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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
picked up steam. Within a week a bill had been introduced by
DC Councilmember 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.
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."
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
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."
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"
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."
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
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 [email protected]
or at 202-549-6127. The Fund's website is www.dcdemocracyfund.com.
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