…AND THE LAST SHALL BE FIRST
Shunned DC Demands Full Voting Rights, First Primary
By Sean Tenner


 

 

 

 

In 1964, a young man named Lawrence Guyot epitomized black America's long struggle for the right to vote when he organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to protest the state's all-white elections, and its decision to send an all-white delegation to that year's nominating convention in Atlantic City.

In the face of violent resistance, Guyot and his party organized integrated "freedom elections", elected their own delegates and fought to be officially seated at the convention that renominated Lyndon Johnson for President.

Flash forward to the present day. Lawrence Guyot, an icon of the civil rights movement, is still fighting for the right to vote. Guyot lives in Washington, DC - the nation's first majority-black major city, and currently the only place in the world where residents of a democracy are not allowed a voice in the legislative body that governs them.

The nearly 600,000 residents of the District of Columbia are American citizens who fight in wars (DC lost more casualties in the Vietnam War than each of 10 states), pay Federal taxes and perform all the other duties of American citizenship. Yet we are denied the right to elect members of Congress to decide the laws under which we must live and the ways in which our tax dollars are spent.

The District has one non-voting Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives and no voice or vote in the Senate. To make matters worse, Congress can even overturn our local laws and citizen-passed ballot initiatives. The city also can't spend a dime of its own locally raised tax revenue without first getting its budget approved by the Trent Lott crew on Capitol Hill.

Though the Constitution initially gave jurisdiction over District affairs to Congress, there is no constitutional stipulation that District residents shall be denied the right to voting representation in that body. But the root of today's problem is this: for the better part of the last two centuries there was an unspoken agreement in Congress that "authority" over the District would be the purview of the violently racist Southern segregationists who would chair its oversight committees. And we all know that old habits die hard.

We come now to the rapidly approaching 2004 presidential nominating process and to Mr. Guyot, who will testify February 19th on a DC Council bill to enable Washington, DC, a city where the black population numbers over 60%, to host the first presidential primary in the nation. The District is "allowed" to elect delegates to presidential conventions and it can cast three electoral college votes in the General Election. Yet the District's primary has always been grouped with the last tier of states, and it always cast its votes after the major party's nominees had been decided.

DC Democracy Fund, a political action committee (PAC) formed in 2001 to donate funds to Federal candidates who support DC's right to Congressional representation, launched a drive earlier this month to make DC's long overlooked primary "first in the nation." The solitary goal of DC Democracy Fund's campaign was to use the primary to highlight for the country and its presidential aspirants the civil rights violations faced by the disenfranchised residents of our capital city.

The activists foresaw an uphill fight, but one that just might force the next President of the United States to outline his or her views on "the voting rights question" before audiences in the racially diverse neighborhoods that border our seat of government.

The movement picked up steam. Within a week a bill had been introduced by DCCouncilmember Jack Evans to hold the District's primary on January, 10, 2004 - a full week before New Hampshire's tentative date. Almost instantly, the entire 13 member Council and District Mayor Anthony Williams signed on.

But then the inevitable trouble began. New Hampshire's ultra-conservative Manchester Union Leader ran a 1/19/03 editorial entitled, "Worst in the Nation" which called the concept "unsavory" and continued, "…we can't imagine a worse place to hold America's first presidential primary." Then came the kicker: a newspaper representing a state with roughly 7 black people for every 1000 residents (.7%) stated, "In fact, there's probably no other city in the country less representative of America than Washington."

A regrettable war of words broke out between DC and New Hampshire as the state's editorials began to roundly criticize the District. Then the national parties chimed in with their expected threats not to recognize any delegates elected in a primary held before New Hampshire. Pundits speculated that even if DC did pass a law to set their primary first, Congress could simply use their authority over the District to nullify it - or send out Federal troops to prevent the balloting. Many activists braced for city officials to back off at the first sign displeasure from the big boys.

But things are somehow different in Washington this year. The city's activists and politicians are fed up with 200 years of second-class status and are asserting themselves in ways that would have previously seemed unthinkable. Along with Evans, DC Council Chair Linda Cropp (D) went on the radio and stated she would fight to hold the primary regardless of opposition from Congress. "This is a local matter that should be decided locally," Cropp said. "They may be able to keep us (delegates) from being seated but they cannot keep us from voting."

White and black Councilmembers alike vowed to hold the election no matter what Congress or the party hierarchies said - as a means of keeping the voting rights issue in the media crosshairs. Then on January 27th New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner said he would not move up his state's primary in order to leapfrog ahead of the District.

As a reason he cited the same legal loophole that had first piqued the attention of DC voting rights activists: New Hampshire statute mandates holding their primary before any other state. Since the District is not a state, its early primary wouldn't conflict with New Hampshire's guidelines. DC Councilmember Vincent Orange rapidly scheduled a hearing to move on the "first in the nation" primary bill.

"It is forty years later now and I still lack voting rights simply because I live in our nation's capital," Lawrence Guyot says anticipating the hearing. "The fight that began in Mississippi in 1964 will continue in DC in 2004. The District's primary is the perfect place for both parties to tell us if there will be one definition of citizenship in America or two."

Lawrence Guyot and some DC colleagues from his 1964 civil rights crusade will be first in line to testify at the hearing - and could repeat history by fighting for disputed seats as convention delegates next summer…

Sean Tenner is Executive Director of the DC Democracy Fund, a Federal Political Action Committee that launched Washington's "first in the nation" drive and financially supports U.S. House and Senate candidates who back full Congressional representation for citizens of the District of Columbia. He can be reached at stenner@mrss.com or at 202-549-6127. The Fund's website is www.dcdemocracyfund.com. Donations are always welcome!

 

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Issue Number 28
February 6, 2003
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Other commentaries in this issue:

Commentary
Send in the Clowns: The GOP’s two-ring Black "outreach" circus

e-MailBox
Condoleezza: Appointee-in-Chief... Shock, awe and revulsion... Plain language on Blacks and Hispanics

The Issues
Desegregating U.S. African policy... Haitian poor ignore capital "strike"... A more colorful anti-war movement

Guest Commentary 1
"Shrub" Bush's Pathological Focus On Saddam Hussein by Alvin Wyman Walker, PhD, PD, PC


Commentaries in Issue 27 January 30, 2003:

Commentary 1
The Mother Of All War Shows

Commentary 2
Rumsfeld: Dead Soldiers Count for Nothing

e-MailBox
Condoleezza: Traitor, or not?... Letters from the anti-war front... Rev. Dr. Greedygut redux

The Issues
Desegregating U.S. African policy... Haitian poor ignore capital "strike"... A more colorful anti-war movement


You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.