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Democracy’s Capital: Black Political Power in Washington, D.C., 1960s–1970s

Democracy’s Capital: Black Political Power in Washington, D.C., 1960s–1970s

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Democracy’s Capital: Black Political Power in Washington, D.C., 1960s–1970s

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Sep 10, 2019


From its 1790 founding until 1974, Washington, D.C.--capital of "the land of the free--lacked democratically elected city leadership. Fed up with governance dictated by white stakeholders, federal officials, and unelected representatives, local D.C. activists catalyzed a new phase of the fight for home rule. Amid the upheavals of the 1960s, they gave expression to the frustrations of black residents and wrestled for control of their city. Bringing together histories of the carceral and welfare states, as well as the civil rights and Black Power movements, Lauren Pearlman narrates this struggle for self-determination in the nation's capital. She captures the transition from black protest to black political power under the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations and against the backdrop of local battles over the War on Poverty and the War on Crime.

Through intense clashes over funds and programming, Washington residents pushed for greater participatory democracy and community control. However, the anticrime apparatus built by the Johnson and Nixon administrations curbed efforts to achieve true home rule. As Pearlman reveals, this conflict laid the foundation for the next fifty years of D.C. governance, connecting issues of civil rights, law and order, and urban renewal.

Sep 10, 2019

Sobre el autor

Lauren Pearlman is assistant professor of history at the University of Florida.

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Democracy’s Capital - Lauren Pearlman




Heather Ann Thompson

Rhonda Y. Williams

Editorial Advisory Board

Peniel E. Joseph

Daryl Maeda

Barbara Ransby

Vicki L. Ruiz

Marc Stein

The Justice, Power, and Politics series publishes new works in history that explore the myriad struggles for justice, battles for power, and shifts in politics that have shaped the United States over time. Through the lenses of justice, power, and politics, the series seeks to broaden scholarly debates about America’s past as well as to inform public discussions about its future.

More information on the series, including a complete list of books published, is available at http://justicepowerandpolitics.com/.



Lauren Pearlman

The University of North Carolina Press

Chapel Hill

This book was published with the assistance of the Authors Fund of the University of North Carolina Press and support from the University of Florida College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere (Rothman Endowment).

© 2019 Lauren Pearlman

All rights reserved

Designed by April Leidig

Set in Minion by Copperline Book Services

Manufactured in the United States of America

The University of North Carolina Press has been a member of the Green Press Initiative since 2003.

Cover illustration: Julius Hobson standing beside his station wagon equipped with loudspeaker. Star Collection, D.C. Public Library © Washington Post.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Pearlman, Lauren, author.

Title: Democracy’s capital : black political power in Washington, D.C., 1960s–1970s / Lauren Pearlman.

Description: Chapel Hill : The University of North Carolina Press, [2019] |

Series: Justice, Power, and Politics | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2019019895| ISBN 9781469653891 (cloth : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781469653907 (pbk : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781469653914 (ebook)

Subjects: LCSH: Washington (D.C.)—Politics and government—20th century. | African Americans—Washington (D.C.)—Politics and government—20th century. | Washington (D.C.)—Race relations—Political aspects. | Representative government and representation—Washington (D.C.) | Poor People’s Campaign.

Classification: LCC F200 .P43 2019 | DDC 305.8009753—dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019019895

A portion of chapter 3 originally appeared as More Than a March: The Poor People’s Campaign in the District of Columbia, Washington History 26, no. 2 (Fall 2014): 24–41.

For Fletcher



Make D.C. Mean Democracy’s Capital


From Civil Rights to Self-Determination


They Just Won’t Let It Happen Here: The 1968 Riots


SCLC Goes to Washington: The 1968 Poor People’s Campaign


D.C. Should Not Stand for Disorder and Crime: Richard Nixon’s Law-and-Order Campaign


The Spirit of ’76: The Battle over Self-Determination and Urban Development during the Bicentennial


Civil Rights, Law and Order, and Urban Development in the Post–Home Rule Era






Marion Barry delivers a statement to reporters about the Free D.C. campaign, August 26, 1966

Julius Hobson and colleague drive throughout the District to conduct informal straw votes on behalf of the Washington Committee for Black Power

Black United Front member C. Sumner Stone addresses fellow members on July 31, 1968

Police officer stands next to a damaged storefront during the D.C. riots

Acting police chief Jerry V. Wilson and Mayor Walter Washington at the intersection of 14th and V Streets NW during the D.C. riots

