On June 26, members of the House of Representative took a historic vote in favor of statehood for the District of Columbia, a move that could grant residents of the District full voting rights for the first time in our nation’s history. The movement for statehood has a longer history, dating back to the late 1960s, when Black Power and anti-highway activists began pushing for local control and autonomy. We sat down with the historian George Derek Musgrove, one of the authors of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital, to learn the long and racialized history of voter suppression in DC, the difficulties organizers have faced in winning voting rights in the District, and why winning statehood seems more possible now than ever before. 


DC residents’ voting rights, representation, and ability to self-govern have varied since the district was founded in 1790. Can you give us a brief history of the changing voting rights of D.C. residents over time?

DC has experienced three broad moments in its voting history. 

The first began in 1802, right after Congress came to town. After initially passing an Organic Act that stripped the city’s residents of the franchise, Congress slowly corrected its error in response to the public outcry. It reintroduced suffrage, first giving residents an elected council via a franchise restricted only to white male landowners. Soon, the property qualification was stripped away. Then the mayor, previously a presidential appointee, was subject to popular election. And then after the Civil War, the franchise was opened to African-American men. Thus, by the late 1860s, the city had “home rule” — a popularly elected city government overseen by Congress, a body in which the city had no voting representation.

This first system ended in 1871-4, when local white elites and members of Congress conspired to first restrict Black and workingmen’s suffrage and then end the suffrage altogether. They believed that a city run by presidentially appointed commissioners was better than one in which working people, particularly Blacks, had the vote. The city would be ruled by commissioners for nearly one hundred years.

In the 1950-70s, liberal reformers and civil rights/Black Power activists made a concerted push for home rule, achieving the same in 1973. They staked their claim on the powerful arguments that the city must respond both to the Cold War requirement that we model freedom for the world and the civil rights imperative that the federal government cease denying the franchise to a majority black city. The city has operated under this new home rule system since.  


The statehood movement began in earnest in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Why did a movement emerge at this time? Were there earlier organizing efforts to win voting rights for D.C.? 

The statehood push emerged in 1969-71 out of 1) several Black Power activists’ desire for Black self-determination, 2) several anti-highway activists’ desire to get out from under congressional control (Congress was then forcing the city to accept miles of highways it did not want), 3) Julius Hobson’s need for a party organization in his run for non-voting delegate against Walter Fauntroy. An anti-highway activist, Hobson chose the statehood issue and the Statehood Party was born. Over the course of the next decade, the Statehood Party made statehood a respectable — though not dominant — strategy among DC self-determination activists. (The strategy of using a voting rights amendment to gain representation in Congress was made dominant at this time through the exertions of Fauntroy.)


What were the biggest successes of the 1970s statehood movement? What were the biggest challenges facing activists? 

The biggest success of the Statehood Party in the 1970s was gaining a public hearing for the idea of statehood, which did not have much public support. We must remember that many DC residents could not even imagine home rule in 1970. Statehood seemed flat out impossible – even after home rule.


One of the things I was most struck by in reading Chocolate City was the fact that there used to be some bipartisan support for DC voting rights, including by segregationist Strom Thurmond, who not only supported the DC Voting Rights Amendment in 1976 but secured multiple Republican co-sponsors for the bill. Thurmond was facing a difficult re-election campaign, and the group Self-Determination for DC promised not to turn Black voters out against him if he supported the amendment. 

This speaks both to the political power of DC statehood activists as well as the greater ideological flexibility of congressional Republicans. Two questions off of this: 1) How did DC statehood advocates build the kind of national political power that allowed them to pressure a racist, conservative senator from another state? 2) By the 1990s, Republican support for statehood had all but disappeared — and would be nearly unthinkable today. How and why did opposition to DC statehood become conservative dogma, as you write, and why have Democrats “proved noncommittal” to the cause?

Self-determination activists built political power by working with their friends in other states (on both the campaign for home rule and, later, the DCVRA). They asked their friends outside the city to call their congressmen and senators and demand that they support DC self determination. This strategy worked well in those races where the white vote was split and African Americans served as a balance of power. That was certainly the case in Strom Thurmond’s 1978 race. As the vast majority of whites regrouped within the GOP, however, this leverage was lost. It just so happens that the white vote consolidated within the GOP at the same time that local activists adopted the statehood strategy. So statehood seemed hopeless pretty much from the beginning — 1980 is when the city adopted statehood as its official strategy for gaining self-determination.

Opposition to DC statehood became conservative dogma very quickly — between 1978 and 1980. After the DC Voting Rights Amendment passed Congress and headed to the states, New Right conservatives mobilized to kill it. They fear that it will empower a liberal majority Black city to do all of the things they are already organizing against: grant women’s rights, provide public funding for abortions, recognize more unions, adopt affirmative action, etcetera. So they push hard for the GOP to kill it. Not only that, but their hero, Ronald Reagan secured the party’s nomination in 1980, and he got the party to oppose statehood. Many of these people would set the tone for GOP politics for the next twelve years, and, during that time, they made opposition to DC statehood party dogma.


D.C. residents — particularly white residents — have not always been in favor of statehood. How have activists organized residents around the goal of statehood? What obstacles have they faced from within the District to gaining voting rights and advancing the goal of statehood? 

Most DC residents regardless of race were lukewarm advocates of statehood. It just was not a popular strategy until the 80s. Many whites worried about statehood in the ’70s and ’80s because they saw Congress as a check on the Black majority. Public opinion about DC changed for Blacks and whites in the years since for a few reasons: 1) People of all different groups experienced some pretty irresponsible uses of congressional power over the city in the ’80s and ’90s that put their lives at risk.  Congress banned the city from providing a needle exchange in the middle of the AIDS crisis, for example. 2) The city has become less Black and more Democratic in the years since. When statehood first became the dominant strategy, nearly 70 percent of residents were Black. Today, it is less than 50 percent Black. Whites are less concerned about being submerged in a majority Black electorate. Also, in the 70s, the city had a functioning Republican Party, and Republicans could expect to hold a few council positions. Today, the DC GOP is all but moribund, with the Democrat receiving well over 90 percent of the vote in presidential elections. DC is far and away (when compared to the states) the most democratic jurisdiction in the country — and Democrats across the country have come to the conclusion that the structure of the Senate and our population distribution favors the GOP, despite majority support for the Democratic Party among American voters. They want to create a small population Democratic state, to offset the many small population Republican states, and to balance the Senate.


How does today’s push for DC statehood compare to past organizing efforts? What similarities do you see to past organizing efforts and what new strategies have activists adopted?

The big difference today is that, 1) the Mayor is a leading figure in the effort. Mayors were always supportive in the past, but they have not led like Muriel Bowser.  And, 2) we have never had a national Democratic Party that believes DC statehood is in its self-interest. National Democrats just never saw how DC statehood could benefit them.  They see the reason now.


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