Musgrove says mayors from Tony Williams (D) to Muriel E. Bowser (D) later “set aside” that goal in favor of gradual, market-oriented policies that have been “tremendously bad for the poor” and created an “explosion of inequality.”
But Musgrove sees fresh possibility for progress in the Black Lives Matter movement, which has prompted a chorus favoring action to overcome structural racism. “I hope it’s honest and actually brings some results,” he said in an interview. “It remains to be seen what [the country] is actually willing to do.”
Bowser and her immediate predecessors would dispute Musgrove’s criticisms. They would say the city’s impressive economic revival also benefited its poorest residents by creating jobs and money for affordable housing even as gentrification — and income disparities — spun out of control.
Either way, Musgrove, who teaches at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is the right man to educate us about Black politics. He co-wrote the well-received 2017 book “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.”
Now he’s writing a book on the second half of the Black Power era, from 1980 to 1997, when activists battled both an urban crisis and a conservative backlash unleashed by the Reagan administration.
His website, “Black Power in Washington, D.C., 1968-1998,” offers a concise account of the rise and fall of the movement, which took off when Carmichael chose the District in 1967 as “a place where concerted Black organizing could have its deepest impact.” (The website can be found at bit.ly/DCBlackPower.)
It includes photos and maps so today’s Washingtonians can see how a hip hair salon now stands next to the site on Rhode Island Avenue NW where a Black urban land group was based. The maps include detailed descripti ons, w ith sourcing, of 183 Black Power events, organizations and individuals.
The many-faceted movement included activists ranging from Black capitalists to Pan-African socialists. It espoused three core principles: Black self-determination, self-love and self-defense.
The website describes how, beginning in the late 1960s, federal dollars from the War on Poverty financed a burst of grass-roots work. Within a decade, it says, Black Power activists “dominated the newly created local government.” Barry, Julius Hobson, Nadine Winter and others “leveraged their activist credentials to gain seats on the D.C. Council.”
They quickly faced obstacles. Musgrove writes, “Just as they entered the halls of power, the economy soured, constricting their ability to help their constituents. At the same time, a conservative coalition captured much of the federal government promising to shrink aid to cities, roll back civil rights protections, and end affirmative action.”
The activists sought to recoup their losses with a Black Power “resurgence” in the 1980s and 1990s that included mass marches and civil disobedience. The era ended with a 1998 dinner where more than 1,000 attendees honored the terminally ill Carmichael, who by then had changed his name to Kwame Ture.
“It symbolized the passing of a generation of activists and their style of politics,” the website says.
Bob Brown, an associate of Carmichael’s who helped organize African Liberation Day events, hopes Musgrove’s work will widen awareness of the movement’s legacy.
“The young people don’t know about it,” Brown said. He posits that’s partly because D.C. leaders since Barry have represented what he called the conservative Black elite.
While wishing Musgrove’s website “tremendous success,” Brown also criticized what he called its “narrowness.” He said it focused too much on Black Democrats, neglecting contributions of Republicans, Communists or leaders of other political persuasions.
Musgrove says the Black Power movement succeeded in extending political and economic clout to lower-income African Americans — an emphasis that he says later leaders abandoned. “Members of the council and [Barry] were very focused on making sure that . . . poor people, who had been neglected by city government, got access to the levers of government,” he said in the interview.
In that sense, he added, “this was one of the most fruitful moments in democratic politics in the city’s history.” That’s “democratic” with a lowercase “d.”
But it fell apart — partly because of Barry’s notorious arrest while smoking crack cocaine, and partly because he managed the city atrociously and drove it to the brink of bankruptcy.
“When people reacted to that, they kind of threw the baby out with the bathwater,” Musgrove said. “They turned their back on the good part of Black politics, which was constantly pushing resources and rights to the poorest people of the city.”
The result today: “The city is run really well. It’s just not run really well if you’re poor, because you can’t afford to stay here.”
Asked to name two initiatives that would help revive the era’s politics, Musgrove cited familiar needs for more affordable housing — one of Bowser’s signature issues — and vocational training for the poor. Bowser has drawn praise for directing more money to housing than other mayors have done. But the forces of gentrification are so strong that it’s unclear whether her efforts can stem the tide.
Likewise, it’s proved difficult to provide marketable job skills for the chronically under- and unemployed.
Poet E. Ethelbert Miller, a veteran of the Black Power era, cited gentrification and the decrease in the District’s Black population as reasons to doubt prospects for a Black Power revival. “This city took a lot of fascination with being ‘Chocolate City,’ [but] ice cream eventually melts,” said Miller, whom Barry named to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Miller applauded Bowser’s painting of the giant Black Lives Matter mural on the street outside Lafayette Square.
“Every now and then, a politician rises to the occasion,” Miller said. “People who said she was in the back pocket of developers and that sort of thing, this said she was siding with the community.”
He added: “It was a symbol, but something to build on.”
This article has been updated.