Military police officers drive down the street during the D.C. riots

Protestors demonstrate outside the United Planning Organization headquarters

Mayor Walter Washington during a visit to Resurrection City

The District’s Civil Disorder Unit sweeps through Resurrection City

Map and voting information for the Pilot District Project

Marion Barry speaks to the press about the Pilot Police Precinct at the project’s headquarters, June 24, 1969

Marcher at the 1970 League of Women Voters parade

Patrick Moynihan and President Richard Nixon tour the redevelopment area of Pennsylvania Avenue

The Freedom Train passes through Rockville, Maryland, on its way to the Pentagon

U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall swears in Marion Barry




By the late 1960s, Julius Hobson was tired. Tired of the white segregationists who crafted local policy from their perch on Capitol Hill. Tired of the white business and community groups who enforced the racial inequalities that stemmed from those policies and lobbied for urban renewal projects that overlooked the conditions of the neighborhoods where poor black Washingtonians lived. Tired of the District of Columbia’s complacent black leaders, whom he had accused of selling out in the hopes of becoming part of the city’s local government. Tired of the national politicians who used his city as an example of rampant lawlessness, the civil rights groups that came in to lead demonstrations to protest national injustices, and the local police officers who abused their powers.

Hobson was not alone. Despite local activists’ unrelenting campaigns to break down racial barriers, and the national and international exposure afforded to Washington’s segregation policies, Jim Crow still cast a long shadow over the District of Columbia. So, too, did the federal statutes that disenfranchised all Washingtonians and prevented them from securing local representation or creating the political infrastructure necessary to institutionalize temporary victories over employment and housing discrimination, school segregation, and police brutality. The 1963 March on Washington had helped generate support for what became the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts, which prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations and voting. Yet these legislative victories did not have an immediate impact on D.C. residents. The passage of the Voting Rights Act in particular drew attention to the widening gulf between federal law and local reality: Washingtonians could not vote for president until 1961 and lacked national representation until Congress approved a nonvoting congressional delegate in 1970. Local representation was even more circumscribed: D.C. residents could not vote for school board members until 1968 or for mayor and city council members until 1974. Even after Congress approved the Home Rule Act in December 1973, granting some rights to self-government, the contours of D.C.’s local government remained clear: whether through exclusive legislation, territorial governments, a commissioner system, or local elections, Congress still had broad powers over the capital. Because of this essential constraint, District residents have never achieved full citizenship rights.¹

It was no wonder, then, that local activists were weary. One of the problems of Washington is that you are always caught up being a proxy for the nation in making protests, Reverend Channing Phillips observed.² George Wiley, associate director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), agreed. I remember being very disenchanted with the March on Washington, he said. I remember I — and the other tough activists in the nucleus of CORE — said ‘the hell with that.’ You know we’re not going to any picnics down in Washington. We’re going to do the nitty-gritty stuff here.³ This book provides a detailed account of those who did the nitty-gritty stuff mere miles from the National Mall. It captures the transition from black protest to black political power on the municipal level under the Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–69) and Richard M. Nixon administrations (1969–74), an era during which the local movement underwent dramatic changes.⁴

By the 1960s, the national civil rights movement was becoming irrelevant to the needs of black Washington. District politics was caught up in the growing militancy of activists who were less patient than the city’s traditional black leaders and more certain that the city’s poor residents needed better advocates and newer methods to protect their interests. Their work previewed some of the larger ideological conflicts that took place within the national civil rights movement. In fact, many people in the civil rights movement, particularly younger activists sympathetic to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), grew increasingly impatient with the pace of change in the country and with both the federal government and the older, more established civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). More left-wing groups like SNCC had grown openly critical of the systems that perpetuated inequality and were strongly opposed to the more hierarchical, bureaucratic, leader-centered organization of groups like SCLC. This new generation of activists called for Black Power, not integration. New organizations such as the Black Panther Party, founded in October 1966, became known for their armed confrontations with police, their free education and health programs for poor urban communities, and their critiques of capitalism. Finally, from 1964 through 1967, uprisings spread through Harlem in New York; the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles; Detroit, Michigan; and Newark, New Jersey.

The move to more militant tactics and rhetoric, combined with the series of race riots that swept the nation in the years following the March on Washington, shifted national opinion against the civil rights movement as black visions of equality came closer to being realized. It was in part because of demands for self-determination and fears of black insurgency that President Johnson issued a reorganization plan in 1967 that promised D.C.’s black leaders a louder voice in local affairs. While Johnson originally intended for his reorganization plan to be a stepping-stone to full electoral representation, federal officials and white stakeholders capitalized on the limits of his home rule measure to dictate the implementation of Great Society and War on Poverty programming.

