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Four Decades After Getting Home Rule, The Fight In D.C. Goes On

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A pro-home rule float in the inaugural parade on January 20, 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson was inaugurated.
Reprinted with permission of the DC Public Library, Star Collection, Copyright Washington Post
A pro-home rule float in the inaugural parade on January 20, 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson was inaugurated.

For a century D.C. residents had been governed by presidentially appointed commissioners and District Committees in the House and Senate, which decided everything from dog licensing laws to who became a D.C. police officer. That changed in December 1973, though, when President Richard Nixon signed the Home Rule Act, a bill granting the city an elected mayor and legislature.

The passage of the bill came against the backdrop of political and social changes brought on by the civil rights movement, with a black D.C. to delegate to Congress using both oratory and sheer political muscle to convince skeptical members of Congress that D.C. residents should be able to govern themselves.

But even though the Home Rule Act's passage was a historic step forward for the city, it also included political compromises that still dog D.C. to this day.

Home Rule: A Civil Rights Issue
D.C. wasn't always governed by Congress. From 1820 to 1870, residents were allowed to elect a mayor and legislature. But in 1874 a reorganization of the city's government replaced the elected officials with a three-member Board of Commissioners appointed by the president.

Over the next 90 years, D.C. residents suffered through minimal home rule, despite repeated attempts by members of Congress to grant the city an elected government. Those attempts were stymied by a coalition of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans who alternately believed that the Constitution empowered them to govern D.C. and that D.C.'s majority black population simply couldn't govern itself.

That started changing with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, says Michael Fauntroy, a professor of political science at Howard University who has written extensively about D.C. home rule. The act allowed blacks throughout the South to register to vote, effectively tilting the balance in many congressional districts.

"Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the House District Committee had been dominated by conservative Southern Democrats who had always bottled up home rule legislation notwithstanding the success it had in the Senate. And so in that way home rule became a civil rights question: why is it that this majority black city is not allowed to have the political autonomy that it should relative to the rest of the country?”, he explains.

Laying the groundwork for the Home Rule Act fell to his uncle, Walter Fauntroy, who had been Martin Luther King, Jr.'s representative in Washington and lead organizer for the 1963 March on Washington. In 1971 he was chosen to be the District’s first-ever non-voting delegate to Congress, where he used the strength of the civil rights movement to marshal support for a bill granting D.C. home rule.

Johnny Barnes, an attorney in D.C. and former head of the ACLU of the nation’s capital, was Fauntroy’s chief of staff on the Hill. He recalls that Fauntroy used the changing political dynamics in the South for — and against — members of Congress who wavered on D.C. home rule.

“He developed a map that he carried around with a huge case, where he pinpointed all those congressional districts where the black vote was the margin of victory. That’s where he would travel. As I said, 125 of them, and he called it the ‘arithmetic of political power.’ I would say that was maybe singularly most responsible for us obtaining Home Rule, the work that he did quietly, uneventfully, behind the scenes, helping members get back for re-election — important members, key members,” he recalls.

In 1972, Fauntroy landed one of his biggest victories — Rep. John McMillan, a South Carolina Democrat who for years had governed D.C. from his perch on the House District Committee, was defeated by a challenger who, with Fauntroy’s help, swept the black vote.

“Johnny McMillan refused to bring up the Home Rule bill, and so Mr. Fauntroy went to South Carolina and joined with a young South Carolinean by the name of John Jenrette. So he went down there and said to the black folks in South Carolina, ‘I need your hep — you don’t see "help" down there, you say "hep," I need your hep — and they hepped him and got Johhny McMillan out of office and then Charlie Diggs became the chair of the House District Committee and that’s how we were able to loosen up the Home Rule Act,” says Barnes.

With McMillan out of Congress, control of the House District Committee passed to Charles Diggs, a Michigan Democrat. After the home rule bill passed the committee, Fauntroy lobbied furiously in the South, sending 10,000 letters to black voters urging them to write their members of Congress to support final passage. In the letters, he encouraged them to write "remember Johnny Mac," a reference to McMillan's defeat.

He also wrote to Democratic leaders and the Speaker of the House (see letters below), saying that a vote for home rule could align black voters behind vulnerable Democrats. "I would bit ask them, for example, to come out and support forced massive bussing," wrote Fauntroy. "But there are some votes a Congressman can give that are cheap... a vote for D.C. Home Rule is such a vote."

In late 1973, the bill passed both houses of Congress — it received 272 votes in the House and 77 in the Senate — before being signed into law by President Nixon, himself a strong supporter of home rule. In his statement, he used the coming bicentennial to justify giving D.C. residents the right to govern themselves.

"As the Nation approaches the 200th anniversary of its founding, it is particularly appropriate to assure those persons who live in our Capital City rights and privileges which have long been enjoyed by most of their countrymen," he said.

Principles and Pragmatism
As much as the bill was a historic step forward for the District, the home rule it granted the city was still limited. Despite Fauntroy’s advocacy, the bill prohibited the District from taxing non-residents who worked in D.C., leaving the city to lose billions in tax revenue. It also left final budget decisions to Congress, meaning that while D.C. residents paid billions in taxes, the city’s purse strings were ultimately controlled from Capitol Hill.

Nelson Rimensnyder was an aide to Diggs during the negotiations leading to the passage of the Home Rule Act. He says that Diggs had to balance what D.C. residents wanted and what enough members of Congress were willing to give. A more liberal Senate bill, he says, was a step too far.

“Whip counts were done, and the Senate version was not going to pass. Diggs and other Democrats worried that if it went down, it wouldn't have bode well for getting anything through that Congress,” remembers Rimensnyder.

Fauntroy himself seemed satisfied with the bill that made it through, telling The Washington Times in 1982: "The charter wasn't all that we wanted it to be... but in the main we came out with a respectable Home Rule Charter that enabled us to elect our own mayor and city council."

Some advocates for D.C. statehood were nonetheless unhappy with the final bill, remembers Barnes. “Julius Hobson used to call it the reservation without the buffalo. He’d say, 'We got the reservation without the buffalo, that’s what we got.' So there were critics.”

An Ongoing Fight
Forty years after the Home Rule Act passed, D.C. finds itself struggling for many of the same things it didn’t get in 1973, such as full voting representation in Congress and budget autonomy.

In April, D.C. residents overwhelmingly voted to amend the city’s charter to grant elected official more control over locally raised funds, but some congressional Republicans have cast doubt on its legality. Statehood bills rarely get bipartisan support, and members of Congress still use their power to try and legislate for the District.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting delegate to the House, says that even after four decades, D.C. is still stuck between what she says it deserves — full statehood — and what it can get.

“In the fight towards equality with other Americans, the District has always been forced into incrementalism. I don’t know if it will ever get out of that, since if you look at even national legislation it’s the way things happen in this diverse country. We are trying mightily to get out of it," she says.

Barnes, who supports full statehood, still recognizes that while the Home Rule Act was a product of compromise, its passage still stands as a historic marker in the city’s fight for full equality.

“A lot of folks have recognized over time that we didn’t go far enough, we haven’t gone far enough and more needs to be done. Mustering the political will, especially in this political climate — it’s so toxic, so partisan — is not easy, and that’s why the Home Rule Act was such a victory even with its watered down principles.”

[Music: "Washington DC" by Gil Scott-Heron from Moving Target]

Fauntroy Letters


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