Friday marks what would have been the 100th birthday of Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington. He was born on April 15, 1922 in Chicago and his ascension to the mayor’s office was legendary. His grassroots campaign mobilized more than 100,000 new registered voters for the mayoral election in 1983, defeating Republican candidate Bernard Epton by a slim 51.7% to 48% majority. 

Washington served one full term and was in the middle of a second (after defeating former Mayor Jane Byrne and then-State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley) when he suddenly died of a heart attack on Nov. 25, 1987 at age 65. Although his untimely death cut short his second term, Washington enacted transformative change throughout his decades-long career in public life. 

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As mayor, he opened the city’s budget process up for public input, fought to redistrict wards providing more Black and Latinx representation and created the Ethics Commission to check the power of the city’s administration. 

As an Illinois state representative, Washington led the push to commemorate the birthday of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the state. His story inspired the future U.S. President Barack Obama, who settled in Chicago in the 1980s, and many other politicians across the country, including former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun. 

Nearly 40 years later, the first feature-length documentary film about Washington is making waves on the film festival circuit. The 105-minute documentary film, “Punch 9 for Harold Washington,” discusses his upbringing, but centers on the historic 1983 mayoral election, his time in office and his death.

“He came up against the most vaunted political machine in American politics, period,” said Raymond Lambert, one of the film’s producers, about Washington. “There’s no question about that. Chicago was the Democratic leadership in this country. Presidents came to visit Mayor [Richard J.] Daley. He upset that whole thing. That’s a big deal.” 

“Punch 9” premiered in 2021 at film festivals in New York and Chicago and was directed by Chicago native Joe Winston. Lambert added that Washington’s win was inspirational for Black people and what could be if people worked together to transform government on the local and national levels. 

“That’s why it [the 1983 mayoral election] was covered so intently worldwide. That’s why people throughout the country were coming here to visit. Because if Harold Washington could be successful in Chicago, that would mean we could be successful in our cities around the world,” Lambert said.

On Tuesday, April 12, Mayor Lori Lightfoot joined the Mayor Harold Washington Legacy Committee for a centennial celebration at the Harold Washington library branch. Other elected officials, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Also, the Chicago City Council Black Caucus proclaimed April 15 as Harold Washington Day

This month, the Harold Washington Library also unveiled a new special exhibit to commemorate his 100th birthday called “Harold Washington: A Centennial Reflection.” The exhibition highlights his many accomplishments as mayor and his legacy. It also features photographs, campaign posters and other documents. 

The TRiiBE caught up with Lambert just a few days shy of Washington’s 100th birthday to talk about “Punch 9 for Harold Washington” and Washington’s enduring legacy. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity).

Why is Harold Washington’s story an important story to tell? 

Raymond Lambert: The truth of the matter is that few people are exceptional, and those people touch us in ways that haven’t been done before, and I think he’s that kind of person. Harold was prepared. He was educated and intelligent; his dad was a lawyer and a precinct captain. So it shouldn’t even have been an issue about him being mayor. He was the right man at the right time, which still resonates with people 30 years later. A person like that is unforgettable.

Is there something you learned about Harold Washington while creating the documentary/film that you didn’t know? If so, do you mind sharing that with me? 

RL: The biggest thing that I learned and why I can get up every day and pursue this as difficult as it is, it’s because it takes sacrifice, and it takes dedication and if it’s ever going to improve, we all have a hand in handling it. So my ability to tell this story for all that he did is sort of an honor. This man gave his life for this particular opportunity, and I truly believe he gave his life for it. 

[Washington’s] notion of democracy was that we don’t just have to stand by and let things happen and all we do is complain about it. Let’s do something about it. So he’s very inspirational in that way, but we need to act. If you need an example of how this works here, it is right here. 

What does Harold Washington’s legacy mean to the city of Chicago, specifically Black Chicago, to local and national politics?  

RL: For me, it’s about what’s possible. He reminds us of that, but secondly, it reminds us that we have work to do. He demonstrated what government could look like when it works for people. But we have to demand that from our leaders, even Harold Washington, Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot and Barack Obama. We have a responsibility to demand that government works for all of us. [Harold Washington] changed things in a way that they’ll never go back to, like transparency and a sense of fairness in certain areas. I don’t know if we’re doing all we can to honor that legacy. 

People knew him throughout the country, especially in political circles, but most knew him. [Harold being Chicago’s first Black mayor] was a big deal. If you think about Chicago in the early ’80s, we’re talking about Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, a young Barack Obama, the ‘85 Bears, and who was the leader of this: Harold Washington. That’s pretty impressive. 

(Reporter’s note: About transparency, Lambert referred to Washington’s efforts to make city government more transparent and ethical. For example, Washington instituted the first Freedom of Information Act law in Chicago during his first term as mayor in 1983, which gives the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. He also opened the city’s budget process for public participation).

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What message do you hope viewers walk away with after viewing Punch 9? 

RL: I hope that folks are number one educated. Two, I would say, are inspired, and then three, I would say, engaged. So when they leave [the theater], that’s not the end of it. I want people to ask: how can I get involved to make my community, neighborhood, precinct, city, state, and country be how I want them to be. And not just talking about it, but actively involved in doing it. I hope people come out of here and say, let’s go. We got work to do. Let’s come together, and let’s do it.

What’s next for Punch 9, and when will Chicagoans be able to view it in person? 

RL: So we’ll do festivals following this traditional path until probably June, and then in June, we’ll hopefully have a distributor in place so people can go out to see it in theaters, on home video, pay-per-view and then at some point, broadcasts. We think the wide release will probably be toward the end of the summer, the beginning of fall. Hopefully, it will be released before the election season sort of heats up because we think that the film will be a good tool to use. We’re having those conversations now with some of these organizations, like Fair Fight and Vote.org, and the ACLU, about using the film as a tool for civic engagement. We just received a grant from Chicago Community Trust to develop a school curriculum based on his life for middle school, high school, and college students. 

More information about “Punch 9 for Harold Washington” can be found here.  

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.