In her new book, Democracy’s Capital: Black Political Power in Washington, DC, 1960s-1970s, Lauren Pearlman examines the unique dynamic between local and federal power in the years that led up to the Home Rule Act of 1973. That’s when activists and leaders in the city’s majority black population fought back against strict congressional oversight and helped win DC residents the right to elect their own mayor and representatives.
The House held the first hearing on DC statehood in 25 years this past September, but the District still has a long way to go. In her book, which comes out next week, Pearlman, an assistant professor of history at the University of Florida, narrates the backstory to DC’s struggle for democracy.
How did someone in Florida get interested in this subject?
I got a job at a civil rights law firm in DC [after college, nearly 15 years ago] and I moved into Columbia Heights on 13th and Harvard. And I would walk to work down 14th Street and across U Street and I would walk by these dilapidated buildings or sites that hadn’t been rebuilt since the riots.
And so that’s where I first started looking at the city, just through my walks throughout neighborhoods. You know, you could start to see the early signs of gentrification in Columbia Heights, and it just made me wonder, “Well, what were these riots about?” I only had a cursory understanding of what happened after Martin Luther King [Jr.] was assassinated in ’68. And so, the question about what catalyzed the riots and inspired them, what kind of anger was there in the city, was the question that I went to graduate school to think more deeply about. What I learned when I started thinking more deeply about this question was that you can’t tell the story about the riots without talking about government and without talking about self-determination and home rule, and that this issue of home rule was underneath all sorts of issues of civil rights and law and order and urban development and renewal throughout the 20th century.
What was your research and writing process like?
It started in graduate school [in 2009] and it started with my dissertation work. And the thing that I loved about doing this research was that my research took me everywhere. I used the special collections at George Washington University, which houses the unprocessed records of the first council just in boxes. You would just dump these boxes out–well, you didn’t do that because they would not let you do that [Laughs]. I handled them carefully, but they were just in disorganized boxes that hadn’t been processed yet. And then, of course, the Martin Luther King Jr. library also in DC, and there are just a treasure trove of DC records related to activists and business and real estate groups there. And then all the way to Austin, Texas, and Anaheim, California, where I looked at the Lyndon Johnson papers and the Richard Nixon papers and the Department of Justice files and attorney general files and things like that, because to understand DC history is to understand this local/national connection, because all policy went through federal channels as well as local channels.
How would you characterize the relationship during that time between locals and the federal government?
You know, it’s so interesting because there’s tension underneath certain relationships—Mayor Walter Washington’s with Richard Nixon were definitely strained, but there wasn’t a lot that people were saying outright about this, in part because if you were appointed to local government, your job wasn’t secure and you could be replaced, which did happen to certain folks on the city council. And in a sense, too, the thing that I discovered through writing this book was that as much as the Johnson administration helped further the issue of home rule by appointing a mayor and city council in ’67, it also really started to limit the parameters of what they were able to do. And so, while it’s hailed as a success, it also narrows the possibilities for home rule going forward. And even what you see with some of Marion Barry’s campaign in the late ’60s and early ’70s is it’s hard to mobilize people around the issue to vote when you have bills to pay or you have other issues that are affecting your life, or you don’t have a job or you’re living in public housing. And so, there were a lot of other issues that took precedence in peoples’ lives over the right to vote.
One thing that stood out to me in the book was that even as some black politicians and activists started to gain power, there was still this struggle, even for people like Barry, who pitched themselves as allies of the poorer black residents to make change for those people.
Yeah, it is really interesting, and it’s part of a lot of new literature coming out on what those who had been civil rights activists who become part of political machines do. And you can see this in people studying Atlanta and Detroit and different cities where black mayors are appointed and city councils, they’re becoming more representative, but the constituents that they are beholden to are oftentimes left out of the decision they make. Part of it, I think, in DC in particular is the white stakeholders that wielded a lot of power were really powerful, and so you see the decisions that they’re able to make [were] really hard to challenge. But also development is an issue that most people who are in office support. It’s rare to see a politician go against decisions that will help the city profit, and so when you look at a lot of the construction of a convention center or the development of Pennsylvania Avenue, these are decisions that black politicians supported in large part because the hope was that they would bring money to the city. A lot of these decisions were made around drug policy or methadone clinics or things like that with the hope that they would solve real problems, but then have unintended consequences of, like, addicting more people to drugs or things like that. But also, protection against crime is a universal issue, so some of the city council and mayor’s decisions in terms of policing is because their black middle class constituents wanted more policing, too. Now, the effects of that were over-policing low-income black residents, but on the surface, the idea behind it is a universal one of protection.
You talk about how elected office was kind of an alternative to activism and protest. Do you think it’s possible to maintain an activist stance in elected office?
Well, I think today there’s some great examples of people who are doing that. But at the time to be a black politician in office, as I show in my book, was a really difficult position to get to anyway, so your options for radical change are really just precarious positions to take, especially as home rule became law and you had to appease such a wide range of constituents. So, I think it’s a challenge. I think that the system hasn’t been created to help make radical change in office.
Did you learn anything that really surprised you during your research?
Yeah, I did. I did not set out to write a book that was so much about policing and police power, police brutality, criminalization, and law and order. The body of literature on what we call as scholars carceral studies, understanding the laws and policies that structure mass incarceration, just didn’t exist when I started doing my research. There’s a group of scholars that have come out with some really dynamic work to interrogate the carceral system, but I didn’t really know that it was going to be a story about that going in. And then when I started doing my research, I realized that policing was everywhere and criminalization was happening all over, and so it really became the heart of the book, was that the use of police power to undermine radicalism and the use of law and order to overly punish black citizens became a huge part of the center of the book.
Toward the end of the book, you address the long fight for DC statehood. If that were to pass, do you think it would provide solutions to some of the issues raised in the book?
From criminal justice issues to living wages, these are all issues that Congress has intervened in that [DC’s] own government could absolutely handle. But, you know, this push for statehood is so crucial. To me it’s disappointing that statehood will, if and hopefully it does happen, is gonna happen in a rapidly gentrifying city, and not when there was a black majority that could have made changes in the interest of residents that needed them at that time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.