On Emancipation Day, D.C. Reflects on Lack of Rights

Women dress in period garb for the 2012 Emancipation Day Parade. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Women dress in period garb for the 2012 Emancipation Day Parade. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted April 16, 2015 at 3:10pm

Emancipation Day in the District of Columbia is a time for celebrations and reflection, but also to draw attention to D.C.’s lack of voting rights in Congress.  

As public schools and local government offices closed Thursday to celebrate the 153rd anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves in D.C., Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., noted Congress was still open.  

“I sure wish we’d close them up,” Norton said at a prayer breakfast at the Willard Hotel. “Congress is particularly intent on doing great harm to the District of Columbia this year.” Norton, preaching to the choir of D.C. officials and leaders gathered at the breakfast, said she will be fighting in Congress next week to prevent lawmakers from overturning two D.C. laws. Republican lawmakers in both chambers have introduced resolutions of disapproval  to strike down the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Amendment Act, arguing that the acts passed by the D.C. Council in January violate religious freedom.  

After Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced resolutions in March, House members moved this week to introduce their own measures. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., introduced a resolution Monday aimed at the reproductive health bill, and Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., introduced a resolution targeting the Human Rights Amendment Act Tuesday. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is set to mark up Black’s resolution next week.  

For the D.C. officials and leaders speaking at the Emancipation Day breakfast, the latest conflict with Congress is the symptom of a broader problem of congressional authority over D.C., and the District holiday presents a chance to highlight that dilemma.  

“The fact is that we are celebrating emancipation today but we cannot have the federal right to vote and federal right to representation in the District,” Rev. Al Sharpton said. He later added, “You can’t give us slavery by another name. You can’t emancipate us and disenfranchise us at the same time.”  

As leaders were speaking about the District’s political status, activists headed to Capitol Hill to meet with 14 senators and encourage them to support the New Columbia Admission Act, which would make D.C. the 51st state. Josh Burch, co-founder of Neighbors United for DC Statehood, said the group was meeting with 13 Democrats and one Republican, though he had reached out to a number of other Republican offices.  

Burch noted the symbolism that the one GOP senator who responded to their meeting request was a Republican senator from Illinois. Sen. Mark S. Kirk’s office is the lone GOP office on the statehood lobbying day’s agenda, which is on the same day that an Illinois Republican freed the slaves in D.C.  

“I think Sen. Kirk should follow in the footsteps of [the late GOP Illinois Sen.] Everett Dirksen and Abraham Lincoln and stand up for the rights of the people of the District of Columbia,” Burch said.  

The statehood bill has yet to be reintroduced in the Senate, but Burch said he expects it will be introduced soon. He acknowledged the bill faces opposition in a Republican-led Congress, but said he would continue lobbying lawmakers.  

“We might not have a vote on this bill this Congress,” Burch said, “but we want their name on the bill because we want to know where they stand on the issue of right and wrong.”  

Meanwhile, D.C. residents were participating in Emancipation Day festivities throughout the District. At 11 a.m., the Emancipation Day Parade kicked off at Freedom Plaza, marching down Pennsylvania Avenue.  Freedom Plaza will also host the Emancipation Day concert at 4:30 p.m. Several discussion panels and events are also taking place throughout the day, culminating in a fireworks display at Freedom Plaza just before 9 p.m.  

Though the District holiday was a time to celebrate, leaders also called for a renewed effort to push for D.C. statehood and voting rights, even if that means confronting Congress.  

“I was willing to go to jail for the District of Columbia. They were going to lock me up again this year,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Thursday morning, referencing a recent confrontation with Congress over the District’s marijuana policy. “But if I could tell you the number of residents that said, Muriel, if they try to lock you up, they will have to lock all of us up to.”  

Bowser also stressed the need to develop new strategies to push for D.C. autonomy as the District reflected on its lack of voting rights. “We can’t do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result,” she said.