March 2017 Spotlight On: Race

“Hands off DC”: Race and Congressional Control of Washington, DC

Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) recently made national headlines and late-night punchlines when he suggested low income people should stop buying iPhones to afford healthcare. In the District of Columbia, however, Chaffetz is primarily known for his attempts to block DC legislation and programs.

by Kyla Sommers

Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) recently made national headlines and late-night punchlines when he suggested low income people should stop buying iPhones to afford healthcare.[1] In the District of Columbia, however, Chaffetz is primarily known for his attempts to block DC legislation and programs.

Since 2014, Chaffetz has served as the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee. The Committee oversees the DC budget, reviews DC legislation, and can even overturn DC laws. This year, Chaffetz pledged to use this power to overturn a DC law legalizing physician-assisted suicide. He threatened to launch an investigation if DC uses its tax dollars to defend undocumented immigrants from deportation. After the city voted overwhelmingly to petition Congress to become a state, he suggested DC should instead retrocede to Maryland.[2]

Congressional control allowed southern segregationists to enforce their racial policies in DC and to resist desegregation after the Supreme Court’s overturn of Plessy v. Ferguson. Senator Theodore Bilbo (D-Mississippi) declared he wanted to be on the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia so he, “could keep Washington a segregated city.”

District residents are determined to oppose Chaffetz’s meddling. DC activists formed the Americans for Self-Rule PAC to raise money to oppose Chaffetz in his next election.[3] DC City Council members sarcastically keep inviting Chaffetz to local government hearings to mock his “interest in managing the affairs of the District of Columbia.” In February, so many Washingtonians called Chaffetz’s office to voice complaints that the office switched to using a voice recording to answer phones.[4]

Chaffetz
February 2017 protest in DC against Chaffetz’s interference in capital politics. Courtesy of the Washington Post.

If DC is so opposed to Congressional control, why does Congress still have the power to override the DC government? When the federal government moved to DC in 1800, Congress controlled the District but still allowed some local autonomy and elections. After the Civil War, radical Republicans, believing DC was the easiest place to implement Reconstruction reforms, passed a law allowing African American male suffrage in DC years before the 15th amendment mandated it nationwide. Black Washingtonians then composed nearly 50% of the DC electorate and were instrumental in electing a radical Republican mayor and legislature, including several African Americans, who passed legislation protecting black civil rights. This era of reform was short-lived, however, as accusations of government corruption, white resentment of black political power, and the end of Reconstruction led to the passage of the Organic Act of 1878 which stripped DC of all voting rights for nearly 100 years. White Washingtonians, nearly all of whom opposed black suffrage in DC, generally supported the Organic Act in part because they preferred Congressional rule to sharing political power with African Americans.

The fear of a black-controlled capital had long made both Congress and many white Washingtonians wary of Home Rule. For example, during a Congressional hearing in 1951, several people testified that one of the main objections was black political power: “If we get home rule the Negroes will take over the city.”

Congressional control allowed southern segregationists to enforce their racial policies in DC and to resist desegregation after the Supreme Court’s overturn of Plessy v. Ferguson. Senator Theodore Bilbo (D-Mississippi) declared he wanted to be on the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia so he, “could keep Washington a segregated city.”[5] Bilbo and his southern colleagues were so successful that commentators in the late 1940s declared the Confederacy held DC as a “helpless pawn” and “captured the city for their own peculiar ideology and held it as the capitol of white supremacy. Here they have demonstrated their racial theories to the world, and gone home to brag about it.”[6]

In response to the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Southerners launched a “massive resistance” to desegregation. After President Eisenhower declared school desegregation in DC would be a “model” for the rest of the country, southern conservative James Davis of Georgia saw an opportunity to use the DC “model” to delay desegregation in Southern schools. Davis held Congressional hearings asserting integration in DC was a failure based on racist assertions that African Americans were unclean, hypersexual rapists, unintelligent, and amoral criminals who would corrupt the “innocent” white youth.[7] Although the hearings were widely criticized by the DC school superintendent, NAACP, and press, Davis distributed the transcripts throughout the South. After summarizing the hearings in a convention speech, Davis clearly stated his intention to use DC as a rallying cry for “massive resistance” to desegregation: “I have given you tonight, in brief, a picture of the deplorable situation in Washington. I have seen there the tragic results which come from the breakdown of segregation and substitution of an integrated public-school system. The same thing can happen, and will happen here, if the people meekly accept wrongful usurpation of power, and a Supreme Court dictatorship, as they did in Washington.”

