This summer, I worked with the D.C. Humanities Council’s program “Soul of the City,” an initiative designed to help develop young community leaders.
Our subject: the meaning of 1963 and the 50 years since. Participants ranged in age from 15 to 22 — some from high schools and colleges and a few from jobs programs. All of them were swimming in the choppy waters of our times, in which both a President Obama and a Trayvon Martin are realities.
Participants heard from history makers, people who were kids themselves when they broke Jim Crow’s back and forced open the doors to polling places across the South. Courtland Cox, Sharlene Krantz and Dorie Ladner, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, discussed those electrifying times. The great Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) hosted us on Capitol Hill. But it wasn’t until the students saw footage of Lewis’s courage — a young man being beaten and dragged as he tried to vote — that he fully registered with them.
Still, I wasn’t sure whether they realized the full meaning of 1963. How could they, with so much unfinished business before us?
Of course the country has made enormous progress. Still, the fact is that too many young people aren’t equipped to comprehend our nation’s complex past, and we certainly haven’t prepared them for the future. City officials celebrate a 2 percent bump in reading scores. But in 2013, 50 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands more came to Washington, only about half of District youth read at grade level, only half graduate on time and an even larger percentage of black males do not finish high school.
Soul of the city, indeed.
The federal government and African Americans have a complex relationship, and Washington holds a unique position in that dynamic. Sheer physical proximity — a sizable black population living here, in the seat of power — provides a certain political intimacy, if you will, in this continued battle for full equality.
And, of course, that history extends much further than 1963.
Slaves, we know, literally helped lay the foundation for the White House and the U.S. Capitol.
And President Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862, eight months before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freed Washington’s slaves. Congress compensated slave owners $300 each for the 3,000 who were freed. The president also advocated colonization for free blacks, and $100,000 was allocated to send them to Haiti. Frederick Douglass praised Lincoln’s freeing of Washington’s slaves but urged the continued fight for social and economic equality and justice right here.
By June 1868, blacks were elected to citywide positions, and during Reconstruction, 20 black men were elected to the House of Representatives. They were part of a black elite who included doctors, lawyers, professors and ministers. Some held federal appointments.
The first wave of the Great Migration brought many African Americans to Washington, some seeking federal employment. But Jim Crow was thriving. President Woodrow Wilson worked to limit black federal employment. The percentage of black government employees fell from 6 percent in 1910 to about 4.9 percent in 1918.
Still, the government’s overall expansion meant more blacks could obtain federal jobs.
Many of the poor, however, ended up in slum-like alley dwellings. The Alley Dwelling Acts of 1918 and 1934 condemned homes primarily inhabited by blacks and forced entire neighborhoods to relocate. It wouldn’t be the last time that happened. Blacks moved to the southeast quadrant of the District, across the Anacostia River.
And history continued to unfold in their back yard. In June 1941, A. Philip Randolph, the labor leader and one of the Big Six organizers of the 1963 march, threatened to bring more than 100,000 protesters to the city to demand jobs. He relented only when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which prohibited discrimination in the defense industry. The order also established the Fair Employment Practices Committee.
But more work needed to be done, and after World War II, African Americans who had fought under the “Double V” banner — victory abroad and victory at home — returned to Washington with greater expectations. They launched intensified efforts to press the courts and the federal government.
In 1948, two momentous events took place. President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the military.
The second landmark was the Supreme Court’s Shelley v. Kraemer ruling, which said that racially restrictive housing covenants were not enforceable. Black middle-class families moved into areas such as Shepherd Park, Brightwood and Brookland, near Catholic University. The black community played a central role in the landmark Thompson Restaurant case, in which the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in restaurants and public facilities. One of the four cases joined to Brown v. Board of Education, Bolling v. Sharpe, originated in Washington.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his 1953 State of the Union address, said the nation’s capital should provide an “honored example for all communities of our nation.” He later said, “Not one single penny of federal money should be spent in a way that would discriminate against anyone.” To his credit, he also ordered the integration of all U.S. military academies and the end of segregated schools at military bases.
The District, however, remained segregated.
Yet African Americans continued to arrive, drawn by Howard University and potential employment. By 1957, Washington was the first major U.S. city with a majority-black population. That same year, with Eisenhower’s support, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was passed, and with it came the establishment of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.
From 1948 until his defeat in 1972, John McMillan of South Carolina, the head of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, in essence ruled the District. Congress eventually granted “home rule” in 1973, and Walter E. Washington became the city’s first black mayor in 1974. And in 1978, a former leader of SNCC — Marion Barry — was elected mayor. (And sorry, folks; all of Washington’s woes can’t be placed at his feet.)
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), an organizer and participant in the ’63 march, is among leaders and residents who say something else is long overdue in the District’s relationship with Congress: full voting rights and statehood.
The District is changing once again. Black people are on the move — this time out of the city. Figures from the 2010 Census show the black population declined by more than 39,000, to a little more than 300,000 — just above 50 percent. Black populations also shrank in cities including Chicago, Cleveland and Oakland.
Those shifts are rooted largely in an economic narrative. The mounting cost of living in cities is making a difference. It’s certainly true in the District.
A report by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute in March notes the ever-widening income gap. The average white family’s income in the District, for example, is $101,000; the average black family’s is $39,000. The top 5 percent of D.C.’s households earn an average of $473,000 a year, the highest amount among the 50 largest U.S. cities. The bottom 20 percent earn $9,100. In the District, the rise in poverty has occurred fully among blacks and Latinos, and the rise of affluence has occurred only among whites and some blacks. A 2010 Census report shows that the District’s poverty rate for school-aged children jumped from 24.8 percent in 2007 to 30.9 percent in 2010, one of only 73 jurisdictions in the nation to surpass 30 percent. In Ward 8, unemployment is more than 25 percent, and recently residents protested the lack of jobs in unionized bridge projects in the area.
And as in 1963, or as there was a century ago when black Americans crowded Washington’s alleys, there is an affordable-housing crisis. The waiting list for public housing has more than 60,000 names on it.
It’s time for federal and local governments to think creatively.
The city needs to work with developers to provide low- and moderate-income housing. Business and labor need to work with schools to develop better GED programs and to provide training and apprenticeships. The University of the District of Columbia and its community college need to work with businesses and the city government to provide young people who are not college-bound with skills for high-tech jobs.
And the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, which aids so many in attending college, should be fully funded.
Can we, in commemorating 1963, do anything less? The soul of the city — and the country — deserves that and more.
Maurice Jackson teaches history at Georgetown University. He is chair of the newly formed District of Columbia Commission on African American Affairs.