"I've been elected president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations," says Arthur Meigs with a sense of disbelief, "and I think that's absolutely amazing."
Meigs, a 68-year-old Cleveland Park lawyer and investor, is white and the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations is a predominantly black organization. Meigs will be the first white to head the 60-year-old organization, one that was formed shortly after World War I because blacks had been denied membership in the Federation of Citizens Associations, then an all-white group. During its history, the Federation of Civic Associations has participated in a wide range of community and governmental affairs.
Today, even both organizations are integrated, the two federations continue to exist, with the membership of the "civics" largely black, the membership of the "citizens" largely white. Time, however, has shifted the balance strength between the two groups.
As the city became predominantly black, the "civics" gained membership while the "citizens" decreased in size and influence. According to spokesmen for both federations, there are 56 associations and approximately 15,000 people active in the "civics" while there are 25 groups with about 5,000 members in the "citizens." Thirteen citizens associations, including Cleveland Park, also are members of the Federation of Civic Associations.
"Everybody knows that separatism is over; we need a color-blind city where character is the issue instead of color," says Meigs. "I hope that my being elected president indicates that we are developing in that direction."
Meigs, a tall, silver-haired man with an erudite manner, lives on Cathedral Avenue NW, a quiet street whose stately homes with their large living rooms and costly furnishings bespeak wealth. His mostly residential neighborhood, perched on the northwest border of Rock Creek Park between 'connecticut and Wisconsin avenues NW, is nearly 100 percent white.
Meigs presides over a large family trust left by his parents and devotes the rest of his time to volunteer work, including serving as president of the Cleveland Park Citizens Association.
All this would seem to put Arthur Meigs in a world far removed from many of the neighborhoods that characterize the rest of the city that he now represents. Yet Meigs, who has lived in D.C. all but three years of his life, says the two worlds are not as different as they seem.
"No matter where you live in D.C., we're all concerned about the same thing: crime . . . and the things that cause crime. People who don't see too many white people in their neighborhoods," Meigs says, "think all the crime is in their area, and people around here think all the crime is in this area, but when we all get together, we see that we have a common problem that we've got to solve together."
Meigs views himself as a bridge builder between the federations and between the races. The federation he now heads has a tradition of fighting segregation and racism in D.C. In 1965, members of the "civics" voted to "extend the hand of friendship" to the members of the "citizens" federation (who allowed a "white-only" clause to remain in their constitution until 1972,) urging them to end racial separation in the city.
Meigs says now that the "civics" have selected him three-fourths of the total votes in a three-way election, the group has once again made a historic move to end racial division in D.C.
"The blacks have behaved better than the whites in trying to end racism," Meigs says. "I think the white people really have for many centuries in this city been wrong in their attitude towards black people. I think that's given rise, understandably, to resentment."
He adds, "I don't think I would have been elected if theere hadn't been a great wave of forgiveness on the part of the black people in D.C."
After graduating from Princeton in 1935 and Harvard Law School in 1937, Meigs began working as a lawyer in Philadelphia, where he was born. Four years later, to the chagrin of his mother, he said, he joined a nonprofit, volunteer-oriented corporation called Moral Re-Armament. The international social-religious movement campaigned for the "spiritual rearming of men and nations" and urged "every nation and every individual" to take on the responsibility of creating worldwide "peace, unity and love."
Meigs gave up his law practice to travel to Europe and Switzerland, selling books and pamphlets that espoused the message of Moral ReArmament. While in the movement, he met his wife Ellen. In the years that followed, he has supported his wife, a homemaker, and two children with money acquired through an inheritance from a wealthy uncle. His father, a physiologist, at the U.S.Department of Agriculture, and his mother, still wanting him to put his law background to work, left him in charge of a large family trust that is used to care for family members.
Meigs, who served as first vice president of the "civics" for three years, says he will try to help individual associations combat apathy in their areas and attract more members: "Talking to citizens and recognizing things that they've done is probably the best way to do that."
When visiting areas of the city whose black populations may still harbor resentment towards whites, Meigs says, he expects to be greeted with a friendliness that will allow effective communication.
Certain that his election serves as a barometer of what race relations in D.C. will be like in coming years, Meigs concludes, "We're at a point now where a lot of things are unfolding; if we let them unfold, we're going to have a united city."