Electronic Thesis/Dissertation


Making D.C. Democracy's Capital: Local Activism, the 'Federal State', and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Washington, D.C. Open Access

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This dissertation considers the extensive and multifaceted efforts by civil rights activists to fight racial discrimination and promote social and economic equality in the nation's capital city. It examines the prolonged battles District of Columbia activists waged to end segregation and discrimination and encourage integration and equality in public accommodations, schools, employment, housing, and voting rights over the course of the mid-twentieth century. As the nation's capital and seat of the federal government, Washington, D.C. represented a significant symbolic and strategic location for nationally-focused institutional campaigns; however, the District of Columbia's pervasive Jim Crow policies and significant black population meant the city also served as an important site for local grassroots activism. Civil rights groups, often comprised of interracial coalitions of residents, pioneered complex strategies that employed direct action protest, espoused political rhetoric, and engaged the federal establishment to challenge discrimination and promote justice. While federal officials expressed various positions on civil rights, from supportive to antagonistic, the complex, overlapping, and often competing jurisdictions of the federal state made deep-seated and long-lasting progress difficult.This project also explores the complicated role of the state in promoting, obstructing, and institutionalizing civil rights programs in the city.Additionally, this dissertation analyzes these civil rights campaigns within the context of shifting social and political circumstances within the city and nation. As the city underwent massive demographic shifts with rural African Americans moving into the city and white residents moving out to the suburbs, civil rights activists responded with more aggressive campaigns focused on economic and political issues. While leaders of the burgeoning Southern civil rights movement concentrated on legal freedoms and individual rights, local efforts emphasized fairness and collective equality. Civil rights activists employed more aggressive rhetoric and more assertively demanded justice. Despite the turn toward a more militant tone, the men and women in Washington remained committed to the liberal ideal of making the city truly democratic. It was not their dedication to liberal ideals and solutions that impeded progress in the city, but rather the convoluted federal power structure in the city that impeded meaningful progress and hindered the movement toward full equality. As in most places, the legacy of the civil rights movement in Washington, D.C. remains ambiguous.

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