Frederick Douglass (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Marion Doss. Licensed under Creative Commons.)
Vice President Biden did right by Frederick Douglass.
The abolitionist taught that “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Accordingly, when the vice president marked the unveiling of a statue honoring abolitionist Douglass at the US Capitol, he made a demand.
And it was the appropriate one.
In the last years of his life Douglass was active with a pioneering voting rights group, the District Suffrage Petition Association. He attended the group’s meetings and asked, “What have the people of the District done that they should be excluded from the privileges of the ballot box?”
It was that question, and the advocacy associated with it, that Biden recalled at the dedication ceremony, declaring that he and President Obama “support home rule, budget autonomy and the vote for the people of the District of Columbia.”
It is remarkable that 118 years after the death of Douglass, the citizens of the District of Columbia still lack full voting rights. The denial of the full franchise to the residents of the nation’s capital city is one example of the patchwork approach to suffrage in the United States, where Americans who live in commonwealths, territories and possessions lack full representation rights in Congress and, in many instances, the right to vote for president. Even in the states, voting rights are ill-defined, and the Voting Rights Act is under legal assault. It is for that reason that Congressmen Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, have called for amending the Constitution to guarantee the right to vote and the right to have that vote counted.
The District of Columbia has perhaps the most complex definition of voting rights in the whole of the republic. While District residents can vote in presidential elections, they do not have the right to elect full representatives to the House and Senate. DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the veteran civil rights activist who campaigned for many years for the placement of the seven-foot statue placed in the Capitol, recalled, “There has been too little recognition that as a District of Columbia resident, three Republican presidents appointed Douglass to three local posts: to what was then the upper chamber of the DC Council, part of the home-rule government given the District by the Republican Congress and president during Reconstruction, as DC Recorder of Deeds and as US Marshal for the local and federal courts. Who knew that Douglass lost the Republican nomination for delegate to the US House of Representatives?”
Norton and others know that, today, though DC has an elected local government, the power of that government—and, thus, of Washington residents to determine their own affairs—is constrained by Congress.
Were they free to do so, there is little reason to doubt that the citizens of the District would petition immediately for statehood.
But the cause of statehood has been thwarted since the days when members of Congress refused the request of the great radical senator from South Dakota, Richard F. Pettigrew, who urged after the death of Douglass in 1895 “that out of respect to his memory his remains be permitted to lie in state in the rotunda of the National Capitol between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on to-morrow.”
Biden’s raising of the issue of DC voting rights at the ceremony on Wednesday may not have pleased House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has resisted efforts to advance DC voting rights legislation in Congress, or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who pointedly emphasized that Douglass had been a Republican.
But, by making a direct demand, Biden honored not just a great man but also the great man’s stated intentions for the city he made his home.
To his credit, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, went even further, declaring, “Washington, DC, residents pay taxes, just like residents of Nevada, California, or any other state. Washington, DC, residents have fought and died in every American war, just like residents of Ohio, Kentucky or any other state. And Washington, DC, residents deserve the same right to self-government and congressional representation as residents of any other state.”
“The district deserves statehood. And Congress should act to grant it,” said Reid.
That good sentiment must be coupled with determined congressional and executive action to advance it, however. The dream of voting rights has been deferred since the days when Douglass wrote of the district as “the one spot where there is no government for the people, of the people and by the people. Its citizens submit to rulers whom they have no choice in selecting. They obey laws which they had no voice in making.”
That’s got to change.
For that to happen, Biden and Reid will have to do more than make speeches.
They must make the demands of which Douglass spoke—and their demands must be coupled with those of Washington residents, who should be given the right to vote on whether the district should finally have “government for the people, of the people and by the people.”
Biden was on message when he said, “The people of the District made the right choice in selecting Frederick Douglass as their representative, and they put both Eleanor Holmes Norton and Frederick Douglass in this Capitol, and quite frankly, I don’t see either of them leaving until all the District residents get their voice.”
With Robert W. McChesney, John Nichols is the author of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), which examines the denial of voting rights in the District of Columbia and US commonwealths and territories, and which outlines the case for enactment of a constitutional amendment to guarantee voting rights.
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