Back to Columns main page
Government and People
Testimony at the City Council’s Hearing on
May 13, 2009
Thank you and good afternoon. I am Samuel Jordan, former Chair of the DC Statehood party. If politics is the competition for the control of resources and the decisions that govern their allocation, then the purpose of the right to vote, is to put social resources under the control of the enfranchised.
With this view, the struggle for the franchise has always cost, in ascending order of intensity and mass engagement: civil appeal, assertive negotiation, agitation, opposition, protest, and finally rebellion. Through its history, residents of the District of Columbia have matriculated through each of these stages in the campaign for self-government. Nevertheless, we can say that the campaign is not concluded. Furthermore, we can also say that this order of intensity has engaged District residents historically in a descending order of class position. That is, the more genteel visits to Members of Congress to politely discuss the benefits of the franchise for DC residents have occurred early in DC history and were conducted by Washington’s elite who were close, if not identical, in race and class position to the Members of Congress they solicited. They were often neighbors.
Whereas, following the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the rebellion in the streets, involved greater numbers of Washington’s poor and dispossessed as recorded in the arrest documents through the days of disruption. It is also clear that the most rapid improvement in the District’s status and enjoyment of the franchise came within a relatively brief period subsequent to the events of that tragic April day in 1968.
The period 1961 to 1973, referred to in today’s hearing agenda as the Civil Rights Era in the campaign for suffrage in the District, had important preparatory developments. Among them are the organization of the New Negro Alliance in 1933, which sought employment of African Americans in white businesses in their neighborhoods; the Hamburger Grill “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaign, whose leaders included Walter E. Washington, our first Mayor; and the Thompson Restaurant desegregation campaign, led by Anne Stein and the inestimable Mary Church Terrell in 1949 to 1953. That period also saw the integration of the old Uline Arena through mass, District-wide agitation. These victories stand out in their perfection of the rallies, mass mailings, sit-in, picketing, and selective patronage tactics that were used throughout the Civil Rights Era in varying combinations, as dictated by the nature of the targeted discrimination against African Americans.
This era began with a 1960 national suffrage bill, the Keating-Randolph amendment to a proposed constitutional amendment that would also end the poll tax and give governors the authority to appoint members of their state congressional delegations in the event of nuclear attack, a proposal of Sen. Kefauver of Tennessee. The original three-part amendment was reduced to a proposal to grant the residents of the District the right to vote for President and Vice President and fixed the electoral college complement at three — equal to that of the smallest state. It passed Congress in June 1960, and was ratified by the states by March 1961. The 23rd amendment’s promoters assured their own constituents and a national audience that, as Sen. Keating expressed it, “this is a right to vote amendment, not a self-government amendment.” The new amendment was one of seventy separate national suffrage measures between 1960 and 1877, but the only one that reached the voting stage in Congress. It is the opinion of many that a national suffrage proposal was an attention-diverting substitute for the campaign for local autonomy.
Categorical rejection of enfranchisement and self-government for District residents, particularly the District’s African American residents, according to contemporary accounts, characterized the thirty-one-year tenure of South Carolina’s John McMillan, the Dixiecrat Chairman of the House District Committee (including twenty-seven consecutive years, 1955-1972).
Upon the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1961, the District was offered an elected Mayor and Council, with tax authority, a nonvoting Delegate in the House of Representatives, and a stable federal payment formula. Congress and the President would retain ultimate legislative and veto authority. Ironically, this was referred to as the “whole loaf” proposal. His predecessor, President Eisenhower, offered a territorial form of government with a governor appointed by the president and a fifteen-member legislature elected by the residents of the city with the retention of Congressional and presidential review/rejection authority — the “half loaf” plan.
Kennedy’s proposals, the product of his support for some form of Home Rule for the District since his earliest days in the House of Representatives, were among a series of proposals that, although supported by a significant number of Senators and Representatives, continued to dismiss the wishes of the majority of the District’s residents for full, local self-government.
It was this demand that shaped the agenda of District chapters of national civil rights organizations and local associations entering the fight for Negro suffrage in Washington, DC and elsewhere in a new national atmosphere conditioned by the growing successes of the civil rights movement, particularly in the south, where the campaign for suffrage and its victories were headline-grabbing and dramatic.
The March on Washington in 1963 brought those primarily southern campaigns and their activist leadership to Washington, forming a base of support and training in tactics and organization for local civil rights leaders. SNCC, CORE, SCLC, and the NAACP were among the most important national organizations that assessed the state of the Negro in Washington, DC, and committed resources, human and material, to the development of a long-term, local effort to win the right to vote and self-government. “Free DC” was a demand of the 1963 march.
While national and local civil rights organizations sought greater autonomy for DC residents, their support for the full franchise varied according to their mandates derived from the characteristics of their constituent membership and their own movement portfolios. The more conservative organizations including the Urban League and the NAACP, promoted step-by-step, limited Home Rule, while the Black United Front, SNCC, and the DC Statehood Party, considered more “progressive” organizations, supported immediate and full self-government.
