WASHINGTON, D.C. — Martin Luther King Jr. was 20 years old — a young man, already halfway through his short life — by the first summer the nation’s capital desegregated city swimming pools. Historic photographs from the years before show black children crowding outside the fences in D.C.’s terrible summer heat, while white children splashed in the cool water.
Four years later, while the 24-year-old King was studying philosophy at Harvard University, the Supreme Court forced DC to enforce its 70-year-old anti-segregation laws, finally ending white-only bars and restaurants in the District of Columbia.
The fight to revive “the lost laws” had begun three years earlier, when 86-year-old Mary Church Terrell had led a small group of black and white friends into Thompson’s Restaurant and asked to be served. She was 90 when she celebrated her victory.
On Saturday, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser instituted a vaccine mandate, barring nearly 60 percent of the city’s black residents from bars, gyms, concerts, theaters, nightclubs, restaurants, and indoor swimming pools. That very day, Jan. 15, 2022, King would have turned 93.
This city is sliding backward in nearly every measurable way. We see it in schools, where children are masked, tested, forced to accept vaccinations not yet approved for kids, and taught racism and segregation.
We see it in our streets, where violent crime has skyrocketed, breaking murder records not seen in nearly two decades — and hitting the poor the hardest.
We see it in our public parks and spaces, where tent cities filled with dangerous, violent junkies and insane people harass residents and tourists alike. Rather than help, the mentally ill are left to the predation of drugs dealers, the elements and each other.
And we see it in our politics, where for four years, instead of teaching children, punishing crime, and properly caring for the addicted and ill, the city’s leaders devoted their time to attacking and embarrassing the president of the United States, even ceding a city square across from the White House to violent, left-wing activists.
Even with a new president, their attentions have not shifted. They peaked Saturday, with the city order to bar residents and tourists from a host of basic services without proof of a shot that fails to even defend against the current variant hitting the country.
Washington, D.C. was built to be a federal city — welcoming to all, and unmolested by political rivalries or jealousies. It no longer is; the city’s government has seen to that. But Congress has the power to change this, and the solution could lie in a nearly 200-year-old political enfranchisement effort that the mayor just might have revived.
The Federal City
For more than two decades, D.C. license plates have complained the city’s residents are subject to, “Taxation Without Representation,” but the fight has raged for more than two centuries.
The federal city was signed into law by President George Washington in 1790, carved out in the center of the newborn union in the hope to protect it from being threatened by the politics of one state over another.
Maryland and Virginia were the two states asked to cede territory, and while the city looked nothing like it does today, both states surrendered areas that already had American communities: Georgetown, a successful port in Maryland; and Alexandria, a smaller port in Virginia.
Eleven years later, the City of Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria were officially organized under the U.S. Congress, formally stripping the residents of their Maryland and Virginia citizenships, and thereby taking away their vote.
The move wasn’t popular; veterans of the American Revolution were far less keen than today’s Americans to surrender their rights. Further complicating matters, Alexandria struggled to compete with Georgetown, save for one industry: the wicked business of human slavery.
By 1846, the conflict had reached a head, and the U.S. Congress and Virginia legislature made a deal to return the Virginian portion of the city back to the Old Dominion state. Maryland’s ceded land, however, remained firmly under federal control.
A Deal For Maryland?
While returning portions of D.C. to Maryland has been proposed since the early 19th century, the issue has not gained the sort of support and attention Virginia’s retrocession earned. In poll after poll, the idea has failed to win broad Marylander approval, with a fairly recent poll from 2019 showing 57 percent of Marylanders opposing, with only 36 percent approving.
The past two years, however, have changed everything. The federal city is no longer a welcoming, bipartisan place — it is a city clinging to closures and mask rules, beset by crime, and antagonistic toward its leaders’ political rivals. Worse, it’s a city that bans large swathes of American tourists — along with more than half of its black residents — from going out to eat or watching a movie, seeing a concert, or even getting a haircut. The fight has changed.
While Democrats and many D.C. residents have long demanded D.C. statehood, Republicans — and most Americans — oppose it, saying a city that’s only purpose and sole major industry is Big Government should not have the same power as California or Wyoming.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said the quiet part loudly on Monday, focusing an ironic Martin Luther King Day speech on how statehood for D.C. would help Democrats abolish the Senate filibuster to overhaul American elections. Rank partisanship is her sole accomplishment. But retrocession is different: It would return large swathes of the city to the state that ceded them, while restoring both the rights to vote and to access local businesses the very same mayor has denied her city’s residents.
While the modern political movement for retrocession has been championed by white, conservative congressmen, the new calculus can change that. The points for it are broader — and the arguments against it, weaker than they’ve been in 200 years.
While the issue has long languished on the peripheral and in the back benches, Americans ought broadly to ask themselves a few questions.
Why is the United States’ capital controlled by partisans wholly opposed to half the country?
What is the remaining rationale for a federal district outside Capitol Hill and the National Mall? The Department of Defense, the CIA, NASA, and a host of other federal departments reside outside D.C., so why not a few more?
Why shouldn’t retrocession opponents have to explain why they oppose restoring Washingtonians’ rights?
Have opinions on the subject changed, and could more change under sustained, national attention?
These aren’t silly questions, and they’re deeply relevant to our country’s political future. Do we want to live in a country where many of us are not welcome in our capital city?
There’s a battle on, and it’s for some of our most basic — and fundamental — rights. The city’s leadership has chosen to engage; the next Congress would do well to answer.