Now what? Now that the marching is over, the fond memories relived and a king’s dream revived, how to generate and sustain a renewed movement for justice, jobs and freedom? This is the burning question facing African Americans today who must turn fondness for the past into faith and action for the future.
“I don’t know how but we’ve got to keep this thing going,” Frank Smith, former D.C. council member who chaired the mayor’s 50th Anniversary March on Washington Committee, told the AFRO about turning dreams into reality. “It’s clear we need a year-round campaign.”
Smith should know. He has built a deserved reputation as a man who turns his “faith in things unseen” into concrete buildings. Not just a dreamer; he’s a doer.
I remember when people in the District thought Smith was a little touched because he started wearing baseball caps to publicly push for Major League Baseball to bring a team back to the nation’s capital. Today witness the Washington Nationals in a brand new city-funded stadium. Folks thought Smith was totally touched when he started to raise funds – in cardboard boxes, I might add – to build a memorial to the Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War when a lot of people didn’t even know that more than 200,000 U.S. Colored Troops fought for their own freedom. Today witness the USCT Civil War Memorial statue and museum in the U Street NW corridor.
Now, Smith has set his sights on statehood for the District of Columbia. “I believe that some people in D.C. have become complacent because they think statehood will never happen,” Smith said.
More than 600,000 D.C. residents are disenfranchised because of a constitutional statute that gives Congress explicit power over the “federal city” due to the nation’s “federal interest.” D.C. residents do not have a vote in Congress and were not granted limited home rule to vote for local officials until 1973. All District laws and funds come under the oversight and approval of Congress and the White House. City leaders and advocates have been trying to get local autonomy through statehood, which requires a constitutional amendment or congressional act, for decades.
There is currently a proposal in Congress, Smith said, to carve out a “federal enclave” of national buildings to satisfy those concerned about the federal city remaining neutral ground and the rest would become the state of New Columbia.
“I remember when I came here in  that you couldn’t vote for anything,” said Smith, who was a worker with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Commission at the time. “We came here to get open public accommodations for blacks and to get jobs; we didn’t even dream of voting rights then.”
He went back to Mississippi, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., suggested, to fight for voting rights, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. The irony, Smith said, is that “we have to go outside the District to get aid from people outside the District to get voting rights for people inside the District.”
“We’ve made some progress, but not enough,” Smith said. “I’m not discouraged; it will happen.” This optimism comes from a man who knows how to turn dreams into buildings.
Smith is confident that getting the issue of D.C. statehood on the national stage will get the project to the end goal. He noted, during his remarks at the 50th anniversary commemoration on Aug. 28, that “having friends in unlikely places” when former President Jimmy Carter lobbied for D.C. statehood helped elevate the cause.
In conjunction with the March on Washington events, Smith organized the D.C. Statehood March and Rally at the D.C. War Memorial on the Mall that preceded the main march and he lobbied speakers to bring up the issue during the podium speeches. He was disappointed, he said, that Rev. Al Sharpton didn’t mention statehood even though he was the main speaker on the topic during the city’s Emancipation Day event on April 16.
Smith said people from outside of the District are shocked when they learn that residents do not have a voting representative or senator in Congress and have no voice or vote on major issues. He noted the latest national issue in which D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton will have no vote – the impending U.S. military strike in Syria although District troops can be deployed.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to convince people that this is an issue for the nation,” Smith said. “But we are sowing seeds that we hope will come to fruition.”
Veteran journalist Adrienne Washington writes weekly for the AFRO about relevant issues in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia. Send correspondence to her at [email protected]