Fire on the Prairie

Harold Washington, Chicago Politics, and the Roots of the Obama Presidency

Gary Rivlin and Clarence Page
Book Cover

PB: $34.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-0492-3
Publication: Oct 12

HC: $91.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-0491-6
Publication: Oct 12

Ebook: $34.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-0493-0
Publication: Oct 12

312 pages
6 x 9
8 halftones

A revised edition of the classic story of race and power, set in Chicago during the 1980s, when this most political of cities elected its first black mayor

Read Chapter 1 (pdf).


Harold Washington's historic and improbable victory over the vaunted Chicago political machine shook up American politics. The election of the enigmatic yet engaging Washington led to his serving five tumultuous years as the city's first black mayor. He fashioned an uneasy but potent multiracial coalition that today still stands as a model for political change.

In this revised edition of Fire on the Prairie, acclaimed reporter Gary Rivlin chronicles Washington's legacy—a tale rich in character and intrigue. He reveals the cronyism of Daley's government and Washington's rivalry with Jesse Jackson. Rivlin also shows how Washington's success inspired a young community organizer named Barack Obama to turn to the electoral arena as a vehicle for change. While the story of a single city, this political biography is anything but parochial.


"Like Mike Royko’s Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago , Rivlin’s chronicle of Washington’s rise and power struggles has weathered the test of time as a classic Dickensian portrait of big city politics amid seismic racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic change."
from the Foreword by Clarence Page

"Colorfully, intimately, Fire on the Prairie shames and instructs as it entertains, weaving a skein of anecdotes and vignettes into a civic conversation about race and power."
Jim Sleeper, Washington Post Book World

"Fire on the Prairie is a master journalist’s fascinating chronicle of the Harold Washington mayorality elections and the intervening ‘Council War’. The book is rich in intriguing behind-the-scenes incidents. Rivlin makes the reader live those years."
Leon Despres, Chicago Sun-Times

Table of Contents

Foreword to the Revised Edition by Clarence Page
Introduction to the Revised Edition by Larry Bennett - Forging Barack Obama: Harold Washington, Chicago, and the Politics of Race

BOOK I A Racial Thing, 1983
1 A Cry in the Wind
2 The Conspirators
3 The Chosen
4 The Catalyst
5 The Jesse Jackson Factor
6 The Family Business
7 The Liberal Apology
8 A Tower of Babble
9 A Racial Thing
10 Positively Antebellum
11 A City Divided

BOOK II Council Wars, 1983–1986
12 The Biggest Bully in the Bar
13 Balancing Acts
14 Beirut on the Lake
15 Black Reform, White Reform
16 The Chicago Experiment
17 A Midterm Blunder
18 The Continuing Saga of Clarence McClain

BOOK III Something Less Than Hate, 1986–1987
19 The Reckoning
20 Any White Will Do
21 Thy Kingdom at Hand
22 The Empire Strikes Back

Note on Sources

About the Author(s)

Gary Rivlin is the author of five books, including Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business, and a former staff reporter for The New York Times, where his beats included Silicon Valley and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Wired, and Fortune, among other publications, and also the Chicago Reader, where he worked as a staff writer during the Harold Washington years.

In the Series

  • Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy edited by David Stradling, Larry Bennett, and Davarian Baldwin

    The Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy Series, edited by David Stradling, Larry Bennett, and Davarian Baldwin, was founded by the late Zane L. Miller to publish books that examine past and contemporary cities. While preserving the series’ foundational focus on the policy, planning, and environmental issues so central to metropolitan life, we also join scholarly efforts to push the boundaries of urban studies. We are committed to publishing work at the shifting intersections of cultural production, community formation, and political economy that shape cities at all scales, from the neighborhood to the transnational.