Harold Washington has struck the right chord by calling for a healing of animosities in Chicago following the bitter mayoral race. If he does indeed follow through on his pledge to ''reach out my hand in friendship to every living soul in this city,'' he will help build a Chicago more united socially and stronger politically than ever before. The opportunity is his to grasp.
Chicago can be proud of itself. Yes, it was a nasty, divisive campaign marked by personal and racial slurs. But, when one considers the political sea change which the election of a black leader would represent in the nation's dominant Midwestern city - and some of the mud-slinging political races in past American history - it is perhaps cause for comment that the campaign was no worse than it was.
We say proud because the electoral process has worked. Blacks registered in unprecedented numbers in order to help elect one of their own, showing that they are a growing political force to be reckoned with on the national as well as local scene. Yet Mr. Washington could not have been elected without the support of whites, including the liberal Jewish community, Hispanics, Irish-Americans, and others.
It can be regretted that so many traditionally Democratic white citizens voted on the basis of race. Their ballot opposition to candidate Washington no doubt sprang from fear of what a black leadership would do in and to their ethnic communities. Dispelling their apprehensions and winning their confidence must now be a major priority at city hall.
We say proud, too, because the campaigns of mayor-elect Washington and defeated Republican candidate Bernard Epton represented an assault on the old machine system which enabled the Democratic Party to rule through political patronage and favoritism. It is time for reform. Often it is said that the Daley machine, for all its political abuses and strong-arm methods, at least made Chicago ''a city that works.'' But any authoritarian system can be efficient. The question is whether it is possible to achieve efficient and democratic government - not through civil service payoffs for party support but through a bipartisan commitment to professionalism and integrity.
That is what Mr. Washington has to demonstrate. It hardly needs adding that, because of his financial ''mistakes'' and jail record of the past, he will be under especially strong pressure to display the rectitude and fairness demanded of any high public official. If Mr. Washington succeeds in reforming the system, however, it should become possible - ironically so - for Republicans at long last to make inroads in the city's political life and thereby provide a more balanced, more open, more democratic Chicago.
The mayor-elect already has the judicial system on his side and that should make the task of reform easier. A district court has ordered broad changes in the city and county rules governing the hiring of employees (the Supreme Court had already ruled against firing of workers on political grounds). Thus, most job vacancies now have to be posted for a certain time and publicity given to them. So Mr. Washington need only carry out the law to clean out deadwood and enlist the most competent people possible for service in gov-ernment.
Democracy, in short, has done its work of bringing about peaceful change. Now it is up to Harold Washington - and the nation will be watching.