Activists pushing statehood for the District of Columbia hope to use the upcoming 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington to draw parallels between King’s vision for equality and their own push for democracy.
At 9 a.m. Saturday, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and other statehood supporters will rally at the D.C. War Memorial, 900 Independence Ave. SW, to promote full civil rights for D.C. residents before marching to the Lincoln Memorial to join the larger, national celebration.
District Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who worked as a volunteer and march organizer in 1963, will be among the speakers. Norton said Thursday that she learned a lesson 50 years ago “not to let a national march come to D.C. about people’s rights and allow them to march around D.C. statehood, over D.C. statehood, or avoid D.C. statehood, as was the case in 1963.”
At the time, residents had just won the right to vote for president, but they had no home rule government, no mayor and no city council. Those things have changed, but D.C. still has no voting representation in Congress and no budget autonomy.
“The average American does not know even one of those facts of life for D.C. residents,” Norton said.
More than 100 groups have signed on to participate in the rally, including civic and service organizations, church groups, labor unions and university alumni organizations. The list includes the Humans Rights Campaign, the NAACP and the local chapter of the National Action Network.
Organizers chose the 47-foot-tall, domed memorial — the one structure on the National Mall dedicated to D.C. residents — for symbolic reasons. Inscribed with the names of the 26,000 Washingtonians who served in World War I, the memorial represents the “hypocrisy that District residents continue to endure,” Gray said during a Wednesday news conference.
“We send our relatives, our friends, our sons, our daughters, our grandchildren off to fight wars in far-away places, and yet they come home and continue to be denied full democracy here in the District of Columbia,” Gray said.
“Everyone feels outraged and everyone feels passionate about this issue, but we now want people to recommit to sign up again and to really join this movement in a meaningful way to have their voices heard,” said Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Vote.
Gray’s office and DC Vote worked together to plan the rally. They invited the public to Freedom Plaza, in downtown D.C., on Thursday afternoon to decorate signs aimed at raising awareness among the national crowd.
Equally important is the effort to energize residents to lobby Congress for pending statehood bills.
“The District can’t wage a massive ad campaign — even a whole city couldn’t do that,” Norton said. “It’s a prime opportunity for the District to make itself heard on the issues affecting its own rights.”
Norton has introduced the perennial New Columbia Admissions Act as her first bill of the 113th Congress. She is also sponsoring two bills that provide different approaches to congressional representation for the District’s 632,000 residents.
“This is not just a commemoration but a continuation of Dr. King’s work,” D.C. shadow Sen. Michael D. Brown said Thursday. Brown, a purely symbolic member of the Senate with no voting power, hopes the mass crowds gathered to honor the civil rights leader take notice: “Oh my God, this is the nation’s capital, and there’s no democracy here!”
Congress has given D.C. hope for budget freedom this year. They took no action against a budget autonomy referendum approved by D.C. voters in April. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed a bill sponsored by Chairman Darrell Issa, D-Calif., that includes key elements of budget autonomy, and Senate appropriators incorporated budget autonomy language endorsed by President Barack Obama into the District’s spending bill.
Those hoping “New Columbia” will become the 51st state took heart when Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., tweeted that his committee would hold a hearing on D.C. statehood this fall and when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., co-sponsored a statehood bill in June.
Advocates hope the march can garner support by drawing publicity to an issue that flies under the radar. In a 2005 survey conducted for DC Vote, 82 percent of adults said they did not know that D.C. did not have equal representation in Congress. The survey polled a national randomized sample of 1,007 adults and was conducted by KRC Results.
“A big problem you have in getting support is just letting people know about the problem that’s here,” Brown said. He said the rally is the “perfect venue” for raising awareness.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is located parallel to the D.C. War Memorial, where Saturday’s D.C. rally will take place.
King’s legacy “continues to energize our fight for full representation,” Gray said.