One cannot ask whether Washingtonians deserved a political voice without examining questions of whom the federal government deemed worthy of rights and resources. Scholars have begun to connect the history of the U.S. carceral state and that of the nation’s welfare state. Specifically, they have started reckoning with the mechanisms that produced the dramatic welfare state retrenchment that arose concurrently with the dramatic growth of carceral institutions, largely on the state and federal level.⁶ This book examines the intersection of the Great Society and the War on Crime on the municipal level and helps analyze how social programs developed alongside increasingly punitive law enforcement programs to limit radical political possibilities. But this outcome was not inevitable. As other scholars have documented, low-income residents in cities across the country seized on the political opportunities of the War on Poverty, and its emphasis on the maximum feasible participation of the poor, to claim new resources and challenge the power of local political elites. This was also true in D.C., and many black activists did harness the energy of the civil rights and Black Power movements to wage a grassroots assault on the political and economic foundations of black subordination.⁷

Studies of Washington, D.C., typically focus on the city as either a symbol of national politics or a mosaic of isolated neighborhoods.⁸ Neither approach captures the ways that the fight for home rule undergirded fights over civil rights, law and order, and urban renewal and development during the 1960s and 1970s.⁹ In Washington, more radical activists shifted to grassroots strategies to aggressively mobilize residents around the issue of home rule. During this time, local battles over War on Poverty programming — like the Community Action Program (CAP), Model Cities, employment training, tenant councils, and welfare expenditures — and high-profile anticrime efforts played out under strict federal oversight. Through intense fights over federal funds and programming, black Washingtonians fought for greater participatory democracy and community control under shifting and conflicting political regimes. Thus, the city’s own struggle for self-determination reveals wide variations in the tactics and strategies taken up as the civil rights and Black Power movements intersected with the implementation of Great Society and War on Crime programming.¹⁰

Local antipoverty organizations reached their zenith in the mid-1960s. The absence of home rule provided the United Planning Organization (UPO), the local office charged with administering federal funds to District programs, with a great deal of autonomy. With a strong commitment to employing low-income residents, the UPO and other War on Poverty agencies funded projects at neighborhood centers and settlement houses, squeezing out independent grassroots movements but also opening up leadership opportunities, particularly for poor black women. Like Black Power activists in other cities, many of Washington’s militant black leaders were at one time funded by federal dollars from Johnson’s Great Society. Wanting a piece of this federal largesse, SNCC leader–turned–local home rule activist Marion Barry laid claim to his own antipoverty funds in 1967. But because the War on Poverty privileged issue-based activism and prioritized low-income and often female-driven mobilization, it diverted financial resources and the attention of militant activists away from grassroots movements around the larger issue of home rule until it reemerged as part of moderate black and predominantly male political platforms. As this book argues, the War on Poverty limited the democratic possibilities of the nation’s capital. This was not exclusively the federal government’s doing. Even black activists who took up the cause of home rule could not effectively convince poor residents that disenfranchisement was a more important citywide issue around which to mobilize. Accordingly, this book examines the ways in which black political power in D.C. reflected both the possibilities and limitations of the Great Society.¹¹

Over the past decade, historians have increasingly analyzed the dramatic political, social, and economic shifts in the postwar era through the rise of the carceral state.¹² The effects of the carceral state include the growth of the physical apparatus of the criminal justice system, the expansion of America’s prison population, and, most relevant to this book, the federal government’s increasingly powerful role in crime-related policy making. Democracy’s Capital examines the importance of punitive federal crime legislation, new surveillance methods, and the use of crime issues in national political campaigns to the marginalization of black radical politics and the undermining of self-determination during the 1960s and 1970s.¹³

Research about mass incarceration and the rise of punitive crime policy has largely focused on why political elites embraced law-and-order politics in the 1960s. Some scholars, for example, have examined the ways that Republican politicians and policy makers employed racially coded language about crime to mobilize white conservatives who were frustrated by the prevalence of urban disorder to gain electoral advantages.¹⁴ Pushback against the idea that conservatives were solely responsible for get tough policies has fueled subsequent research on the crucial contributions of liberals to the War on Crime.¹⁵ Other scholars have emphasized the role of grassroots pressure from white residents as a backlash against civil rights and urban uprisings and, on the opposite side of the spectrum, from communities of color over alarm about rising crime.¹⁶ Most recently, political scientists and historians have argued that research on the War on Crime ignores black agency and that black politics did, in fact, play a pivotal role in crime politics. This work focuses on the black politicians, community leaders, and clergy across the country that responded to urban disorder by calling for more policing and more effective crime-control measures in their communities. Consequently, they claim, local black officials supported draconian law-and-order measures in major cities.¹⁷