March on Washington
Participants in the famous 1963 March on Washington. Note the sign calling for DC Home Rule in the background. Courtesy of EastDailyOffice.wordpress.com.

By the 1960s, civil rights opponents adopted a new strategy: pushing “Law and Order” legislation to prevent black empowerment. These Congressmen argued Supreme Court cases expanding civil liberties and the civil rights movement resulted in increased crime because, according to Senator Robert Byrd, “In such an atmosphere of permissiveness, civil disobedience and disrespect for civil law, the seeds of crime took deeper root, and the Nation is now reaping the harvest.”[8] DC was a prime target of such criticism because it had the largest black population of any American city proportionately, was entirely desegregated, and easily invoked national outrage as the capital. Senator Olin D. Johnston asserted DC crime resulted from “forced integration” and Senator Allen Elender claimed DC’s status as a “cesspool of crime” proved that “Negroes cannot govern themselves.”[9] Both Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon used the DC crime rate as a campaign issue in the 1964 and 1968 presidential elections. Meanwhile, the Congressional DC committees used DC crime to justify proposals for increased federal control in District affairs.[10] Senator Olin Johnson and Representative Omar Burleson proposed the city be patrolled by two companies of Marines, another Congressman suggested bringing back the “whipping post” to punish DC criminals, and another wanted to send the Peace Corps into DC. Disregarding strong local opposition, “Law and Order” members of Congress scored a major victory with the passage of the 1970 DC Crime Bill which curtailed civil liberties through, among other provisions, “no-knock” warrants and preventative detention.

Studying DC and Congressional history reveals that part of the reason Congress still has substantial control over DC is rooted in racism . . . even after Home Rule, race continues to shape perceptions of the city. As activists push for DC Statehood and resist Congressional interference, the civil rights legacy of DC autonomy should not be forgotten.

Despite the resistance of segregationists and conservatives embodied in the Crime Bill, DC gradually gained more autonomy culminating in the Home Rule Act of 1973. The fear of a black-controlled capital had long made both Congress and many white Washingtonians wary of Home Rule. For example, during a Congressional hearing in 1951, several people testified that one of the main objections was black political power: “If we get home rule the Negroes will take over the city.”[11] Despite such fears, in 1967 President Johnson restructured the DC government so the president, instead of Congress, appointed a Mayor-Commissioner and created elections for a city council and school board. The members of Congress in charge of DC were not pleased and refused to refer to Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington as “mayor.” John McMillan, head of the House Appropriations Committee on DC, sent the African American mayor a truck of watermelons to “welcome” him.[12]

Even Home Rule came with restrictions and was heavily scrutinized. To this day, DC’s Congressional representative cannot vote and the city cannot impose a commuter tax or pass a budget that is not balanced. Despite such restrictions, DC rejoiced at Home Rule and the new government emphasized civil rights. Then, in 1978, a coalition of wealthy white and working class black Washingtonians elected the now infamous Marion Barry as mayor. For those who had opposed home rule, Barry’s tenure as mayor validated their belief that DC, a city whose population was 2/3 black, could not govern itself. DC was riddled with national and even international criticism for the countless accusations of government corruption, high crime rates, and financial mismanagement (not to mention Barry’s arrest and eventual short stint in jail). But for many, Barry was a champion who prioritized black Washingtonians and “symbolized an authentic version of black DC.”[13] Mere months after his release from jail, Barry was elected as Ward 8’s City Council representative and then was reelected mayor in 1994.

Marion Barry
Marion Barry at Free DC rally, advocating for DC Home Rule, August 26, 1966. Courtesy of Weebly.com.

Many Washingtonians believe to this day that Congressional hatred of Barry was part of the reason that less than a year after Barry’s reelection, Congress created the District of Columbia Financial Control Board and took control of the city’s finances. The Board forced drastic budget cuts and layoffs. While Barry initially requested help from Congress to deal with the city’s growing debt and budget shortfalls, he did not expect their drastic approach and called it a “rape of democracy” and declared that DC could not survive as “half-slave, half-free.”[14] The entire process was deeply intertwined with racial politics: many black Washingtonians were convinced the Control Board was all part of a Congressional plan to take DC away from black control while Congress sought black politicians to lead the process and ease the accusations of racism. Kevin Chavous, then the City Council representative from Ward 7, explained that even moderate African Americans were skeptical of Congress because, “There is some built-in paranoia and distrust of Congress. It is the result of generations of congressional colonialism.”[15]

