D.C. Statehood Fights for Rights for District; Hearing Offers Detailed History of Bid for Self-Determination

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At a recent D.C. Council hearing on the history of the nation's capital, council member Michael A. Brown began with excerpts from two films: Rebecca Kingsley's The Last Colony, a detailed history of the city's struggle for self-determination, and Un-Natural State by Kirk Mangels and Brad Mendelsohn.

Mr. Brown, chairman of the council's Special Committee on Statehood and Self-Determination, convened the hearing on May 13. The testimony began with the city's origins in the 1700s, weaved its way through the decades leading to the heady days of the 1960s and home rule, and ended with a D.C. student voicing concern that D.C. isn't part of the Union.

Professors and former elected officials were invited to give historical information about the different forms of city governance as part of a series of public hearings and roundtables leading up to a larger town hall-type meeting in the fall, said Linda Wharton-Boyd, spokeswoman for Mr. Brown. The next hearing, on Monday, will focus on the constitutionality of statehood for the District.

As we talk about statehood, not enough people know the city's history, Ms. Wharton-Boyd said.

Kenneth R. Bowling, an adjunct associate professor of history at George Washington University, reported on the early history of the national capital (1779-1801) and the constitutional power of Congress to create the District of Columbia and control it legislatively as well as congressional passage of the Organic Act of 1801, which a lame-duck Federalist Congress passed in an effort to assert total federal control over the seat of the government before Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican party took power.

It was not the intent of the Revolutionary generation to deny D.C. residents voting rights in Congress, Mr. Bowling said. When the U.S. has had a strong president who was interested in the District, Congress has given its residents some rights. He said the time to take action is now, and suggested the city seek the repeal of the Organic Act of 1801 and the creation of a territory.

Smithsonian Institution scholar C.R. Gibbs, who also is founder of the African History and Culture Lecture Series, discussed several aspects of D.C. governance: the mayoral period (1802-1871), in which there were varying forms of local suffrage within the different jurisdictions of the federal district; the retrocession of the Virginia portion of the District to the commonwealth of Virginia; the combination of the remaining separate jurisdictions in the Maryland portion of the District into one governmental unit; the creation of a partially popularly elected territorial government and the election of a nonvoting delegate to Congress (1871-1874); and the replacement of the territorial government with three presidentially appointed commissioners (1874-1963). He noted that Emancipation Day, when the slaves in the District were freed in April 16, 1862, was seen at the time as a transformative event that would lead to the end of slavery in the United States.

Former D.C. Statehood Party Chairman Samuel Jordan, who is a human rights lawyer, discussed the civil rights era (1961-1973) and highlighted the role that race has played in the city's history, including the 23rd Amendment, which granted D.C. residents a vote in the Electoral College for president.

He also discussed the major nonviolent demonstrations that set the stage for Congress' limited delegation of home-rule authority in the 1970s. These included the 1963 March on Washington and the 1966 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee boycott of D.C. transit, led by Marion Barry and the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis' fight against freeways in 1967, which helped unify D.C. and metropolitan activists and led to the establishment of the D.C. Statehood Party.

The assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968 was quickly followed by the election of the District's first school board, a nonvoting delegate and mayor, a D. …