This article appeared in the DC Gazette in June 1970. It presented, for the first time in print, the case for DC statehood. It also described for the first time how DC could become a state without a constitutional amendment. Three months later, the author joined a small group of activists led by Julius Hobson to form the DC Statehood movement.
Sam Smith, 1970 – About a year ago, the peripatetic Rev. Doug Moore had a good idea. He proposed that the District become the 51st state of the Union. A news conference was held, a committee was formed, a flag was devised and then — as so often happens in this town — nothing happened. Rev. Moore moved on to other matters and the fight for local suffrage was once again turned over to the polite liberals. The idea of 51st statehood moved north to New York City for the duration of Norman Mailer’s campaign.
It is one of the ironies of this town that there hasn’t been a sustained militant drive for self-government here since the demise of the Free DC Movement. Instead, we have annual piddling negotiations on the Hill that move the cause ahead with all the haste of a paraplegic turtle climbing the Washington Monument. Over the past couple of weeks we have once again observed the old charade. A straight-forward and just proposal to give the District voting representation in Congress offered by Senator Kennedy becomes mireds in legislative muck. Suggested as a rider to a national electoral reform amendment, it is quickly attacked as endangering the legislation upon which it is riding. A separate constitutional amendment to the same end is criticized as too difficult to pass. And Walter Washington and Gilbert Hahn tiptoe up to the Hill to support a sham of a proposal that would grant one District resident the right to be a salaried non-voting observer on the House floor.
Half a loaf, half a loaf, half a loaf onward. Into the valley of urban decay ride Gil and Walter. We must be practical. We must take what we can get. And Congress rightly surmises once more that not only would we accept a partial loaf, our leadership will thank you massah very much for a few stale crumbs.
Our congressional commissars and Racetrack Richard, the flimflam man working the south side of the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Ave NW, will never conclude that they have to give us anything until we begin demanding something.
Those who could provide some sort of alternative for the bland blather that passes for home rule activism haven’t been much help. Some are victims of a masochistic pragmatism that dilutes goals before the battle has even begun. Considering themselves experts on what Congress will “accept,” they define away our demands until the home rule fight centers on legislation that would provide a charter commission with no guarantee of home rule at all, or until the sought-after representation measure becomes a semi-representation measure and then a demi-semi-representation measure.
Others tend to treat the matter as Rev. Moore did, the topic of this week’s news conference, a transitory talking point. Because home rule seems to difficult to obtain, those concerned with black doors getting bashed down by cops in the night, freeways being rammed through neighborhoods, and public housing tenants being evicted, naturally tend to put the more distant goals on hold and take care of today’s business.
But as long as we fail to make clear what it is we demand — unfettered, uncompromised self-determination — and until we show some inclination to fight for this goal, today’s business will be tomorrow’s business and the next day’s and on into the future. If we display little disposition to be free, can we really be surprised that we remain a colony?
We need a plan, a sense of destiny, something to replace the endless quibbling over colonial reorganization that passes for a fight for freedom.
Though Doug Moore may have forgotten, he gave us such a plan.
Statehood is a clear, just and attainable goal to which District residents can aspire. Unlike the ambiguities of “home rule” — whose home rule?: Lyndon Johnson’s, Richard Nixon’s, Channing Phillips’? David Carliner’s? Joseph Tydings’ ? The Washington Post’s? — statehood is a concept whose prerogatives and privileges are easily understood. Statehood means nothing more nor less than what Wyoming, Rhode Island, Delaware, or any of the states smaller and larger than the District enjoy. When Alaska became a state, Congress declared that it was “admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the other States in all respects whatever.” That’s what we should demand: equal footing, not some more benevolent form of colonialism foisted off as “home rule.” In the old days, when Congress admitted new states, it put it even more gracefully and accurately.
The states were declared a “new and entire member of the United States of America.”
The District has never been an entire member of the United States of America. It is the indentured servant of the nation. Our goal must be simple and clear: the US must let us in.
It can be done. In fact, it can be done more directly and more simply than all the tortured meanderings proposed by those who claim to have a pragmatic vision of the District’s future. It can be done without constitutional amendment, requiring only two legislative acts on the part of Congress to accomplish the prime objective:
First, redefine the District. The Constitution does give Congress exclusive legislative jurisdiction over the District. But it does not define the District other than to restrict it to not more than ten square miles. At the time the city became the seat of the government, it contained a mere 14,000 residents, whom Madison assured in the Federalist Papers “will of course be allowed” a municipal legislature “for local purposes, derived from their own suffrages.” On this land sprung a metropolis of three-quarters of a million, as large as all the New England states in 1800 combined, excluding Massachusetts. Only the peculiar perversity of the congressional mind has led to the conclusion that the framers of the Constitution expected Congress to exercise total control over, and deny franchise to, a population equal to five of the 13 original colonies. If John McMillan and Joel Broyhill had been around then, pushing such a scandalous suggestion, the Union might never had made it past Philadelphia.
But we need not continue the debate on the intent of the forefathers. We can swiftly correct the ill effects of their vagueness by redefining the District (perhaps to a narrow strip running from the White House to the Capitol) over which avaricious national legislators can exercise their domain, and the rest of the city shall be evermore free of the curse of Article I, Section 8.
The initial exercise, therefore, is to force Congress to restrict the size of the District, and to declare the rest of the city the Territory of Columbia, or whatever other name we would wish.
Second: Admit the city as a state. A constitutional convention should be called to draw up a plan for statehood. An interim government must also be elected, with or without the acquiescence of the national administration and Congress, in order to provide to provide a body with a mandate to represent the city-territory in the difficult days prior to statehood. This can be no overnight operation for the benefit of the evening news. We must avoid the errors of our unwanted masters and begin in the neighborhoods. The specifications of freedom must sprout from the communities.
Once the neighborhoods have defined their needs and goals and elected their leaders, the constitutional convention can proceed to draw up a state constitution and apply to Congress for membership in the Union. By mere majority vote, Congress can grant that admission.
If Washington can become a state, why not New York City, Philadelphia, Boston or Phoenix? Why not indeed? The Constitution tells you how to go about it. Work out an agreement with the state within whose bounds the city presently rests, and then petition Congress for statehood. I think it’s only fair, however, for the District to ask other localities not to barge in ahead o the place that has been most victimized for the longest period of time.
Long before Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin conceived of the possibility for New York City, Alexander Hamilton remarked: “…the immediate object of the federal Constitution is to secure the union of the thirteen primitive states, which we know to be practicable, and to add to them such other states as may arise in their own bosoms, or in their neighborhoods, which we cannot doubt to be equally practicable.” [Emphasis added].
It isn’t practical. By what standards? By the record of the last-half century of the fight for local suffrage, it is certainly as practical as anything else that has been tried. And since nearly every other proposal for a major grant of self-government involves amendments requiring not only two-thirds vote of Congress, but the acceptance of three-quarters of the state legislatures, while the statehood plan would require only a majority in Congress, it is in this respect eminently more practical than any of the current suggestions.
What about the federal payment? The basis for the federal payment is not hush money for colonialism, but stems from the excessive use of otherwise taxable lands by the national government. The status of this would not be changed by statehood.
There would be, finally, a certain poetic and historic justice in granting statehood to the District. Admittedly, the concept of a state is itself an inefficient one, a compromise initially conceived as a means of achieving union. The differences today between black American and white America far exceed those between Rhode Island and Georgia in pre-constitutional times. We need union today as badly as we needed it then. Creating the first black state would be a dramatic step towards restoring a sense of union. So let’s off the talk about home rule and representation. Our right is entire membership in the United States of America as the 51st state. Let us seek nothing less.