“Free D.C.”: The Struggle for Political and Social Equality in Washington, 1965–79

Saturday, January 4, 2014
Exhibit Hall B South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Selah Shalom Johnson, University of California, Los Angeles
Washington is the focus of this study on the Civil Rights Movement because it has been an under-researched part of the Movement even though the city had an instrumental role during this era.  I plan to examine the movement within the city, as opposed to just referencing D.C. for particular events as previous scholars have done. This project will examine the local movement for civil and human rights in Washington, from 1965-1979. There are three issues that will be explored in-depth including residential segregation, education, and judicial inequality, and how the desire for institutional changes and improvements to these problems helped shape and direct the local movement, and consequently undermined Washington, D.C. as the beacon of democracy and freedom. Washington served as home of the federal government, and the place where monumental legislation was passed in the 1960s to improve the lives of oppressed minority groups. Washingtonians lived closest to the representatives and officials making these historical changes, but seemed to benefit the least. While the nation’s capital should have symbolized the American ideals of freedom, democracy and equality it perpetuated the very opposite with institutionalized segregation and the absence of local voting power.

     Unlike most African-Americans in the South, Black Washingtonians were not simply disenfranchised, but had no representation for which to vote. Washington was a federally controlled city. Black Washingtonians struggled for local government representation itself. Once Washingtonians were given a presidentially appointed provisional government in 1967, they still continued to advocate for the opportunity to democratically elect their local government until passage of the Home Rule Act of 1973. Washingtonians faced a struggle that no other local government had to overcome. While many civil rights activists started to shift their focus to political power and economic control in the black community in an effort to gain full citizenship rights in America around 1965, this is the same time in which mass mobilization for civil and human rights in D.C. actually begins, primarily because it had to begin there if Washingtonians wanted the opportunity to move into any neighborhood they desired, better educational opportunities for local African-American residents, and to overcome the inequities toward African-Americans within the judicial system.

     This project will resonate with historians who study African-Americans, African-American women and welfare rights, social movements of the 20th century, especially the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, class struggles within the African-American community, and  Washington, D.C. political and social history.

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