When D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy took the podium at the American Civil Liberties Union dinner last night to discuss the city's 10 years of Home Rule experience, he reminded the audience that the District's past history was not that different from the facts of apartheid in South Africa.
"While conditions in the District of Columbia are not nearly as bad as those under which black South Africans suffer, there is quite frankly a striking similarity between the systems of dual citizenship in South Africa and the system of dual citizenship so many of you fought for so many years.
"In South Africa, the white minority of 4 million maintain control and dominance over a black majority of 24 million. In the District, 535 members of Congress maintain dominance and control over nearly three quarters of a million people," said Fauntroy.
He was speaking to a well-connected and politically active audience at the annual fund-raising dinner that saluted Walter Washington, the last appointed and first elected mayor in the District, and attorney John Vanderstar.
"In South Africa," said Fauntroy, who was arrested in the recent demonstrations outside the South African Embassy, "a handful of citizens control 86 percent of the land and more than 70 percent of the income while relegating 80 percent of the citizens to second-class citizenship.
"In the District of Columbia, 55 percent of the land is either owned or occupied by the federal government. And 100 percent of the income is ultimately disposed of by the federal government," said Fauntroy. "And all of the people who live here have taxation without representation."
The new feelings of activism generated by the new round of anti-apartheid demonstrations may have been reflected by the dinner's attendance. The crowd of about 500 at the Mayflower Hotel was expected to net the ACLU $55,000, compared to last year's attendance of 320 guests and a $30,000 net.
Lawrence Mirel, the chairman of the local ACLU, told the first of many Walter Washington stories. Mirel recalled how Washington was summoned by then-representative John McMillan, the powerful chairman of the House District Committee, during the riots of 1968.
"Congressman McMillan was agitated. And he told Mayor Washington words to this effect: 'Walter, I want you to order your police to shoot those people, they are breaking the law.' Walter said no." That forcefulness, said Mirel, saved the city from the police violence that affected other cities at the time.
Then Mayor Marion Barry, the city's second elected mayor, recalled the same riots and how as a street activist he had tricked the Washington administration. He said he knew someone who knew how to work Washington's signature machine and wrote up a letter allowing him to be out in the streets after the curfew. "I didn't get arrested during that period," said the mayor.
Barry was effusive in his praise of Washington's administration. "Walter Washington demonstrated from the very beginning that we could read, we could write, we could count and could govern ourselves."
Washington's reply was delivered in his vintage style of pointed humor. He said at first he hadn't enjoyed praise. "As the years get on, I think you're right. And I say, 'Hit me again with that.' It just sounds good," said Washington.
He also recalled the old city, where an integrated group could dine together only at the old YMCA. "I believe, Mr. Mayor, we've built the foundation of a good city, and a greater city lies ahead, and that is in your hands."