Documentary Review: 'Punch 9 for Harold Washington'
Chicago's Harold Washington was the canary in the coal mine of systemic racism and how to start the fight against it.
Punch 9 for Harold Washington documents the rise to Chicago Mayor of former Congressman Harold Washington, a brilliant, charismatic, and dedicated reformer. After years of patronage determining the fate of Chicago under the Mayor Daley regime, Washington’s rise to the highest office in the third largest city in the country felt like a breath of fresh air. The optimism and heart of Washington’s leadership felt like a new dawn and made his far too early death all the more tragic, especially as Chicago sank back to the depths of Daley era duplicitousness.
Punch 9 for Harold Washington picks up in the late 1960s when the patronage and corruption of the Mayor Richard J Daley regime was in full effect. We don’t linger here but we get enough of a sense of how a political machine worked. We need that information to show us just what a reformer like Harold Washington was up against, a city run by one man, shaped in his image and crafted via graft to keep it as it was, a self-sustaining, greed addled monstrosity built to keep Richard J Daley at the top.
When Richard J Daley died in 1976 it became apparent just how powerful a system built around one man could really be. Daley was succeeded as Mayor by Jane Byrne who used the growing discontent of the black population against the Daley regime as her main campaign strength. Byrne went to the black community and made big promises about reforms and changes at City Hall. Once in power, Byrne broke every single promise she’d made after realizing that the Daley machine was not one so easily dismantled. Instead of trying to dismantle the machine, she embraced it and crafted an agenda to appease those who could help her get re-elected.
This takes us to the 1982-83 election cycle. In an effort to try and fool black voters into thinking she was still on their side, Byrne moved into the Cabrini Green housing development, one of the more dangerously criminal and run down developments in the City of Chicago, as a publicity stunt. It backfired completely as reporters pointed out that though the Mayor lived at Cabrini Green, her wealth gave her the benefit of a team of security guards and a driver to take her to and from Cabrini Green as she pleased which was certainly not the experience of those who lived in the squalid conditions of Cabrini Green before, during her stay or after she lost and abandoned the stunt.
And yet, despite Byrne’s staggeringly ill-conceived stunt, she was still favored to win re-election. As the incumbent Democrat in Chicago, Byrne had a place of privilege few other politicians could dream to have. The Republican party in Chicago was nearly non-existent. The only challengers to Byrne could only come from inside the Democratic party and with party politics having been centered on Daley and Chicago for years, it was a wildly uphill battle to upend a sitting, Democratic Mayor of Chicago.
That’s only part of the monumental uphill battle that then Congressman Harold Washington faced when he entered the Democratic Primary for Mayor of Chicago in 1980. We haven’t even arrived at the outward, very public racism that existed even in a haven of left leaning dominance like Chicago. As Washington stepped into the race at the behest of many black leaders in Chicago, he would face openly vitriolic racism from every corner of the Windy City. Even as he had long been re-elected to Congress from this district, once he came to run for Mayor, the masks fell away in a disturbing fashion.
Harold Washington would nevertheless defeat Jane Byrne for the Democratic nomination for Mayor of Chicago but his fight doesn’t end there. Even as the Republican party was not remotely viable in Chicago for decades, with Washington ensconced as the Democratic nominee, white Democrats suddenly began openly and blatantly switching sides to vote Republican simply to oppose a black man becoming Mayor of Chicago.
Suddenly, a little known former State legislator named Bernard Epton became a viable Republican candidate for Mayor. Epton wasn’t expected to get 10% of the vote before Washington emerged as the Democratic nominee through a coalition of newly registered voters on the South and West side of Chicago, the predominantly black and latino portions of the City. Now, Epton was rocketing in the poles in the North and East of the City of Chicago creating a very distinct line of racial support headed into the 1983 Mayoral election, an election that would gain national attention.
All of that is barely the footnotes of Punch 9 for Harold Washington. This remarkable documentary from director Joe Winston is chock full of fascinating, mind-blowing stories about what Harold Washington overcame, how his idealism and intelligence won the day, and the struggles he faced as he went about dismantling several decades of corruption and graft in the City of Chicago, fighting battles that many did not think he had a chance to win. It’s a remarkable story filled with twists and turns and insights into the kind of institutional racism that is still in the headlines to this day.
To find out how you can watch Punch 9 for Harold Washington, go to Punch9Movie.com.