Words of service

Just got back from a quick trip out of town, where I saw a message in golden letters embedded in the granite floor of a glittering, enormous and well-run municipal building. Finding the communiqué, literally written in stone, was serendipity.

If I used words like “resonance,” I’d say these few sentences have it in abundance for Detroit, its people, its neighbors, and especially those who lead them on both sides of Eight Mile.

Suffering many of the same problems that now afflict Detroit, but in much greater measure, this city “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 argue and to reason, to confront our problems and not merely to contain them.” Even containment, in Detroit’s current condition, sounds good.

“We didn’t come together out of love for one another,” it continues. “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.”

The writer was Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the first African-American elected to lead that city, in his second inaugural address upon being returned to office in April 1987. Seven months later, he died of a massive heart attack while discussing school board issues, sitting at his City Hall desk.

He came into office vowing to dismantle the entrenched political machine of Boss Richard J. Daley, and — at the time of his death — was succeeding. And, as the Chicago Tribune eulogized, “he managed to solidify, at least behind his popular leadership, a united black community that, aligned with a large number of Hispanic and white voters, lowered the voice of racism in a city that had gotten a national reputation for shouting.”

Upon election, when he discovered that the city’s fiscal problems were much worse than had been reported, Washington came in the door and froze city hiring, fired patronage appointees, cut existing executive salaries and served notice that new appointees would have to accept the fact that they’d be paid much less than their counterparts in other cities. His attention was not on executive perks, but on serving the city he loved by walking the walk instead of sloganeering. He’s credited with building, instead of wrecking, coalitions.

Detroit isn’t Chicago. We have only about a third of its population, with a stream of citizens — also known as taxpayers and revenue sources — leaving all the time.

But because it’s so much bigger, the problems that beset all American cities — especially in the current national political climate — are also that much bigger.

When Harold Washington took office, he laid out the problems for the record, not for buck-passing, name-calling and justification for whatever followed. He described the problems in detail, asked for help, then led.

He became the kind of leader whose words would be cemented in stone, in this case, a floor of the Chicago Central Library, largest lending library in the country. Those gold-toned words are polished constantly, because Washington meant what he said, and followed through.

Who among Detroit’s current leadership can say the same with a straight face? And which of them can ever hope to have their legacy set in stone?

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