Photo Credit: Keith Ivey

Fifty years ago, the residents of the majority-Black District of Columbia headed to the polls to elect their first council and mayor in nearly 100 years. After decades of organizing by Black District residents and allies across the country, the federal government passed the Home Rule Act in 1973, and residents cast their ballots in November 1974. This law was a monumental democratic shift toward self-governance for the majority-Black District, but it stopped just short of granting full rights to the people of D.C.

Washington, D.C. is the only national capital in the democratic world whose citizens do not have equal voting and representation rights. The denial of full voting rights to the 700,000 residents of D.C., the majority of whom are Black and brown, is an egregious example of ongoing voter suppression happening in our country today.

The truth is that denying District residents statehood is rooted in racism. In 1867, right after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson vetoed a bill that would grant citizens of the District – including Black men – the right to vote. Congress overrode the veto, briefly granting notable and historic political influence to Black Washingtonians. But just as Black voters started to exercise their political power in D.C., Congress quickly replaced D.C.’s local government with federally appointed commissioners, blocking the heavily Black region from having full voting rights or control over its local government.

Today, the struggle for D.C. statehood continues and is deeply anchored in the fight for racial justice. At the heart of this movement is Black residents' hope, love, and relentless efforts to compel the nation to fulfill its promises of freedom and justice for all. It's not just about gaining equal representation in Congress for the 700,000 residents of D.C.; it's about honoring and safeguarding the rich Black cultural heritage of the District, from Go-Go music to mumbo sauce, as integral to the American fabric.

Advocating for D.C. statehood celebrates the work of Black leaders to further our democracy and civil rights for all. And it is the only way to enfranchise the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have been wrongly denied our full voting rights for over 200 years.

As we continue the fight for statehood, we give thanks to the organizing efforts of Black D.C. residents like Anise Jenkins, the Executive Director of Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C. (Free D.C.). Jenkins has been a leading voice advocating for statehood for District residents for decades, and she recently sat down with us to share her history in the movement and her view of the future of statehood.

How long have you lived in the District?

Anise Jenkins: I’m a native Washingtonian. I was born here and will continue to live here. I grew up right around the corner from Grimke Elementary and went to Howard University, which is right down the street. The capital of the nation is my origin.

What are some of your poignant memories about the fight for statehood?

AJ: Well, I remember we did a lot of nonviolent civil disobedience. We would go up to Capitol Hill and voice our opinion on D.C. statehood, and we would get arrested. That was fine with us. We would get arrested. The police would drag us up the steps inside the Capitol during the hearings, and we enjoyed that. We thought it was right to be there protesting for our rights. We would call Representative Norton and tell her we had been arrested. She said, “Oh, they’re just acting like we did in SNCC.” That is the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She was a member of SNCC back in the 1960s. I remember that so well, I’m very proud of it. She gave us credit for acting like they did in the civil rights era.

What do you want people around the country to understand about statehood?

AJ: I hope they understand that our fight for D.C. Statehood is their fight. I hope they understand that it is a civil rights entitlement that we don’t have. I hope that they understand that with no vote in the House or the Senate, we have no say, but we pay some of the highest federal taxes in the country. I hope that they understand that they can get involved, and that they have the power to grant us this right.

For folks who are interested in getting involved, and getting their friends and the family involved, what do you think is the biggest thing that they can do?

AJ: I want them to participate, to speak out, speak up. And to care. We don’t want to be forgotten. We don’t want to be an afterthought. We are very crucial to the progress of this country, and we have to stand up and speak out.

What keeps you hopeful about the fight for D.C. statehood?

AJ: The fact that the United States House of Representatives voted and passed statehood bills in 2019 and 2021. The fact that we get so many cosponsors for the bill every time we ask for it. The fact that it’s discussed, the fact that we had a national protest on the National Mall, and for statehood, this is all very encouraging, and we have to keep the fight going. We have to. It is a fight. It is a civil rights struggle, but it’s a civil rights accomplishment we can definitely see in our lifetime. I have no question about that. And we have younger people getting involved, people around your age who are getting really involved, who are carrying the Free D.C. signs. Yes, we will see statehood for D.C. It will happen.