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Jackson Seeks Role in Picking Successor to Washington : Estimated 125,000 File Past Body of Chicago Mayor

November 29, 1987|LARRY GREEN | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — As the Rev. Jesse Jackson sought to mediate the contest to succeed Harold Washington, an unending stream of Chicagoans flowed past the open coffin of their late mayor Saturday in an extraordinary display of mourning more often seen at the death of a national leader.

It was as if the people felt they were part of his family or counted among his friends. By noon Saturday, police estimated that 125,000 people had filed past the body in the rotunda of City Hall since the public wake began Friday evening.

The Salvation Army handed out coffee to mourners as they waited on a gray, misty day for their turn to enter. A spokesman said more than 62,000 cups had been served by noon.

Lines Form Early

Even at 5 a.m., when police said the lines were the shortest, dozens waited in the twin queues that formed on normally bustling LaSalle Street.

The calm and peace of City Hall, filled with the fragrance of floral wreaths, the sound of soft piano music, sobs and occasional wails, was in marked contrast to a fierce, behind-the-scenes struggle for the right to succeed Washington, who died of a heart attack Wednesday while sitting at his desk. He was 65.

Jackson, who took a break from his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and who describes himself as "the senior member of the family" of black Chicago politicians, met Friday night with three black aldermen seen as the most likely successors to Washington.

On Saturday, Jackson told hundreds of mourners who packed the Operation PUSH headquarters: "We must keep the team together." Later, at a news conference, Jackson said that he will attempt to talk with all interested aldermen.

Plans Endorsement

He said he will make his preference known at "the appropriate time"--sometime after Washington's funeral Monday.

But those lining up at City Hall were less interested in the future than they were in the recent past.

"Harold Washington did a lot for the people," said Charles Bruce, 27, a computer operator who stood in line before going to work. "He gave us hope. He gave us leadership. He gave us a chance."

For Chicago, where politics is as much a part of life in the city as the entertainment industry is in Los Angeles or government is in the nation's capital, the lines of people signaled to the rest of the country the contribution Washington made to history here. More than a politician, he was the leader of a movement that broke decades of traditional white Democratic political machine control, opening up government to minorities and neighborhoods that had long been neglected.

On the local level, Washington was a hero and a symbol, just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were nationally.

"He was almost a deity in the black community, like Jack Kennedy was in Catholic homes in the 1960s," said David Axelrod, a political consultant and expert on Chicago politics.

'Woke Up Politics'

"He woke up politics here from 25 years of sleep," said Michael Conroy, 30, who, with his wife and two small children, waited in the damp morning to view the mayor, whose body was surrounded with white mums and partially covered with the blue and white Chicago flag.

The mourning--the purple and black crepe hung around City Hall--was in marked contrast to the bright lights, perky music and colorful window displays two blocks away, along State Street, where the Christmas shopping season was in full swing.

But the grief and the holidays meshed briefly Saturday as the city's annual Christmas parade was led by a riderless horse draped in black--the traditional symbol of a fallen leader.

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