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Segregation & the Civil Rights Movement

September 13th, 2011 12:07 am

In the early 20th century, Washington adopted racial segregation policies, like those of the South. Its business establishments and public spaces became, in practice if not in law, ‘Whites only.’ The ‘progressive’ Woodrow Wilson administration reinforced discrimination by refusing to hire Black federal employees and insisting on segregated government offices. In 1925, the Ku Klux Klan marched on the Mall.

Nonetheless, Washington was a Black cultural capital in the early 20th century. Shaw and LeDroit Park, near Howard University, sheltered a lively Black-owned business district, and Black theater and music flourished along U St NW. Southern Blacks continued to move to the city in search of better economic opportunities. Between 1920 and 1930, Washington’s Black population jumped 20%. Citywide segregation eased somewhat with the New Deal (which brought new Black federal workers to the capital) and WWII (which brought lots more).

In 1939, the DC-based Daughters of the American Revolution barred the Black contralto Marian Anderson from singing at Constitution Hall. At Eleanor Roosevelt’s insistence, Anderson instead sang at the Lincoln Memorial before a huge audience – and that iconic moment highlighted a new era of Black-led demonstrations, sit-ins, boycotts and lawsuits. Parks and recreational facilities were legally desegregated in 1954; schools followed soon thereafter. President John F Kennedy appointed the city’s first Black federal commissioner in 1961. The Home Rule Act was approved in 1973, giving the city some autonomy from its federal overseers. The 1974 popular election of Walter Washington brought the first Black mayor to office. The capital became one of the most prominent African American-governed cities in the country.

Washington hosted key events in the national civil rights struggle. In 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr led the March on Washington to lobby for passage of the Civil Rights Act. His stirring ‘I have a dream’ speech, delivered before 200, 000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, was a defining moment of the campaign. The assassination of Reverend King in Memphis in 1968, sent the nation reeling. Race riots gripped the country. DC was no exception. It saw the worst racially motivated conflicts in its history when the city exploded in two nights of riots and arson (centered on 14th and U Sts NW in the Shaw district). Twelve people died and hundreds of mostly Black-owned businesses suffered heavy damage. White residents fled the city en masse, and downtown Washington north of the Mall (especially the Shaw district) faded into decades of economic slump.

The legacy of segregation proved difficult to overcome. For the next quarter-century, White and Black Washington grew further apart. By 1970, the city center’s population declined to 750, 000, while the wealthier suburbs boomed to nearly three million. When the sleek, federally funded Metrorail system opened in 1976, it bypassed the poorer Black neighborhoods and instead connected the downtown to the White suburbs.

Decay and Decline

September 13th, 2011 12:05 am

By the end of the 1960s no-one could ignore the declining situation in Vietnam. The war was taking a giant toll on President Lyndon Johnson’s popularity. Americans were growing angry at the rising death tolls and seeming quagmire in Southeast Asia, along with the deteriorating domestic economic situation at home. Demonstrations in Washington were called for, and people took to the street to protest poverty and the Vietnam War.

The political upheaval that began in the 1960s continued unchecked into the next decade. The year 1970 marked the first time DC was granted a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. Three years later the Home Rule Act paved the way for the District’s first mayoral election in more than a century.

These were about the only two positives the city experienced that decade. Neighborhoods continued to decay, crack-cocaine hit District streets with a vengeance and housing projects turned into war zones. In fact, by 1980, DC had won the oh-so-lovely tagline of ‘Murder Capital of America.’

Jimmy Carter became president in 1977. A ‘malaise’ marked his tenure. High gas prices, unemployment and inflation climbed to an all-time high. The taking of American hostages in Iran in 1979, an act that Carter had few options for dealing with, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In November 1980, he lost his job to Ronald Reagan, a former actor who had once been California governor.

The city’s negative trends continued in the 1980s. Elected mayor in 1978, Marion Barry was a veteran of the civil rights struggle. Combative and charismatic, he became a racially polarizing figure in the city.

On January 18, 1990, Barry and companion, ex-model Hazel ‘Rasheeda’ Moore, were arrested in a narcotics sting at the Vista Hotel. The FBI and DC police arrested the mayor for crack-cocaine possession amid his memorable quote: ‘…set up…bitch set me up.’

When Barry was re-elected to a fourth term, following a stint in jail, Congress acted to reclaim financial control of the city and end yet another episode in Home Rule.