The demand for national representation, for Home Rule, and for statehood were in many ways quite distinct; nevertheless, the constant cross-pollination of personnel and mutual support for the long-term goal of self-government tended to minimize the divisions among the organizations. As a result, Rev. David Eaton, the President of the Black United Front, was also active in the several statehood committees and supported the Emergency Committee for the Transportation Crisis, the ECTC. Julius Hobson was a member of the Black United Front and the leader of DC CORE, and later a co-founder of the DC Statehood Party. In each organization, members of CORE, SNCC, the Urban League, the NAACP, the DC Congress of PTAs, and labor representatives responded to calls for action on the picket lines, community forums, and neighborhood door-to-door leafleting projects. These organizations, for all their differences, were in great agreement on goals even when tactics were disputed.
While a mere chronology of the period 1961 to 1973 would serve neither the purpose nor format of this hearing, it is valuable to emphasize several developments that helped to give more concrete form to the nature of DC activism that cemented the demand for self-government in a broadening base of local support.
Passage of the 23rd amendment taught DC residents and activists that there was sympathy for the democratic principle in the nation at large if we would only reach outside our borders. Within the city, however, there were several seminal events that contributed substantially to the long-term capacity for base building and mass activism. We might site these events: 1) The 1966 boycott of DC Transit Company, led by SNCC and Marion Barry, was and still is the largest effective example of mass action protest of local conditions in Washington, DC. On a daily basis, for about three days, over 150,000 people organized alternative transit to and from workplaces and commercial centers on the model of the Montgomery bus boycott. DC Transit, in defeat, altered its fare rate policies and strengthened its hiring program for African American drivers and garage mechanics. 2) The ECTC was a multi-racial, intergenerational, environmental, transportation, and housing campaign, which stopped the construction of super highways through the city under the slogan, “No white man’s highways through a black man’s home.” Not only did they win, but they also demonstrated by example that black and white Washington could implement a strategy that involved suburbanites in a victory for the long-term future of city planning and regional economic cooperation and development. The ECTC victory led to the DC MetroRail system and the abandonment of plans to criss-cross the city with freeways. Maryland and Virginia stayed with the highway lobby and lament to this day the absence of a modern, underground urban rail transit system. The members of ECTC became the organizing core of the DC Statehood Party.
3) Rebellion, the last option in the social protest calculus, was triggered by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968. It was followed in less than three weeks, on April 22, by the approval of an elected school board. A non-voting Delegate in the House of Representatives was seated in 1971, and the passage of the Home Rule Charter in 1973, established an elected Mayor, Council, and ANC system. Twenty thousand people participated, thirty new fires were set per hour, twelve hundred buildings were burned, seven thousand six hundred people were arrested, and five thousand jobs were lost permanently. Smoldering discontent and resentment of race domination exploded into flames and a century of agitation for Home Rule was compressed into a period of five years.
The work of this Committee, Mr. Chairman, provides an opportunity for the Council of the District to take the lead in setting the compass for future gains by the people of the District toward the goal of full self-government. A review of the period 1961-1973, when recounted in much greater detail than permitted by time limitations for the panelists, recommends: 1) Clarity in message and mission. In the same manner that Home Rule differed from national representation and statehood, so does statehood differ from the DC House Voting Rights initiative. They are to be distinguished in tactic and vision for the city. Such clarity in mission and message requires consensus among elected representatives. 2) The residents of the city must have a grounding in the history, issues, and methods of successful organizing as taught by a commission or other organizational grouping that would reach into each community in the city’s eight wards. This commission or grouping will take its lead from the Council. 3) As in the campaign for national suffrage for the 23rd amendment, a national and international campaign must be designed with sufficient material and fiscal resources committed by the Council in the first instance and supported through solicitations from all residents of the District.
Mr. Chairman, in preparing my remarks, I did not intend to devote a significant amount of attention to Representative John McMillan of South Carolina, who ruled the District for a total thirty-one years until he was ousted in 1972, the result of a campaign organized by Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy with busloads of activists who traveled to McMillan’s district in South Carolina. In that year, Representative Charles Diggs of Michigan became the Chairman of the House District Committee. McMillan was the villain of the piece.
With your permission, I’d like to put on the record an item that explains my disdain for speaking more about Mr. McMillan. On January 3, 1867, Congress enacted a law that extended the franchise to “all persons who have resided in the District one year, without regard to race, color or property holdings.” Justifying his veto of the law giving blacks the right to vote, President Andrew Johnson said, “It is within their power to come into the District in such numbers as to have supreme control of the white race and to govern them by their own officers and by the exercise of all municipal authority.” McMillan had roots.
Back to top of page
Send mail with questions or comments to email@example.com
Web site copyright ©DCWatch (ISSN 1546-4296)