Since taking office in 1963, Johnson had expressed interest in granting the District of Columbia self-government. He viewed the passage of a home rule charter as an important piece of his broader civil rights agenda. He also worried about racial violence in the city. The 1965 Watts uprising, which began just a few days after he had signed the Voting Rights Act, had particularly rattled Johnson, and he believed that locally elected representatives, which the city hadn’t had, might better prevent crime.
But the House District Committee, which oversaw local affairs from within the U.S. Congress, along with local white business and real estate groups, resisted home rule measures, fearing that the city’s black majority would dominate local elections and, in turn, the local government.
Following protracted battles with the House District Committee leadership, Johnson pushed through a reorganization plan that offered limited self-government to D.C. residents by replacing the city’s three commissioners with a single mayor-commissioner and a nine-member council appointed by the president. Johnson was one of the first to acknowledge that the reorganization plan — which allowed Congress to continue to oversee the city’s budget and have veto power over its laws — was a poor substitute for elected city government, but he nevertheless viewed it as an important step toward home rule.
Southern congressmen and white stakeholders — including Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham — continued to oppose black leadership. Johnson himself did not initially want to appoint a black mayor. In fact, he appointed Walter Washington, a 52-year-old politically moderate African American and head of New York City’s Housing Authority, for the top post only after a black Justice Department aide urged him to reconsider the poor racial optics of granting the majority-black city a greater degree of political independence only to appoint a white mayor.
The president continued to try to toe the line between granting black self-determination and preserving white control. Although Johnson was willing to appoint a black mayor, he sided with the House District Committee’s southern representatives, the city’s white stakeholders and D.C.’s notoriously punitive police chief, John Layton, who did not want a black mayor to have control over the city’s police department. But Walter Washington stood his ground, refusing to accept the job without jurisdiction over the police. Because Johnson wanted to make a quick announcement, he relented in September 1967.
As the city’s newly appointed local government settled into office, the Johnson administration took aggressive measures to influence how the District would handle a potential uprising. In December 1967, Johnson signed a D.C. crime bill that presented an increasingly punitive template for crime prevention designed by his conservative opponents.
The controversial bill permitted police officers to question suspects before their arraignment, introduced increased mandatory-minimum sentencing for certain crimes and allowed warrantless arrests for misdemeanors. It also contained an antiriot provision, which included penalties of up to five years imprisonment and fines of up to $10,000 for engaging in, inciting or encouraging others to participate in a riot.
Then, with White House consent, Attorney General Ramsey Clark, a Texan known for his moderate views on law and order, established a secret intelligence unit within the Justice Department to collect information on black activists inside and outside the capital and to better coordinate responses with state and local officials. It also allowed the U.S. Army to conduct its own surveillance operation and commissioned the Office of the Secretary of Defense to issue riot-control plans, which included pre-positioning Army officers in assigned precincts. Collectively, these measures illustrated that the federal government would always overrule local black officials in the name of law and order.
On April 4, 1968, within a half-hour of hearing the news of King’s assassination, a crowd congregated on 14th and U Streets NW to mourn the loss of the great civil rights leader. Protests quickly spread in black neighborhoods throughout the city, including the Seventh Street NW and H Street NE corridors. By dawn, 14th Street had finally quieted down and, by midmorning April 5, the D.C. police confidently predicted the worst was over. But it was wrong.
Following more protester-police confrontations that afternoon, federal officials took over, working both to suppress protesters and to limit the authority of local black officials. On April 5, Johnson authorized the military to restore order. By noon on April 8, the National Guard had stationed over 13,000 troops at key points throughout Washington. It would be more than a week before troops stopped patrolling the city’s black neighborhoods.
Johnson had initially approached home rule with enthusiasm. But the self-government measure he ultimately implemented, combined with his major crime fighting and riot prevention measures, limited the local black government’s response to the 1968 protests. Meanwhile, white stakeholders and national lawmakers criticized the city’s black appointees for their purportedly lenient approach to the uprising and used the protests as evidence of the need to curb future home rule legislation.
On a national level, Johnson’s anti-crime apparatus — particularly the way it was implemented in Washington — laid the groundwork for Richard Nixon’s ascendance. No president used law-and-order measures to curb Washingtonians’ autonomy as vigorously as Nixon did. As the city’s municipal government tried to rebuild Washington, the Nixon administration partnered with local white stakeholders and national lawmakers to criminalize black Washingtonians and federalize policing efforts. Even after activists fought for stronger home rule measures, leading to the city’s first municipal elections in 1974, the president retained emergency powers over the local police and used law and order to narrow the possibilities for black political power.
Over 50 years later, new protests have erupted in the capital. On Monday, in a violent act seen around the country, law enforcement and National Guard units forcibly drove protesters away from Lafayette Square with gas 25 minutes before the citywide 7 p.m. curfew to allow the president to stand for a photo op in front of St. John’s Church. Yet, Trump, rumored to be considering a takeover of the D.C. police thanks to an obscure provision of a D.C. law that allows the president to do so during an emergency, still called for a larger show of force in Washington. Meanwhile, Attorney General William P. Barr has deployed police power from myriad federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Customs and Border Patrol, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Trump-friendly governors sent National Guard troops to Washington.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has repeatedly challenged Trump’s calls for law and order. Much like Mayor Washington had wanted to eliminate the aura of a federal occupation of the city in 1968, Bowser told reporters, “We don’t want armed National Guard, armed military, and we don’t want any of those things on D.C. streets.” A lot has changed since 1968. But today’s protests demonstrate that policing in Washington is still being used as a symbol of presidential power. Meanwhile, the federal government will continue to undermine the city’s black leadership in the name of “law and order” rather than supporting self-determination. Until Congress passes a D.C. statehood bill, this will always be the case.