June 14, 2013

“THESE PEOPLE are outside of the United States. They occupy neutral ground and have no political existence. They have neither voice nor vote. . . . They are hardly to be called citizens of the United States.” That full-throated advocacy for the District of Columbia from the autobiography of Frederick Douglass is a poignant backdrop to next week’s unveiling of his statue at the Capitol.

It is fitting that a statue of this famed civil rights champion will become the first to represent D.C. residents in the halls of the Capitol. But the fact that there is still truth to Douglass’s unsparing words is a rebuke to those who refuse to right the historic wrongs against the city.

A ceremony dedicating the statue of the former slave who became a leading abolitionist, writer and statesman will be held Wednesday in Emancipation Hall. It will cap a decade-plus battle by local advocates and officials to have a statue representing the District placed in the Capitol, joining those representing the 50 states. It was incongruous that people who lived in the nation’s capital were denied what D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) called a “symbol of our American citizenship.” D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who was instrumental in getting the money to commission and cast the statue, said he hated to think of D.C. schoolchildren visiting the Capitol and seeing every place in America represented with favored sons and daughters — except for their own home town. Douglass will become the fourth African American to be honored with a statue or bust at the Capitol.

The District also commissioned the creation of a statue of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, whose designs gave grand shape to the nation’s capital, but Congress — in its typical grudging treatment of D.C. — refused to allow placement of a second statue on the grounds that is a privilege accorded only to states. Instead, the L’Enfant statue is on display at 1 Judiciary Square NW.

The refusal to admit a second statue is a slight that pales in comparison with the continuing injustice to D.C. residents, who pay their taxes, fulfill civic obligations and fight in wars but are denied their rightful representation in Congress. As Douglass wrote so powerfully more than 100 years ago: “They have a plenty of taxation, but no representation. In the great questions of politics in the country they can march with neither army, but are relegated to the position of neuters.”