The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion My father’s words are being distorted by those who oppose D.C. statehood

Robert F. Kennedy, attorney general of the United States. (Vince McNamee/The Washington Post)
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An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated the date of the Voting Rights Act. It was passed in 1965. This version has been updated.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is a former lieutenant governor of Maryland.

Our family is always flattered when my father, Robert Kennedy, is referenced in current public debates … if the result reflects his essential values. In the recent wrangling over D.C. statehood, however, his 1963 testimony before the House subcommittee on the District has been misleadingly cited to support the notion that only a constitutional amendment can make Washington, D.C., our 51st state. Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), whom I admire, pointed to that testimony as a central factor in his opposition to statehood; several Republicans, including Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.)and Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.)have made similar claims. I have watched this invocation with dismay, and I feel compelled to respond.

No one can say for certain the position of someone no longer around to speak for himself, but core principles outrank posthumous interpretations. And I can say with certainty what my father believed in: the equal right of every American to participate fully in our democracy. Robert Kennedy wanted all D.C. residents to elect their federal representatives — the same as their fellow Americans. He said so repeatedly. Today, more than 50 years after his death, the residents of our nation’s capital are still second-class citizens, and I am certain that my father would have demanded change by the speediest route.

Now to the comments in question: On his 38th birthday, Nov. 20, 1963, my father appeared before that subcommittee to support a bill expanding D.C. residents’ control over local matters. The discussion ranged into the esoterica of many possible approaches to the topic: home rule, retroceding (or transferring) part of D.C. to Maryland, and even statehood.

Responding to a question — and speaking as attorney general, not as a constitutional scholar — Kennedy noted the relationship between the recently passed 23rd Amendment, which allows D.C. residents to vote for president and vice president, and the broader question of District representation; he echoed the consensus of the time that another constitutional amendment could offer a clear route to further voting rights.

But the memorandum he had the Justice Department send to the subcommittee shortly afterward made it clear that an amendment was not the only path. It said that “it is arguable that the choice [to change the District’s status] can now be reconsidered only by means of another constitutional Amendment” (emphasis added) and noted that the department did not “express an opinion on these questions.”

In his testimony, my father made it clear that he hoped “some other way of doing it” could be found. Happily, we have that mechanism today: the Washington, D.C. Admissions Act, which, as several dozen scholars concluded recently, puts to rest any constitutional issues.

My father’s testimony that day was founded on his conviction that “the best government is that which is most responsive to the needs and wishes of the citizens. That is just as true in the District … as it is in Massachusetts, Wyoming or South Carolina.” That belief, the basis of his life-long support for D.C. home rule, now requires us not to further delay and deny congressional representation for D.C.'s more than 700,000 residents.

In the memorandum submitted to Congress, my father stated what he believed to be the historical framework for the treatment of District rights: “It was indispensably necessary to the independence and the very existence of the new Federal Government to have a seat of government which was not subject to the jurisdiction or control of any State.” We don’t need to be constitutional scholars — we can be casual students of our history — to understand that the necessity of protecting the “federal district” from pressures from any host state has been obviated by the reality that the federal government’s powers now dwarf those of any state.

Today, control comes from another quarter: D.C.'s citizens are frozen out of representation not only because they lack statehood but also because powerful members of Congress routinely impose their personal pet theories against the clear will of D.C.'s voters. D.C. has seen its local labor, anti-discrimination and gun laws threatened by members of Congress whose districts are across the country. Even the results of a referendum garnering nearly 70 percent support were overruled by Congress.

My father’s passion for self-government led him to work for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and to vocally oppose segregation, colonialism, communism, apartheid — any system here or abroad that denied the core principle that “laws are administered to protect and expand individual freedom, not to compel individuals to follow the logic other men impose on them.” The 4½ years remaining to my father after his 1963 testimony saw him move with accelerating urgency in that effort: to right historic wrongs and achieve real equality. It is time for all of us who look to him as an example to do the same and take the most direct route to D.C. representation: passage of the Washington, D.C. Admission Act.

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