Home Voting Rights Legislative Action Oppression of American citizens in D.C. by Congress
Sep 20
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Opinion: DC’s disenfranchisement is a racist legacy

By David Jonas Bardin

“The First Vote.” Cover image from the November 16, 1867 edition of Harper’s Weekly, archived at the Library of Congress.

by David Jonas Bardin

Outright bigotry and minority voter suppression have undermined efforts to restore precious political rights of Americans in Washington, DC. At a recent symposium hosted by the University of the District of Columbia Law Review, Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, strongly linked the lack of DC voting rights with our nation’s legacy of white supremacy.

Struggles over the right to vote have swung back and forth since American Independence. As the franchise expanded or contracted for poor or unpropertied white people, free and enslaved black people and women all over America, racist federal policies frustrated DC voting rights and self-government.

Senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama held up DC disenfranchisement as a model for national policy in 1891, proclaiming it had been “necessary” to:

“…burn down the barn to get rid of the rats…the rats being the negro population and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia.

“Now, the historical fact is simply this, that the negroes came into this District from Virginia and Maryland and from other places; I know dozens of them here now who flocked in from Alabama… they came in here and they took possession of a certain part of the political power of this District… and there was but one way to get out – so Congress thought, …and that was to deny the right of suffrage entirely to every human being in the District and have every office here controlled by appointment instead of by election… in order to get rid of this load of negro suffrage that was flooded in upon them.”

– Quoted from Dream City by Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood, 2014 edition, page 8.

Morgan soliloquized during a filibuster by Senate Democrats against a Republican-proposed bill, favored by President Benjamin Harrison of Indiana and passed by the House, to enforce voting rights effectively for black men, as intended by the 15th Amendment.

To Senator Morgan and other white supremacists in a polarized Congress, Congress should leave state after state free to curtail black voting rights (and Congress did), because denying black men the right to vote had justified denying all residents of the District any self-government.

The first DC residents had full voting rights; at least, the few who qualified under the laws of the time did. For ten years after Congress received DC from Maryland and Virginia, DC residents who met property ownership or tax requirements continued to participate in their new national government and vote in Maryland or Virginia elections, including congressional and presidential elections. Voting was done publicly viva voce, with “living voice.” The voters, one by one, had to swear that they were qualified and then publicly declare the names of those they were voting for.

In 1790, Congress provided for moving the capital to the new District on the first Monday in December, 1800. That year, DC voters helped elect Thomas Jefferson to the presidency and a new Congress, replacing Federalist Party rule effective March 4, 1801.

The Electoral College map in 1800. (image from the National Atlas of the United States)

But on February 27, 1801, a lame-duck session of Congress approved the Organic Act of 1801, ending all Maryland and Virginia legislative authority over the District and putting DC under federal control. Congress asserted its “exclusive Legislation” over DC in a way which deprived District citizens of political privileges which they had fought the British to procure. Congress created no structure and situation out of which a more open and broadly democratic system might emerge.

The disparity provoked unresolved criticisms. Forty years later, President William Henry Harrison contrasted treatment of citizens in DC and in territories.

“[O]nly in the District of Columbia,” he deplored, are American citizens to be found “who under a settled policy are deprived of many important political privileges without any inspiring hope as to the future.”

His sympathy was reserved for white males. Harrison had advocated slavery for the Indiana Territory, but his 1841 inaugural, addressing dangers of tyranny, insisted that political deprivation of DC’s then white male voters was not really necessary “to afford a free and safe exercise of the functions assigned to the General Government by the Constitution.”

“The people of the District of Columbia are not the subjects of the people of the States, but free American citizens.”

Being free American citizens “when the Constitution was formed”, he said, “no words used in that instrument could have been intended to deprive them of that character.”

Harrison did not have a chance to restore DC political rights because he died a month later.

Vice President John Tyler of Virginia had a different philosophy, and as we heard during his filibuster speech 50 years later, so did his descendant, Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan. And while President Benjamin Harrison, William Henry Harrison’s Republican grandson, endorsed the cause of civil rights, he also accepted “tyranny” by Congress over DC citizens.

Congress stuck to DC rule by federal appointees until 1973, when it prescribed a limited and revocable Home Rule by elected officials during Republican Richard M. Nixon’s presidency. To this day, Congress interprets its powers over DC as plenary even though District residents have no voting representation in Congress. Congress acts as if it is sovereign here – Congress, not the people. How can that be so?

Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who chairs a committee overseeing DC, admits that Congress does not need to govern DC residents and residential neighborhoods. But instead of statehood to liberate DC residents, he suggests that Congress return most of DC to Maryland, letting us vote for Maryland U.S. senators and representatives (voting rights without the Statehood sought by an 86 percent DC voter majority last year). But Mr. Chaffetz’s “retrocession” solution would require Maryland’s consent. Statehood advocates respond (without proof), “Maryland does not want us.”

Wade Henderson urges, get the proof! Test Maryland’s elected officials once and for all – by focus groups and state legislation. Above all, he advises us to build strong coalitions all over America, uniting to remove the ugly stain in DC that mars America’s democracy. Good advice. Let’s do it during our current Republican administration.

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Home Voting Rights Legislative Action Oppression of American citizens in D.C. by Congress