Participants heard from history makers, people who were kids themselves when they broke Jim Crow’s back and forced open the doors to polling places across the South. Courtland Cox, Sharlene Krantz and Dorie Ladner, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, discussed those electrifying times. The great Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) hosted us on Capitol Hill. But it wasn’t until the students saw footage of Lewis’s courage — a young man being beaten and dragged as he tried to vote — that he fully registered with them.
Still, I wasn’t sure whether they realized the full meaning of 1963. How could they, with so much unfinished business before us?
Of course the country has made enormous progress. Still, the fact is that too many young people aren’t equipped to comprehend our nation’s complex past, and we certainly haven’t prepared them for the future. City officials celebrate a 2 percent bump in reading scores. But in 2013, 50 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands more came to Washington, only about half of District youth read at grade level, only half graduate on time and an even larger percentage of black males do not finish high school.
Soul of the city, indeed.
The federal government and African Americans have a complex relationship, and Washington holds a unique position in that dynamic. Sheer physical proximity — a sizable black population living here, in the seat of power — provides a certain political intimacy, if you will, in this continued battle for full equality.
And, of course, that history extends much further than 1963.
Slaves, we know, literally helped lay the foundation for the White House and the U.S. Capitol.
And President Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862, eight months before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freed Washington’s slaves. Congress compensated slave owners $300 each for the 3,000 who were freed. The president also advocated colonization for free blacks, and $100,000 was allocated to send them to Haiti. Frederick Douglass praised Lincoln’s freeing of Washington’s slaves but urged the continued fight for social and economic equality and justice right here.
By June 1868, blacks were elected to citywide positions, and during Reconstruction, 20 black men were elected to the House of Representatives. They were part of a black elite who included doctors, lawyers, professors and ministers. Some held federal appointments.
The first wave of the Great Migration brought many African Americans to Washington, some seeking federal employment. But Jim Crow was thriving. President Woodrow Wilson worked to limit black federal employment. The percentage of black government employees fell from 6 percent in 1910 to about 4.9 percent in 1918.