In 1997, Congress further restricted DC autonomy when it voted to stop its federal payment to the city (a practice originating in 1878) and instead took control of the city’s debts, its courts and prisons, and elements of its entitlement programs. The city 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. While the Financial Control Board is now dormant, it can be revived at any time. Former mayor Vincent Gray said the threat of the return of the Control Board was a “grim reaper at the door” and former City Council member Jack Evans claimed a Republican Congress would, “like nothing better than to take over this city again and say, ‘We told you so.’”[16] And indeed, Republicans recently used use their control over DC’s budget and affairs to partially block marijuana legalization.[17]

Studying DC and Congressional history reveals that part of the reason Congress still has substantial control over DC is rooted in racism. The very act that ended local elections in 1878 was in part to end black political power in the District. In response to the black freedom movement, segregationists made DC the poster child for “massive resistance” and “Law and Order.” Even after Home Rule, race continues to shape perceptions of the city. As activists push for DC Statehood and resist Congressional interference, the civil rights legacy of DC autonomy should not be forgotten.

15168929_10153844133551829_3760887184423167705_oKyla Sommers is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. She was the 2016 Curt C. and Else Silberman Foundation Fellow at the Historical Society of Washington, DC. Her forthcoming dissertation examines the 1968 civil disturbances in Washington, DC. She can be contacted here and you can follow her on Twitter @Kyla_in_DC.

Notes

[1] Tina Nguyen, “Jason Chaffetz: Can’t afford Trumpcare? Don’t buy an iPhone,” Vanity Fair, March 7, 2017, http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/03/jason-chaffetz-healthcare-iphone.

[2] Jenna Portnoy, “GOP House Chair: Maybe we should cut off part of D.C. and send it back to Maryland,” Washington Post, January 31, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/gop-house-chair-maybe-we-should-cut-off-part-of-dc-and-send-it-to-maryland/2017/01/31/2242753a-e7d0-11e6-80c2-30e57e57e05d_story.html?utm_term=.967fd7125059.

[3] Paul Schwartzman, “Chaffetz faces new opponent: A D.C. PAC created to oust him,” Washington Post, February 28, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/chaffetz-faces-new-opponent-a-dc-pac-created-to-oust-him/2017/02/27/2d6279f2-fd2d-11e6-99b4-9e613afeb09f_story.html?utm_term=.db75576a88e9.

[4] Rachel Sadon, “DC Council Trolls Jason Chaffetz,” February 9, 2017, http://dcist.com/2017/02/dc_council_trolls_jason_chaffetz.php.

[5] Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Segregation in Washington: A Report, November 1948 (Virginia: The University of Virginia, 1948), 88.

[6] Landis, Segregation in Washington, 88.

[7] See Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate Public School Standards and Conditions and Juvenile Delinquency in the District of Columbia of the Committee on the District of Columbia House of Representatives (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1956).

[8]. “Crime Rise Blamed on Supreme Court,” Washington Post, August 1, 1962.

[9] “100 More Police Asked Immediately for District,” Washington Post, August 27, 1959, B1; “Ellender Calls District a Cesspool of Crime,” Washington Post, June 17, 1963, A6.

[10] To make such arguments, crime rates were often distorted and for much of the 1960s crime was barely increasing or even down in Washington, DC.

[11] U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on the District of Columbia. Home Rule and Reorganization for the District of Columbia. 82nd Cong., 1st Session., 1951.

[12] Scott Berg, “Going Deep into the nation’s capital,” Washington Post, October 29, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/going-deep-into-the-nations-capital/2015/10/29/1fac1392-5d72-11e5-b38e-06883aacba64_story.html?utm_term=.b32ba702338f.

[13] Credit to my friend and true Washingtonian Daniel Robinson for this sentiment and phrase.

[14] Mike DeBonis, “After 10 years, D.C. Control Board is gone but not forgotten,” Washington Post, January 30, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/30/AR2011013003901.html; Blaine Harden and David A. Vise, “Race and the Bottom Line in DC,” Washington Post, March 19, 1995, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1995/03/19/race-and-the-bottom-line-in-dc/86564231-50f1-4b73-bb42-fbee7e62b89c/?utm_term=.d81b1b171a0f.

[15] Harden and Vise, “Race and the Bottom Line in DC,” 1995.

[16] DeBonis, “After 10 years, D.C. Control Board is gone but not forgotten,” 2011.

[17] DC now essentially has a legalized black market, far different than what DC residents voted to approve.

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