In one of the more nuanced accounts of African Americans’ influence on get tough politics, legal scholar James Forman Jr. argues that when it came to the issue of crime, black officials in Washington, D.C., exhibited a complicated and sometimes overlapping mix of impulses.¹⁸ This book examines the crucial era leading up to home rule, when the absence of self-government and the anticrime apparatus created by the Johnson administration shaped the parameters of the local black government’s response to urban issues and marginalized black radicals. Moreover, the racialization of crime policies and crime discourse that began under the Johnson administration and was cemented under the Nixon administration compromised home rule and narrowed the policy solutions available to black residents to fight crime. When the first elected black officials took office in 1975, they were forced to fashion local crime policy out of failing federal crime fighting initiatives and in the face of an emerging drug epidemic.¹⁹

On the one hand, Johnson’s limited home rule legislation made black leaders crucial stakeholders in debates over urban issues. On the other, it was representative of what urban historian Michael B. Katz has called mimetic reforms, measures that respond to insurgent demands without devolving real power or redistributing significant resources. While it gave the impression that black leaders had the authority to make decisions about the city’s governance, power resided indirectly with other constituents. For Katz, indirect rule meant that powerful white Americans retained authority over cities through their influence on minorities elected to political office, appointed to public and social service bureaucracies, and hired in larger numbers by police forces. This was especially true in Washington, where Congress had the final say over the city’s budget and laws, and white business and real estate groups had the ear of the House and Senate District Committees.²⁰

Black politics also constrained the possibilities for self-determination. What had once been a radical proposition allowed for, instead, the selective incorporation of upper- and middle-class African Americans into the local political system.²¹ As the city’s more militant activists were pushed to the margins of city politics, they turned from the issue of home rule to activism around community control, riot rebuilding, police reform, and urban renewal — issues that were important to the city’s black residents at a time when, at least one militant D.C. organization claimed, both local and national leaders had abandoned them.²² As this book argues, Johnson’s reorganization plan fractured black Washington politically, undermined grassroots activism, and prompted black municipal appointees to forge partnerships with local white business interests and conservative white lawmakers to implement a prodevelopment agenda and maintain traditional governing structures at the expense of the city’s black residents. Along the way, the door opened to more moderate efforts at home rule. Those who were involved in the civil rights movement but were not part of the District’s more militant cadre of radical activists sought to reclaim the city’s rights to self-government, albeit in a watered-down version.²³

Despite the burgeoning body of literature on the War on Crime, scholars rarely consider its effects on Black Power politics beyond its relationship to crime and drug policy. Black Power redefined black identity and American society from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s, during which time the War on Crime devastated black communities. New works have helped historicize the Black Power era and its relationship to civil rights and other postwar phenomena. Demonstrating how Black Power activists waged political wars in the shadow of the civil rights movement and transformed struggles for racial justice has helped historians improve understandings of postwar American history and reframe the way in which a broad range of black activists attempted to redefine American democracy.²⁴ One of its lasting contributions was helping to usher in the first generation of black urban political leaders. But an examination of one of the first black-run cities reveals the limits of the popular argument that Black Power activists became part of the political mainstream through nationalist appeals for racial solidarity in major metropolitan centers.²⁵ While Black Power politics helped pressure the federal government to reconsider the city’s historic disenfranchisement, Democracy’s Capital demonstrates how tough-on-crime and prodevelopment politics undermined the struggle for black self-determination in the capital. The incorporation of black leaders into municipal politics and the prodevelopment coalition that coalesced in the capital took hold in cities from the urban Piedmont of North Carolina to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta. Thus, Washington, D.C., a city that served as a bellwether for national policy and political shifts, also presaged local municipal policy and politics during the 1960s and 1970s.²⁶


From the moment Congress arrived in the new capital city, it experimented with various arrangements to manage local affairs as it attempted to settle questions of self-government, federal representation, and financial support for the District. In 1801, Congress assumed jurisdiction over the federal district from territory ceded by Maryland and Virginia. To residents’ surprise, this dramatically changed their political status. No longer citizens of a state, they lost their national representation. As Congress became the equivalent of their state legislature, they also lost their self-determination. Slowly Congress afforded the city greater control over its own affairs. In 1802, it appointed a mayor to govern Washington but permitted white tax-paying males who had resided in D.C. for at least a year to elect a twelve-member city council. In 1812, it allowed the city council to appoint the mayor and, in 1820, permitted District residents to elect the mayor.²⁷

