D.C. Wins Home Rule

Learn how leaders from the civil rights movement helped to win self-government in D.C. in the new exhibit at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.



"What have the people of the District done that they should be excluded from the privileges of the ballot box?"

—Frederick Douglass, quoted at his home in Anacostia, 1895

Since the earliest days of our nation, residents of the capital city have fought for the right to self-government, also known as home rule. The Constitution gives Congress, not D.C. citizens, control over Washington, D.C.

Barred! (c. 1900-1948) by Clifford Berryman Cartoon CollectionDC Public Library

Cartoon by Clifford Berryman, c. 1900-1948

Illustration from Harper’s Weekly showing Black citizens voting in Georgetown election (1967) by Courtesy of the Library of CongressDC Public Library

Illustration from Harper's Weekly, 1867

For most of the nineteenth century, Congress allowed D.C. a degree of freedom. Residents elected their own local government officials. Yet only white, male landowners had the right to vote. In 1867, however, Congress granted Black men the right to vote in D.C. elections. 

Illustration from Harper's Weekly, 1867

This illustration, from 1867, shows white leaders preparing to take away suffrage for the District of Columbia as Black men take to the polls.

The Fifteenth Amendment and its results (1870) by Drawn by G.F. Kahl.; E. Sachse & Co., lithographer.DC Public Library

The Fifteenth Amendment and its results, 1870

Following the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted Black men the right to vote across the country, D.C’s white leadership and Congress became fearful of Black Washingtonians’ growing political power. 

Frederick Douglass, Mathew B. Brady, ca. 1880, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Front Page of The New National Era, January 27, 1870, From the collection of: DC Public Library
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In a statement in his newspaper, The New National Era, (shown at right), Frederick Douglass observed: “...the old fogies are opposed to negro suffrage; and as they cannot withdraw it, they seek to diminish, if not destroy, the opportunities for its exercise.”

In 1874, Congress took D.C. Home Rule away.

Commissioners of the District of Columbia (1926-08-03) by Courtesy of the Library of CongressDC Public Library

Commissioners of the District of Columbia, 1926

For decades to come, the city would be managed by three federally appointed Commissioners, and all decisions were ratified by Congress. 

In 1957, D.C. became a majority Black city. Yet on the House and Senate District Committees, southern segregationists such as Rep. John McMillan, a South Carolina Democrat, maintained control of the city's budget and laws.

In the words of one resident:
“White business, white political power, white everything ruled the city. The city was like a plantation, we didn’t have elections, no mayor, no city power, we couldn’t vote.”

Children protest outside a church (1960) by Washington Star Collection © Washington PostDC Public Library

Children protest outside a church, 1960

Page from the Evening Star Newspaper, Local Newspapers Databases, 1948-07-26, From the collection of: DC Public Library
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Page from The Evening Star Newspaper, Local Newspapers Databases, February 3, 1950, From the collection of: DC Public Library
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Front Page of The Sunday Star Newspaper, Local Newspapers Databases, January 11, 1948, From the collection of: DC Public Library
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Washingtonians fought unsuccessfully for home rule for decades, as can be seen in the clippings from local newspapers seen here. Between 1948 and 1964, five different bills were introduced and failed in Congress. |  Dig Deeper: With a library card, issues of The Washington Star and many other newspapers may be accessed using the Library’s online databases.

D.C. delegation to the March on Washington (August 28, 1963) by Washington Star Collection © Washington PostDC Public Library

D.C. Delegation to the March on Washington, 1963

By this time, civil rights leaders in D.C. saw home rule as central to the struggle for citizenship. After turning out by the thousands for the March on Washington to support Black voting rights across the country, they couldn't vote in their home city.

Dr. King leads D.C. Home Rule march (August 5, 1965) by Washington Star Collection © Washington PostDC Public Library

1965: Dr. King leads a D.C. Home Rule march

In 1965, D.C. leaders wrote to their friend and ally, Dr. King, to recruit him for their cause. King spent three days in  D.C., meeting with community leaders and leading rallies in support of racial justice and D.C. Home Rule. 

Learn more in the video D.C. & King: Home Rule.

Free D.C. Protesters (1966) by Washington Star Collection © Washington PostDC Public Library

1966: Building Pressure

New leaders—including Marion Barry, founder of the Free D.C. movement, Julius Hobson, and comedian/activist Dick Gregory—shook up the status quo and inspired citizens to protest D.C.’s status in many ways, from street protests to public hearings. 

Excellence in Education—Charles Cassell (1968) by Courtesy of the Stovall FamilyDC Public Library

1968: School Board Election

Congress granted Washingtonians the right to vote for their Board of Education, the first local election in nearly a century. Notable activists such as Charles Cassell joined the race; artists Lloyd McNeill and Lou Stovall created this poster to support his campaign.

Walter Washington's swearing-in ceremony (September 28, 1967) by Washington Star Collection © Washington PostDC Public Library

1967: Johnson reorganizes D.C. government

To increase local control over D.C.’s affairs, President Lyndon Johnson appoints Walter Washington as Mayor-Commissioner and appoints a nine-member Council. D.C. becomes the first U.S. city with a Black chief executive. 

Walter Fauntroy campaigning for office with Clifford Alexander and Coretta Scott King (1971) by Washington Star Collection © Washington PostDC Public Library

1971: Nonvoting Delegate

The District of Columbia Delegate Act re-instituted a nonvoting Delegate to represent the nation’s capital in the House of Representatives. With support from civil rights allies including Coretta Scott KingWalter Fauntroy was elected and held the position for three decades.

Walter Washington at a Home Rule Rally outside the District building (1973) by Washington Star Collection © Washington PostDC Public Library

1974: Home Rule election

D.C. elected its local government for the first time in more than 100 years. Walter E. Washington was elected Mayor, and longtime civil rights and anti-poverty activists, almost all of them Black, were elected to the D.C. Council.


Following the increased activism of the mid-1960s, D.C. civil rights leaders would succeed. In 1973, Congress finally passed the Home Rule Act. And in 1974, after nearly 100 years under the rule of Congress, residents elected their own mayor and council members.


Home rule was an important essential step towards toward achieving full citizenship for D.C. residents, a fight that continues today.

Credits: Story

Content for this online exhibit was created by the DC Public Library Exhibits Team 

Learn more about the issues that Dr. King cared about in the Library's new permanent exhibit, Up from the People: Protest and Change in D.C., on view at The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.

 You can also learn more about D.C activists whose work converged with Dr. King's local legacy in these online exhibits: 
A Revolution of Values
A Library Named for Dr. King
Everybody's Got a Right to Live: The Poor People's Campaign
Marion Barry: Mayor for Life
D.C. & King: The Story Behind the Films

This exhibition was made possible by the generous support of the DC Public Library Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this exhibit do not represent the views of any funding organizations.  

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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