With Election Day approaching and predictions of low voter turnout abounding, it is essential to remember that District residents’ right to elect a mayor and council should never be taken for granted. It is for precisely this purpose that much of the past year has been spent commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the District’s Home Rule.
After decades of hard-fought political battle, social engagement, and civic outrage, the District was granted Home Rule (the ability to directly elect its own mayor and council) in 1974. Prior to 1974, the District was governed by either three presidentially-appointed commissioners (1874-1967) or a presidentially-appointed mayor-commissioner and nine-member council (1967-1974).
Events in commemoration of the 40th Anniversary of Home Rule have been organized by various community organizations and groups, and have taken place throughout the year. The celebration recently culminated with two keystone events which occurred just in the last couple of weeks.
First, on September 30, a fascinating and unprecedented gathering of current and former District elected officials was brought together for a historic photo opportunity. Since Home Rule began, only 52 individuals in the whole world have served as mayors and councilmembers in the District. Sadly, ten of those individuals have passed away. Of the 42 living former District elected officials, 34 of them gathered in the Council Chamber, including four of five former living mayors and five of six former living council chairmen. All 52 of these individuals responded to the public’s call for service, stepped forward, and served them ably. By bringing together the 34 people that we photographed, we gratefully memorialized them for posterity, and hopefully helped to inspire our youth for the future.
Second, on October 28, we reconvened these past and present elected officials as well as many other individuals who remembered, or merely celebrated, the fight for Home Rule. As the Washington Post pointed out in its generous coverage of the event, “If you were ever somebody in DC politics, you were probably at the John A. Wilson Building in downtown Washington on Tuesday night.”
At the official celebration to wrap up the Anniversary festivities, we heard comments from the District’s first-ever Council Chairman, Sterling Tucker, as well as the present mayor and chairman, Vincent Gray and Phil Mendelson. The Ballou High School drum line processed through the crowd, and the winners of a student essay contest were announced. Yet, from observing the crowd, it was apparent that the focus of much attention was the photography featured at the event. The photo that drew the most individual attention was the culminating photo from our September photo opportunity. Viewers of this photo peered attentively, pointing their fingers, measuring their DC wonk aptitude based on how many of the officials they could identify. Additional attention was focused on an exhibit of sixty photos from the voting rights struggle preceding, including, and following the fight for Home Rule.
These photos, and the broader commemorative events, helped to recall the history, strategy, hard work, and sacrifice that led to the milestone accomplishment of Home Rule for the District of Columbia. At the same time, they also require us to reflect on the reality that much work remains on the long road to our goals of budget and legislative autonomy, full voting rights in Congress, and, ultimately, statehood.
Only 42 living individuals have served as mayor or councilmember since Home Rule was established in 1974. On September 30, fully 34 of these individuals gathered in the Council Chamber for this historic photo. Photo credit: Victor Holt