D.C. Voting Rights Main Topic on D.C. Emancipation Day

James Wright | 4/20/2010, 10:15 p.m.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton talks about her voting rights bill at a program on
Capitol Hill honoring D.C. Emancipation Day. Photo By Khalid Naji-Allah

Discussions of expanding the voting rights of Washingtonians dominated the events and festivities that surrounded the city's holiday commemorating the emancipation of Blacks from slavery.

The District government closed, Fri., April 16 in honor of D.C. Emancipation Day €" the date in which President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, which freed 3,100 enslaved Blacks in the city and compensated their masters for their losses in 1862.

However, in the eyes of many District residents, the struggle for full rights of citizenship continues.

"As a native Washingtonian, I happy to celebrate the freedom that was accorded to our people," D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray (D), said.
"While we are free, we do not enjoy the same rights that other citizens of our country have and we deserve those rights."

On Jan. 4, 2005, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams signed legislation making Emancipation Day an official holiday in the District. Efforts to secure the holiday came from a wide range of concerned citizens including former D.C. Council member Vincent Orange and Loretta Carter Hanes and Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, a non-profit whose mission is to get the District a voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Zherka said that the promise of Emancipation Day is unfulfilled.

"We are not fully emancipated," Zherka said.

"D.C. residents pay more money in taxes per capita than any other state except one and we do not have a vote in the U.S. Congress."

Zherka spoke at a program sponsored by DC Vote at the U.S. Capitol's Visitor's Center. He told the small crowd who had gathered that getting a vote in the House is a part of the incremental strategy for statehood for the District, which will be known as the state of New Columbia if achieved.

President Barack Obama noted the importance of the holiday, he pointed out that Lincoln signed his bill nine months before the famed Emancipation Proclamation was issued. He said that "although D.C. residents pay federal taxes and serve honorably in our armed services, they do not have a vote in the Congress or full autonomy over local issues."

€And so I urge Congress to finally pass legislation that provides D.C. residents with voting representation," the president said.

The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tim Kaine, also weighed in.

"The residents of the District of Columbia have long sought a voting representative in Congress. I would like to join the president in offering my support for this effort,€ the former governor of Virginia said.

A D.C. voting rights bill passed the U.S. Senate last year but it included a provision stripping the city of its gun laws. A bill sponsored by D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton stalled in the House in light of a pro-gun rider. Norton pulled her bill from the Rules Committee when it became clear that the bill could not pass without the amendment.

This year, Norton said that she will, reluctantly, support a pro-gun amendment to the D.C. voting rights bill, only because it will move the process forward.

"We are forced to pursue an incremental strategy and we are willing to climb that mountain," Norton said to the D.C. Vote rally.

"It would be foolish of us not to seize the moment for our voting rights. There are ways to get our gun laws back."

After the rally, DC Vote and its supporters visited various House members€ offices to lobby for a "yea" vote on Norton's bill. A vote is supposed to take place Thu., April 22.

However, at an Emancipation Day rally later that day at Franklin Square in Northwest, the speakers were not just satisfied with a vote in the House.

"We want nothing less than statehood," the Rev. Graylon Hagler said to a gathering of 100.

"We are opposed to giving a permanent seat to Utah. We want no gun deal and we want Congress to stop interfering in our affairs."