This is the second installment of a series (see the first installment here) summarizing the 1994 book Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood. This book has recently been republished as an ebook and a paper book. HBO has plans to use material from the book to make a movie about the life of Marion Barry.
Chapter 1: Parliament of Racists
This chapter tells the story of pre-Marion Barry DC, but it starts with the 1992 murder of Thomas Barnes of Tuscaloosa, Mississippi. Barnes, an intern for Senator Richard Shelby, had stepped out of his Capitol Hill apartment to get a can of ground coffee. He was shot during a robbery. Shelby was white; his attacker was black. It was January 15, 1992, already 22 people had been murdered in D.C. that year.
Shelby, who had known Barnes "since he was a toddler" (Kindle location 284), was outraged. The police arrested the wrong black teenager on false testimony, aggravating a tense situation.
Shelby forced the District to hold a referendum on the death penalty. It was soundly defeated.
"I'm in favor of the death penalty, but I don't want someone who we didn't elect ordering us to take the vote" (l. 303), said then-City Council Chair John Wilson.
The authors continue: "...[I]t wasn't a question of right and wrong, it was a question of race and power -- white lawmakers in Congress telling black people in the city how to run their lives. This is the dynamic that underscores every debate, every decision, every relationship. No one can understand Washington without appreciating the debilitating impact of federal control that has been at various times patronizing, neglectful, and racist." (l. 305)
From there, the book goes back in time to chronicle "a long line of southern segregationists who ruled Washington with devastating result for African-Americans" (l. 337).
In 1890, a short-lived experiment with home rule failed. DC residents lost the right to vote. On the Senate floor, Senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama said it was necessary to "burn the barn to get rid of the rats... the rats being the negro populations and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia." (l. 314).
In 1944, Senator Theodore Bilbo, "a short, troll-like white supremacist from Poplarville, Mississippi" (l. 366), became Chair of the Senate District Committee and "let loose his racism on the city" (l. 372).
"He proposed that twenty-two thousand blacks be driven of the alleys and sent back to farms, shipped back to Africa, or put in a 'self-liquidating' stadium." (l. 370)
"In the 1950s the segregationist running Washington from Capitol Hill was Congressman John L. McMillan of South Caroline. As chairman of the House District Committee, 'Johnny Mack' treated the city as if it were his plantation and turned the District Building into a fiefdom for his patronage jobs." (l. 376)
The white business community in DC did business with McMillian and staff, bypassing the official but powerless city government.
Meanwhile, jobs in the federal government enabled the development of "the largest and most stable black middle class in the nation" (l. 385).
Calvin Rolark Jr., a black newspaper publisher and immigrant to DC, said: "It was a segregated city among blacks. The lighter-skinned blacks didn't associate with the darker blacks, and the Howard University blacks didn't associate with anyone." (l. 390)
In the 1950's, an enormous slum in Southwest was demolished and its African-American population dispersed to housing projects, which were then left to deteriorate.
President Dwight Eisenhower ordered desegregation in the 1950s, but there was no movement on home rule.
"...[N]early a century of congressional control had created a leaderless, passive city full of politically docile people." (l. 414)
In the 1960's, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was "the most influential Congressman of the day" (l. 416). After a 1964 DC voter registration rally drew only a few people, he said: "I have never seen a city in the United States as apathetic as this one. This is our first chance to be political men and women. We are colonials here in this District. The District of Columbia is the Canal Zone of the United States." (l. 422)
Cheater's Guide to Dream City continues next week
Further installments will appear on successive Fridays. All posts will be cross-posted on the ad-hoc "Cheater's Guide to Dream City" blog.
Full disclosure: I have a commercial relationship with Amazon. I will receive a very small portion of the money people spend after clicking on an Amazon link on this site.
This is a great book and well worth reading in its entirety.
Read the next part of Cheater's Guide to "Dream City" here.