The words “Free D.C.” rang from the voices of hundreds of District of Columbia residents and their supporters who gathered Aug. 24 at the D.C. War Memorial to demand statehood from Congress.
During the pre-March on Washington rally, supporters said self-governance for D.C. residents was one of the last issues supported by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that has yet to be addressed.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a non-voting member of the House, said statehood is a necessity for the residents of the District of Columbia. She called it “a continuing struggle.”
“D.C. statehood is the most invisible, ironically left over business from the March on Washington,” Norton told the AFRO during the rally. “Statehood is a package of rights… People come here to get votes, but we can’t vote.”
Norton, who was a volunteer worker at the 1963 march, said statehood status for the District would mean an end to congressional interference in D.C. budget matters and assure D.C. residents of voting representation in both chambers of Congress.
The District is one of six territories with non-voting representation in Congress.
But some progress has been made for district residents. In 1963, residents were granted the right to vote for president. Before then, the last presidential candidate D.C. voters cast ballots for was Thomas Jefferson in 1800.
The choice of location for the statehood rally was also symbolic. Rob Mares, spokesperson for Mayor Vincent Gray, said the D.C. War Memorial was chosen as the rally location because it is the only memorial in the District dedicated specifically to its residents. The memorial stands as a testament to the 26,000 residents who served in World War I.
Southeast D.C. native, Michelle Parker, 60, stood on the path before the D.C. War Memorial with a “Free D.C.” sign urging marchers to support the district’s efforts for statehood.
“Statehood means we’ll be allowed to control our own destiny as a city and a state,” said Parker. “We would have control over our own taxes and by taxing people who come into D.C. from outside for work we could have more services.”
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray told the crowd of supporters that the livelihood of D.C. residents is too deeply intertwined with the federal government. He said if the federal government shuts down, city services would also stop. “Trash won’t get picked up,” said Gray.
“So much of King’s dream has come to fruition, but not D.C. statehood,” said Gray. “We need to do more than rally here this morning… King would say we need to yell and scream, but then we need to work.”
Members of the Washington, D.C. alumni chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi came to the rally with signs for D.C. statehood.
Robert Jenkins Jr., eastern province senior vice polemarch for the fraternity, said while he lives in Silver Spring, he supports the district’s right for statehood. He said it is time for residents to put political pressure on the federal government by withholding taxes.
“Our fraternity wanted to make it clear that we support D.C. statehood,” said Jenkins. “It’s a part of the fundamental rights of this country that every citizen has a right to be represented and this issue transcends the borders of D.C.”
According to Norton, Washington, D.C. residents pay more taxes per capita to the federal government than residents of any other jurisdiction in the country. She said it is time to stand up against this injustice screaming the district’s slogan, “No taxation without representation.”
“We will no longer be a city who hosts marches, but whose statehood is denied,” said Norton. “Do not march around us, do not march over us.”
During a break between speakers, former D.C. mayor and now councilman, Marion Barry, forcefully approached the stage to tell supporters that the time is ripe for district residents to finally get their right to statehood.
“Turn the damn music off, this isn’t the time for that,” said Barry. “Let’s do something radical.”