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While Statehood Remains Elusive Goal, D.C. Leaders Plug Away At Symbols

A bronze statue of 19th-century orator and writer Frederick Douglass is seen in the Emancipation Hall of the United States Visitor Center on Capitol Hill.
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
A bronze statue of 19th-century orator and writer Frederick Douglass is seen in the Emancipation Hall of the United States Visitor Center on Capitol Hill.

Earlier this week, Vice President Joe Biden, congressional leaders and D.C. residents gathered in the U.S. Capitol for a symbolic moment that was long in the making: the unveiling of a D.C. statue of Frederick Douglass.

The Douglass statue is D.C.'s first and only contribution to the Capitol complex; while the 50 states are all entitled to two statues of prominent people, a compromise measure passed last year allowed D.C., which isn't a state, only one. City leaders chose a seven-foot-tall, 850-pound bronze statue of the famed abolitionist, who spent his last years living and working in D.C.

Douglass' arrival to the U.S. Capitol was a long-overdue win for Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s delegate to Congress. Though she does not have a vote in the House, she has spent the better part of her 22 years on Capitol Hill fighting for voting rights and statehood—both in substance and symbolism.

For every bill Norton has introduced to grant the city's 632,000 residents a full voting member in the House or proper statehood, she has similarly pushed to have D.C. included in symbolic programs that celebrate the 50 states. And while statehood remains elusive, she has won many symbolic fights over the years.

The D.C. quarter was minted in 2009.In 2002, Norton worked with the U.S. Postal Service after D.C. was excluded from a commemorative stamp collection featuring all 50 states. In 2007, she pushed for the U.S. Mint's popular 50 State Quarter program to be expanded to include D.C. and five territories; D.C.'s coin was minted in 2009, featuring jazz legend Duke Ellington.

She also fought to have D.C.’s flag flown outside of Union Station, and more recently worked with her congressional colleagues to ensure that the city's flag was flown alongside those of the 50 states at military ceremonies.

"When the Congress goes to the trouble to have a series reflecting the individual states it is sending a strong message about the importance of American citizenship," she says.

"This is more than a slight, to leave us off of the very important symbols of citizenship, and all you have to do is think of what would happen if Maryland and Virginia weren’t included. They’d be up in arms," she says.

Earlier this year, D.C. residents gained another symbolic victory when President Barack Obama agreed to put the city’s official “Taxation Without Representation” license plates on his fleet of presidential limos. Some D.C. voting rights advocates cheered the move, but others argued that Obama was opting for an easy symbolic gesture instead of pushing more aggressively for D.C. to be granted statehood.

But for Norton, each symbol can help build the case for voting rights and statehood. In the cause of the Douglass statue, she says, it led to a surprising announcement.

"These symbols are yes, only symbols, but they can yield important results," she says. "We saw one of them at the Frederick Douglass ceremony when something very unusual happened—the leader of the Senate, Harry Reid, using the occasion to enthusiastically come out in support of statehood and go beyond that by signing on to the bill."

"He was sending a message to other Democrats—this is important for liberty and democracy, but it’s also important for our party," she says.

With the Douglass statue in place, Norton says she'll remain focused on heading of congressional interference in D.C. affairs and promoting the statehood bill she introduced earlier this year. The fight for symbols isn't over, though—Norton says she wants a second statue in the Capitol, this one of Pierre L'Enfant.

"We will fight for Pierre L’Enfant the same way we fought for Frederick Douglass, and we will get him," she says.

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