long panels with question and answer sessions focused on race and politics in Chicago. They included, “Movement Politics and the Role of Grassroots Organizations,” “Multiracial Organizing: Past Experience, Future Possibilities,” “Race, Politics and Youth Organizing,” and “Race, Politics and Power in Chicago Today!” Panelists included Richard Barnett, Timuel Black, Jim Capraro, State Senator Jackie Collins, T.J. Crawford, John Donahue, Jesús “Chuy” García, Sharon Gilliam, Yvonne Lau, Rudi Lozano, Jr., Alderman Rick Muñoz, Rami Nashishibi, Prexy Nesbitt, Barbara Ransby, Rebecca Sive, Robert Starks, Art Turner, and Laura Washington.

“It gave me an opportunity to reflect on the past and comment on the present and come up with hypotheses about the future,” said Ajira Darch, who attended the symposium.

However, the event was not without its detractions. “The first and second panels were too long-winded,” said an attendant who wished to remain anonymous.

“There needed to be more control by the moderators…the first panelist took up all the time,” which caused the symposium to run late on Saturday.

The symposium was successful in encouraging discussions and provoking thought about race and politics today. “I remember seeing Harold Washington speak. That period was so inspiring,” said attendee Curtis Black, who felt the symposium “was a coming-together of all kinds of people to figure out what we did right and how we can do it again.”

Darch said that the symposium filled her with a sense of self-confidence to make changes in the world around her. Too often people use race as an excuse not to be active, Darch said, adding that people should not hesitate to get involved in racial issues.

Over 222 people attended the roundtable discussion at the Historical Society, and approximately 100 people sat in on the panels on Saturday.

Already planning ahead for the next symposium, Fielder said that more emphasis will be placed on the perspectives of young people. “It’s time to create a forum for youth to talk about things important to them, to learn about things that pertain to them,” Fielder said. “We need a venue to bring together youth activists, so they can become more active