New political, economic, and demographic changes prompted new experimentation. On account of the territorial retrocession of the Virginia portion of the federal district in 1847, the escalated pace of black migration into the District following the abolition of slavery in the capital in 1862, and the federal government’s unmet financial obligation to the city, Congress consolidated existing municipal and county governments into a large territorial government for the District in 1871. Following large-scale corruption and financial mismanagement of city funds, Congress abolished the territorial government and replaced it with a three-member commission appointed by the president. At the same time, it acknowledged its financial responsibility to the District and agreed to pay 50 percent of the District government’s expenses. The cementing of this political structure in the Organic Act of 1878 offered little opportunity for residents’ direct participation in local affairs.²⁸

During this time, the District had become home to a large and influential free black population. By 1860, over three-fourths of the city’s African American community was free and, overall, constituted nearly 20 percent of the city’s sixty-one thousand residents. After the Civil War, the capital attracted many of the country’s black elite, thanks to the unique social and economic opportunities available to them in Washington, including access to federal employment and the 1867 founding of Howard University, the nation’s most prestigious black college. As a result, the city’s black population grew by 44 percent from 1880 to 1900. At the turn of the twentieth century, the District claimed the largest urban concentration of blacks in the country. Many members of this sizable black community enjoyed a relatively high socioeconomic status, as evidenced by their occupations as university faculty, high school teachers, government workers, lawyers, and clergy.²⁹

When President Woodrow Wilson and his progressive reformers took the capital by storm in 1913, they undercut the status of these prominent and prosperous black Washingtonians. Federal administrators insisted on racial segregation as part of their campaign to clean up the city and systematically dismantled many of the social and economic gains that African Americans had made during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By separating and isolating black civil servants and limiting their career prospects, the Wilson administration sharply eroded the city’s prosperous black middle class. The president’s successors followed patterns set by the Wilson administration. Consequently, government facilities remained segregated until the 1930s, when the Interior Department led federal efforts against racial segregation.³⁰

From 1930 to 1950, Washington experienced a sustained period of growth as the city’s population grew by 60 percent. The massive expansion of government and war-related bureaucracies during and after World War II provided new opportunities for blacks, who left the South in record numbers. The massive influx of African Americans from Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas outpaced other migrants as the proportion of black residents grew from 27 to 35 percent, more than doubling the black population during the same period. This dramatic growth compounded already-limited housing opportunities and added to inter- and intraracial tensions.³¹

The city’s rigid housing segregation patterns forced black residents to double or triple up with other families in single-family units, search for new housing in restricted areas, and pay higher rents. Housing statistics from 1947 revealed glaring disparities between the city’s white and black residents. Roughly two-thirds of all urban black Washingtonians lived within two and a quarter miles of the city’s center. More than 20 percent shared living quarters with other families, as compared to 7 percent of white families forced to do the same. Twelve percent lived in homes with more than one and a half occupants per room in D.C., while only 4 percent of whites did. Meanwhile, one of every nine black units in Washington lacked running water. Black families facing eviction notices or otherwise desperate to find adequate housing after months-long searches often wound up taking their chances in white neighborhoods protected by restrictive covenants.³²

As housing conditions in D.C. and in cities across the country worsened, the federal government launched a groundbreaking national urban renewal program. The Housing Act of 1949, the first piece of legislation under this programmatic effort, offered cities funds to combat the twin trends of urban decay and suburban flight. Policy makers lobbied to implement this legislation in Washington, in part because the city had historically served as a laboratory for congressional implementation of urban policy and also because the city’s postwar boom had exacerbated its housing problem. Affordable housing had become impossible to find — not just for the poor but also for members of Congress, thanks to the growth of government during and after World War II.³³

The Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) played an integral role in Washington’s postwar redevelopment efforts. The federal government had created the five-member agency in 1946 and empowered it with the public authority to acquire and clear city property designated for redevelopment. In 1951, the RLA targeted Southwest D.C. as the city’s first redevelopment site to be funded under the 1949 Housing Act. In 1954, the Supreme Court affirmed the RLA’s legal standing to clear slums in the District, and the agency went ahead with its large-scale project to replace dilapidated housing inhabited by African Americans with high-rise apartments built for middle- and upper-income white residents, shopping centers, and restaurants. The project, which took another two decades to complete, forced the relocation of twenty-three thousand low-income black residents to housing projects around the city. Over a third of those displaced settled into public housing just outside the redevelopment area. Another two thousand families moved into private rental units in white middle-class neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River and in black neighborhoods like U Street, north of downtown. The Southwest renewal area’s racial composition changed dramatically, from 70 percent black in 1950 to 70 percent white twenty years later.³⁴

D.C.’s so-called slum removal paralleled efforts in nearly every major U.S. city at the time. But in the District, Congress and its appointed officials oversaw the decision, leaving Washingtonians without a voice in urban planning. The city’s black residents were furious. In response to these massive demographic shifts, Walter Fauntroy, one of the District’s black leaders, said famously, Urban renewal means Negro removal. As dislocated Southwest residents moved to housing projects around the city, the government’s overly ambitious 1955 report, No Slums in Ten Years, became a public mockery.³⁵

By 1960, black residents were the majority in most census tracts east of 16th Street NW, with many of the poorest black residents clustered around Howard University and in historically black neighborhoods like Shaw, bounded by Massachusetts and Florida Avenues, 16th Street, and North Capitol Street. In addition to living with rat infestations and other slum conditions, these black residents sent their children to a school system neglected by the city, one where only one of three students entering ninth grade managed to graduate. Only Mississippi exceeded the District in infant mortality rates, and the city hospital routinely turned sick people away due to issues of overcrowding. Its gonorrhea infection rate was the highest in the nation, its syphilis rate the second highest, and its tuberculosis rate the sixth highest. More than one out of every four families had an income below the poverty line. But congressional overseers, while vocal in their horror over conditions in the city’s ghettoized neighborhoods, failed to offer D.C. residents meaningful solutions.³⁶

As the Second World War ushered a new wave of black migrants into the city, catapulting the city’s black population into the majority in 1957, segregationists in Congress fought back to preserve white supremacy. The House and Senate Committees on the District of Columbia, two of the first standing committees created by Congress in 1816, wielded more power than the city’s board of commissioners and had more authority over local affairs than even the president. Ever since the late nineteenth century, the House and Senate committees monitored black Washingtonians’ struggles for employment and fair housing and against discrimination in restaurants and hotels. They oversaw the city’s funds, managed its public services, and allocated money for slum clearance, highway construction, and new school buildings.³⁷

Members of the House and Senate committees governed the District in a manner that conformed to their members’ cherished images of Jim Crow. Elected to the Senate in 1934, Senator Theodore Bilbo (D-Miss.) was a self-professed Ku Klux Klan member. His vehement opposition to anti–poll tax and antilynching laws and his 1938 proposal of a work relief bill that threatened to deport twelve million African Americans to Liberia made him a notorious defender of white supremacy. When he assumed the chairmanship of the Senate District Committee in 1944, he used his position as the unofficial Mayor of Washington to preserve the city’s Jim Crow culture. First Bilbo seized on issues of law and order, advocating for an expanded police force, programs to curb juvenile delinquency, and slum clearance — issues for which President Richard Nixon would also advocate in Washington decades later. Bilbo also refused to entertain proposals to expand public housing in the city’s black neighborhoods, recommended relocating black citizens to farms in Maryland and Virginia, and reviled the commingling of black and white federal workers in government offices.³⁸

Bilbo’s vigilant defense of segregation set the tone for the congressional governance of D.C. in the post–World War II era. When Bilbo’s Senate career ended, Representative John L. McMillan (D-S.C.) carried on the mantle of white supremacy from his post as chairman of the House District Committee. From 1948 until 1972, the South Carolina representative refused to hold hearings on bills or proposals for self-government. McMillan was far from the only member of Congress to express disdain for the city’s black residents. In the 1960s and 1970s, representatives and senators painted black Washington with broad criminal strokes, challenged the local government’s authority, and leveraged the city’s allegedly rampant crime problem to push for stronger law-and-order measures.³⁹

