The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The battle against D.C. statehood is rooted in anti-Black racism

Understanding this history helps make the case for D.C. as the 51st state

Supporters kick off D.C. Statehood Week in Washington on Sept. 16, 2019. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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It’s a big week for advocates of D.C. statehood. On Monday, the House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing on admitting the District of Columbia as the 51st state. In the past week, President Biden announced his support for it, D.C. Muriel E. Bower (D) installed 51-star flags along Pennsylvania Avenue in a display of encouragement, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) counted down the days until the hearing on Twitter.

D.C. statehood would accomplish two long-term goals of activists in the capital: full representation in Congress and a D.C. government that is completely independent from congressional rule. But why are the District’s more than 700,000 residents denied these basic elements of democracy in the first place? The reason is rooted in the United States’ long history of anti-Black racism and fear of Black political power. As Congress debates the District’s fate, it’s valuable to revisit the history of the capital’s “taxation without representation,” which exposes this odious reality. Making this history clear provides new impetus for D.C. statehood and invites deep scrutiny of arguments made against this basic freedom.

When the federal government moved to D.C. in 1800, Congress controlled the capital, but D.C. residents still had some local autonomy and elections. Then, after the Civil War, Congress passed legislation granting African American men the vote, even before the 15th Amendment. In the 1868 D.C. mayoral election, nearly 50 percent of registered voters were Black men. They were instrumental in electing local leaders who pushed school integration and passed anti-discrimination civil rights laws.

This period of Black suffrage and political power was short-lived, however. In 1874, Congress installed a Board of Commissioners, composed of three appointed leaders, to run the D.C. municipal government. Most White Washingtonians supported the plan, in part because Congress would pay 50 percent of D.C.’s budget. They were also willing to give up their access to the vote so Black people would no longer have political power in D.C. The Organic Act of 1878, part of the compromise that officially ended Reconstruction, made the commissioner structure permanent, and all D.C. residents lost the vote for nearly 100 years.

Under this system, Congress exercised immense power over D.C., which allowed Southern segregationists to enforce their racial politics in the capital. Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-Miss.), for example, declared that he wanted to be on the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia so he “could keep Washington a segregated city.” Bilbo and his Southern colleagues were so successful that one 1940s commentator said the former Confederacy clutched D.C. as a “helpless pawn” and “held it as the capital of white supremacy.”

But home rule — allowing Washingtonians to elect their leaders and govern themselves — grew more popular as the nation fought fascism in World War II and communism in the Cold War. Many home-rule advocates emphasized that the lack of democracy in D.C. hurt the U.S. image abroad. “So long as we put up with the arbitrary rule of American citizens by persons in whose selection they have no part,” Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) warned, “we are vulnerable to criticism as being … hypocritical.”

These sentiments were far from universal as a combination of business leaders, White Washingtonians and Southern members of Congress opposed home rule. Some maintained that the appointed leaders ruled D.C. better than its people could. The Board of Trade — who in effect ruled under this system — considered the commissioner government to be the “most effective” and best municipal government in the nation. Most citizens’ associations — White neighborhood groups with a long history of enforcing segregation — also believed the appointed government was best.

Underlying this undemocratic position was anti-Black racism and fear of Black power. The number of African Americans in the capital doubled from 1910 to 1940, and by 1957, African Americans constituted more than half of the District’s population. White support of home rule declined as this percentage grew.

According to those who testified in congressional hearings, many White Washingtonians feared that “if we get home rule, the Negroes will take over the city” and that “minority groups would control local elections here.” In response to a Washington Post survey on Home Rule in 1966, White D.C. residents clearly articulated the racism behind their opposition, saying such things as it “isn’t right that the Nation’s Capital be all colored” and “they don’t have the right education to do the right job” and rejecting the idea “because a colored fellow would be mayor — no other reason.”

The Senate passed home-rule legislation four times in the 1950s. The House of Representatives, however, never even voted on these bills because Southern segregationists in the House, especially John L. McMillan from South Carolina, bottled them up in committee. Even in 1965, after President Lyndon B. Johnson and members of both parties endorsed home rule, the House District Committee again refused to bring the bill to a vote.

Congressmen admitted that racist objections to home rule were “one of the silent obstacles to passage.” One member of Congress reported that more than a dozen people told him “in private and not in confidence that they are opposed to this bill because of their fear it would give the Negro domination over the District of Columbia.” Another man testified that a member of Congress “was reputed to have said that he would never vote for suffrage for the people of the District of Columbia as long as there was one Negro living in the District who would qualify as a voter.”

Finally, after decades of activism and organizing by Washingtonians and the Voting Rights Act, which dramatically increased Black voting rights in the South, D.C. gained a nonvoting delegate to the House in 1971 and home rule in 1973. Yet the government structure still granted Congress considerable power over the District’s affairs. Although activists had pushed for statehood before the 1970s, more joined the cause as Congress continued to usurp D.C.’s autonomy after home rule’s passage.

Congress’s power over D.C. grew considerably when Congress created the District of Columbia Financial Control Board and took control of the city’s finances in 1995. In 1997, Congress expanded its power further as it took control of the city’s debts, courts, prisons and elements of its entitlement programs. To this day, D.C. is still barred from going into debt on any project that is not a capital or economic development program, and all budgets must be certified as balanced by an appointed chief financial officer. The House Oversight Committee approves the D.C. budget, reviews the District’s legislation and can even overturn its laws.

Members of Congress have exploited this power to override the democratic will of Washingtonians and enforce their own ideologies. For example, during his tenure as the chairman of the Oversight Committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) threatened to launch an investigation if D.C. used its tax dollars to defend undocumented immigrants from deportation. Since D.C. residents passed a referendum to legalize marijuana in 2014, members of Congress have used their control over D.C.’s budget and affairs to continually prevent the legalization of marijuana sales.

This staggering lack of democracy in the nation’s capital would not persist but for the widespread desire to limit Black political power. History exposes the racism that keeps Congress firmly in control of D.C. Ending local elections in 1878 came in response to rising Black political power. Members of Congress and the public made it clear in the mid-20th century that the core reason they opposed democratic rule in D.C. was anti-Black racism. And it remains true today: The continued power of Congress over the District’s affairs is rooted in this same fear of Black power and racist belief that a majority-non-White populace is incapable of independently governing itself.

As Congress debates D.C. statehood and as activists rally support nationwide, the civil rights legacy of D.C. statehood should be central to its advocacy.