By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Wilhelmina J. Rolark, 89, a civil rights activist who helped District residents wrest the right to self-government from Congress and who as a four-term D.C. Council member championed the oft-neglected needs of her Ward 8 constituents, died of colon cancer Feb. 14 at Greater Southeast Community Hospital.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Mrs. Rolark and her late husband, Calvin R. Rolark, were one of the most recognizable power couples in the city, and they used that power to challenge the white establishment in pursuit of better jobs and services for black residents. Working as a team, they tackled the problems of poverty, crime and lack of privilege in the Southeast quadrant of the city.
"We've got the one-two punch," her husband said in 1988. "She's on the inside; I'm on the outside."
On a council dominated by activists, she was one of the first lawyers elected to a seat. Energetic, punctual and aggressive, Mrs. Rolark lost her first race for the council by fewer than 100 votes, but she came back in 1976 and served until 1993. She was defeated 3 to 1 by an old ally, Marion Barry, the former mayor who had just been released from prison after serving time for drug possession and had moved from Ward 7 into Ward 8.
Former congressional Del. Walter E. Fauntroy said Mrs. Rolark was instrumental in helping the District get home rule. For years, John L. McMillan, the Democratic congressman from South Carolina who was chairman of the House District Committee, refused to let the issue of home rule come up for a vote, Fauntroy said. Mrs. Rolark and her husband worked with Fauntroy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on a voter registration drive, pushing the number of registered black voters in McMillan's district from 3 percent of the electorate to 29 percent.
Fauntroy said Mrs. Rolark then mobilized D.C. residents to contact relatives and friends in South Carolina to vote McMillan out. With a new committee chairman, the home rule bill came up for a vote and was passed in 1973.
"She now joins a pantheon of three other heroines of our epic struggle for justice and human dignity who have left us in the past few months," Fauntroy said. "Her passing deepens my longing for a new generation of African American women who will catch the torches that in recent months have fallen from the hands of Mrs. Rolark, Dr. C. Delores Tucker, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King."
Some attributed her influence to her husband, but activist Dick Gregory, who sat on the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Council with Mrs. Rolark, called that "a problem with our sexist society."
"Just like Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King," Gregory said, "nobody knew who Coretta was until Martin died. . . . The city lost a great lady today."
In 1966 Mrs. Rolark and her husband founded the Washington Informer newspaper, which printed good news instead of articles about crime and often featured the couple in its pages. In 1969, the Rolarks founded the United Black Fund of Greater Washington after they challenged the United Way's distribution of charity dollars. After her husband died, she was appointed chief executive of the agency.
A 1992 Washington Post profile described her as a "cannonball of a woman . . . [whose] long, silent glare [is] well known to legions of lobbyists and D.C. bureaucrats who cringe at the mention of her name."
Supporters called her relentless and principled, while critics said she was rude and ineffective. In the rough-and-tumble politics of City Hall, Mrs. Rolark managed to create a record of constituent service, once doling out 160 ceremonial resolutions honoring Ward 8 residents in a single council meeting.
When cable television came to the District, Mrs. Rolark insisted that Ward 8 be the first neighborhood wired and that utility companies open branches there so residents wouldn't have to cross the Anacostia River to pay their bills. She pushed for more police foot patrols, tougher bail laws and murder sentences, and protection of juveniles who are arrested. She was credited with introducing more job training, improved bus routes and recreation in public housing.
She named the two main streets in Ward 8 after civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She sponsored legislation that established the D.C. Energy Office. She was also a founder of the annual Ward 8 Martin Luther King birthday parade.
Some of her own council colleagues criticized her for dragging her feet on crime legislation and for delaying economic development projects in her ward until they met her exact specifications or employed people she preferred. In 1991, Mrs. Rolark deftly won council approval for a $600,00 emergency grant for a prison drug treatment project run by one of her former aides.
She was denounced by gay-rights groups for blocking attempts to overturn the city's ban on sodomy, although she won strong support from some ministers for her stand. She was at war with medical groups for refusing for a decade to approve a bill to limit malpractice awards, but she was praised by trial lawyers.
Mrs. Rolark was born in Portsmouth, Va., on Sept. 27, 1916, graduated from Howard University in 1936 and received a master's degree in political science from Howard in 1938. While waiting tables and working at the post office, she went to law school at night and earned a degree from the now-closed Terrell Law School in 1944.
She worked as a lawyer, taking civil rights and other cases in Washington through the 1950s, and founded the National Association of Black Women Attorneys. She met her future husband at a cemetery during an undertakers picnic in 1960, and within three years they married, forging a partnership that lasted until his death in 1994.
Mrs. Rolark, who lived in Southeast Washington with her nephew John Bowie, was a member of the Washington Bar Association, the National Bar Association and the Trial Lawyers Association. She also belonged to Shiloh Baptist Church.
Survivors include two stepchildren, Denise Rolark Barnes of Washington and Calvin Rolark II of Denver; and two grandchildren.