In lieu of an elected city government, white business and civic groups also wielded a powerful influence over local affairs. Established in 1889 by prominent white business and civic leaders, the Washington Board of Trade (BOT) was the city’s dominant commercial organization. The BOT drew members from Washington, northern Virginia, and suburban Maryland and represented the city’s retailers, manufacturers, bankers, and attorneys on a host of issues ranging from economic development to public services. Primarily a civic group until the 1930s, its growing membership base and financial support allowed it to broaden its activities. It often sidestepped the city’s local government appointees and appealed directly to the congressional committees and White House officials with recommendations on urban planning and development, transportation, residential zoning, crime, and local governance. It also spent considerable resources investing in the cultural infrastructure of the District; promoting the construction and maintenance of venues for professional sports, conventions, cultural events, and large festivals; encouraging businesses to move to the area; creating job training programs; and offering its expertise on urban issues from zoning to the minimum wage. In 1960, as its portfolio expanded and the city grew, it changed its name to the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade.⁴⁰

The Washington Post’s co-owner and publisher, Philip Graham, was also intent on aiding the city’s economic development in the post–World War II era — so much so that in 1954 he spearheaded the creation of another group, the Federal City Council. From the outset, the Federal City Council’s mission was to develop, stimulate and encourage civic leadership in community development in the National Capitol.⁴¹ Its membership was composed of leading businesspeople who believed that only an infusion of private sector money could improve the District and who agreed to work behind the scenes on projects that would have lasting effects on the city. The group backed a wide range of projects, beginning with the demolition of slums in Southwest D.C. to make way for a new urban center. Its forceful advocacy on behalf of the Southwest Redevelopment Project allowed the Federal City Council a central role in congressional deliberations and helped cement the alliance between House and Senate District Committees and local white business leaders. In 1959, to further cultivate business investment in the District, the group created Downtown Progress. Downtown Progress claimed a smaller, more elite membership that included the presidents and chairmen of the city’s leading financial institutions, media outlets, utilities companies, and universities, and it advocated for the development of the central city above all other causes. The organization remained influential in real estate development and urban planning throughout the 1960s and 1970s.⁴²

White citizens groups also had a powerful stake in local affairs. Comprising white male property holders, these groups cropped up in the 1880s and 1890s to uphold property values, lower taxes, and lobby for neighborhood services. In 1910, they consolidated into the Federation of Citizens Associations, an umbrella organization that used the defense of property values to maintain residential segregation. By the 1960s, it represented thirty-four neighborhood groups with a combined membership of about fifty thousand residents. In 1964, it voted to retain language in its constitution that restricted membership to any white civic organization, thereby barring integrated homeowners associations from joining. The Federation finally excised the language from its constitution in 1972, but not before alienating its more progressive members. Throughout its existence, the Federation denounced any changes to the city’s governance that threatened the interests of its white, middle-class, property-owning membership base, including home rule.⁴³

Together, these business and civic groups formed the city’s growth machine.⁴⁴ They privileged the construction of office buildings over low-income housing, interstate freeways over public transit, and the enlargement of the metropolitan police force over the amelioration of crime’s root causes. Their partnership with the House District Committee bolstered crime prevention measures, redirected funds away from black neighborhoods and into downtown development, and prolonged the fight against home rule into the 1970s. The BOT, while supporting full voting representation in Congress for the District, was one of the city’s most powerful opponents of elected municipal representation. Fears of a government beholden to black voters guided its position. But it did not make its racial objections to home rule explicit. Instead, it couched its concerns about power shifting further toward the city’s black population in broader arguments against the oppressive tax burden that home rule would usher into the city.⁴⁵

White stakeholders continued to use the federal payment, which the government made to the city budget each year, as a reason to lobby against home rule. But Congress had been chipping away at the federal portion of the city’s budget ever since agreeing to pay half the city’s costs in 1878. Between 1919 and 1925, Congress abandoned the fixed percentage and set the federal payment at an annual fixed sum of $9 million, which in that year constituted about 30 percent of the total budget. As a result of federal budget cuts during the Depression, Congress reduced the 1934 federal payment to $5 million. Between 1957 and 1961, the federal payment never exceeded 16 percent of total District revenue, rendering that anti–home rule argument less persuasive.⁴⁶

Until the mid-1960s, the fight for home rule did not have significant momentum behind it. Much of the city’s early civil rights activity was led by the black middle class. They considered home rule an important component of a broader civil rights portfolio but had been enmeshed in fights for even more basic rights. In the preceding decades, they led demonstrations that mirrored those of national activists. They protested the Jim Crow laws that prevented African Americans from eating in local restaurants, staying in local hotels, shopping in downtown stores, or working in every sector of the federal government. They also challenged the racial covenants and discriminatory mortgage lending practices that had cemented Washington’s segregated color lines. But until more radical activists took up the mantle of self-determination in the 1960s, the fight for home rule had lain fallow.⁴⁷


