WASHINGTON — Looking out at the people across the National Mall, 54-year-old Dawn Craig, a third-generation Black Washingtonian from Brookland, was amazed. Thousands from across the country had come to her city Saturday to support not only voting rights, but District of Columbia statehood.
“If our vote didn’t matter, then they wouldn’t try so hard to stop us from voting,” said Craig, wearing a black shirt with “Black Voters Matter” in big, white block letters. “It’s heartwarming to see so many people out here.”
The rally, organized by Black Voters Matter and more than 50 civil rights, voter rights and racial justice groups, capped off a nine-city, eight-day Freedom Ride for Voting Rights that began in New Orleans. During the five-hour gathering Saturday, activists and elected officials from around the country argued that District statehood wasn’t a partisan issue, but one of civil rights, and that the U.S. Senate needs to act now.
“The fact that residents of D.C. don’t have congressional representation is an issue of racial justice,” said Akosua Ali, president of the NAACP’s District chapter. “This is a call to action. Hold Joe Manchin accountable.”
The event came on the heels of Tuesday’s Senate committee hearing on statehood, the first since 2014. Though the bill’s passage is unlikely in the Senate this year — four Democrats, including Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., have not said whether they’ll support the bill, while all 50 GOP senators oppose it — advocates remain hopeful because the District statehood has moved to the center of the national Democratic agenda.
The bill, symbolically titled H.R. 51, passed the House with unified Democratic support in April. The White House also backs it.
But Republicans have stood firm in arguing that statehood is unconstitutional, pointing to the 23rd Amendment, which they said already gave District residents three electoral votes for president in the 1960s. Republicans have also branded the bill as a partisan power grab because making the deep-blue city a state would give Democrats two more Senate seats.
In response, proponents have focused on the underlying civil rights case for statehood, pointing to the roughly 700,000 District residents — about half of whom are Black — who don’t have a voice in the Senate. Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., who attended the rally, framed the need for statehood as one of critical importance to empower Black voters to have a voice in their government.
“Take off the glasses of being GOP and think about the actual people of this country,” Bush said before addressing the crowd. “They don’t all think like you or look like you, but their voices matter. And you are elected to represent all the people, so that’s what you need to do. So right now, shame on you.”
On the hot, sunny and humid Washington day, marchers momentarily turned the rally into a party as a band played Go-Go music, which originated in the District, to a dancing crowd. Red shirts that read “Freedom Ride for Voting Rights” dominated the crowd, with rallygoers taking refuge from the heat under trees and inside white tents set up alongside the National Mall.
The shirts, worn by the 1,500 Unite Here hospitality union workers who bussed in from 20 states, were an ode to the original Freedom Riders of 60 years ago who fought for racial justice.
Tembi Hove, a hospitality worker who came from Atlanta, said she was honored to continue the fight John Lewis and her parents started but was determined that the next generation will not have to.
“My vote and our people’s vote is trying to be stopped,” Hove said as she marched with her fellow union workers. “I can’t just sit back and let them take my vote away from me. It is my right to march and ride on this freedom bus.”
In addition to Ali and local officials such as District Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District, other speakers included Luci Baines Johnson, whose father, President Lyndon B. Johnson, signed the Voting Rights Act, and Cliff Albright, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter and organizer of Saturday’s rally.
“When you come to this town that is minority majority, and we don’t have two senators, you are talking about suppressing the Black vote,” Bowser said. “It’s time for that to end.”
Albright echoed Hove and other activists.
“On the one hand, it’s frustrating fighting for the same thing we were fighting for in the ’60s,” Albright said. “But the connections we made in this struggle have been invigorating in every city and state that we go to.”
Albright said he hopes that if nothing else, the rally will expand the conversation of statehood beyond the Beltway.
“If there are people in other states across this country who now know about the D.C. statehood issue who didn’t know about it before,” Albright said, “then that’s mission accomplished.”