During the 1960s, activists catalyzed Washington into a new phase of civil rights activism, one that allowed them to give expression to the frustrations of poor black residents while fighting for political and economic control of the city. Chapter 1 shows how the Washington CORE chapter led by Julius Hobson, the Free D.C. campaign run by SNCC leader Marion Barry, welfare rights activism by Etta Horn and other low-income black women, and the Black United Front (BUF), an organization formed to give activists a platform for more confrontational tactics and demands for autonomy, marked a strategic shift in the local movement toward self-determination. After almost a decade fighting for civil rights, black activists no longer wanted to live in a city whose terms were dictated by white stakeholders, federal officials, and unelected representatives. Due in part to the attention that radical campaigns brought to the issue of home rule, and also in part to Lyndon Johnson’s own political calculus, the president issued Reorganization Plan No. 3 in 1967, replacing the city’s three commissioners with a single mayor-commissioner and a nine-member council appointed by the president.

Johnson’s plan, coupled with Congress’s approval of popular elections for the D.C. Board of Education in April 1968, forged a new path for advocacy in the District. With revolutionary momentum on its side, groups like BUF were prepared to take control of the city. But Johnson’s limited home rule measure, combined with the selective incorporation of upper- and middle-class African Americans with civil rights organizing experience into the local government, maintained the century’s long tradition of indirect rule. Thus, while African Americans had ascended to local political office, powerful white stakeholders, along with members of the Johnson administration and Congress, retained control over the city.

While Johnson had issued his reorganization plan to give black residents more control over their affairs, he also implemented major crime fighting and riot prevention legislation on the local and national level. But on April 4, 1968, riots broke out in the capital and more than one hundred other cities following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The uprising left thirteen people dead and more than twelve hundred injured, as well as an estimated $27 million in property losses, troop deployment, and city expenditures in Washington alone, catapulting the city to the center of national debates about civil rights and law and order.⁴⁸ Chapter 2 shows how Johnson’s riot prevention and control measures — and particularly the ways in which they were implemented in the District — reordered the government around the problem of crime, challenged the local black government’s authority, dampened the potential for radical change, and laid the groundwork for the conservative ascendance. In particular, local white business and civic groups and national lawmakers used the disturbance as a means to challenge the prudence of home rule legislation and pose questions about the future success of black self-determination — questions that remained long after the riots’ duration.⁴⁹

Five years after the March on Washington and just one month after the riots, SCLC returned to D.C. to stage the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC), a national antipoverty campaign planned while King was still alive but executed after his assassination. Chapter 3 examines how the Poor People’s Campaign unfolded in a city that operated with nascent black political power, federal oversight, and law-and-order measures that undermined grassroots activism. By ignoring the city’s radical voices, racial tensions, and local organizations in planning the PPC, SCLC overlooked systemic injustices taking place just blocks beyond the monumental core. Quite the opposite, the campaign put a strain on local resources, sidetracked municipal government officials, increased tensions with the local police department, and provided fodder for a presidential candidate eager to make the city’s lawlessness a focal point of his campaign. Meanwhile, in the shadow of the Poor People’s Campaign, local activists battled the federal government over its War on Poverty efforts, revealing the ways Johnson’s Great Society undermined black self-determination.

Although Johnson’s anticrime initiatives paved the way for Nixon’s presidential campaign, no president used law-and-order measures to curb Washingtonians’ autonomy as vigorously as Nixon did. As his administration embarked on its anticrime crusade, it introduced a massive, overly punitive crime-control measure that Washingtonians themselves had limited ways to protest. As chapter 4 illustrates, the absence of home rule in Washington shaped the parameters of black municipal appointees’ responses. While they felt immense pressure to reduce crime, they knew Nixon’s legislation would disproportionally harm black constituents. They could not in good conscience support the D.C. Crime Bill and searched for alternatives to the White House’s program. The Pilot Precinct Project, an ambitious program funded by the federal government to improve police-community relations in the inner city, presented such an opportunity. But as the city’s municipal government tried to move out of the shadow of the riots, local white stakeholders partnered with national lawmakers and the Nixon administration to criminalize black Washingtonians and federalize policing efforts. Their efforts, combined with political compromises made by black municipal appointees and power struggles among black leaders, paved the way for the passage of punitive federal crime policy and the failure of community-based crime policy in the District.

After passing its sweeping omnibus crime bill for the District, the Nixon administration looked for a way to showcase its work in the capital. The upcoming Bicentennial celebration appeared to be the perfect occasion. The previous administration

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