Dorie Ladner risked her life for civil rights once, and now she is not sure she will see the end of another battle in her lifetime.
The 75-year-old civil rights trailblazer began her activist work as a college student in her native Mississippi serving on the front lines of the civil rights movement, work that proved to be dangerous — and sometimes fatal — for those involved.
Today, her fight continues with the D.C. statehood movement, a long-fought battle with no foreseeable end.
“In Mississippi … we faced death and other kinds of atrocities before we got the right to vote,” Ladner said Thursday, Aug. 3 during a celebration for the 20th anniversary of the D.C. statehood advocacy organization Stand Up! for Democracy (Free D.C.). “Here in the nation’s capital, those kinds of things haven’t occurred, but there is still oppression of the citizens of the District of Columbia.”
Attended by a number of civil rights-era crusaders, Free D.C.’s anniversary party at the flagship Busboys and Poets on 14th Street Northwest commenced with chatter and a celebratory champagne toast.
Ladner, who has limited mobility due to injuries suffered in a car accident, has a storied history of activism, having worked with the Freedom Riders, participated in the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins, lectured at churches and universities to fundraise, organized outreach and civil disobedience demonstrations. She never missed a march from 1963 to 1968, including the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March.
“As we get older, we cannot get out there and do the things that we used to do,” she said to her cohorts. “But whatever I can do to help, I am going to do.”
The aging of longtime members of the organization has forced Free D.C. to shift its tactics, moving away from its rabble-rousing demonstrations on Capitol Hill toward public education through lectures and digital media and lobbying Congress to support D.C. statehood.
Today, about a dozen active members attend the organization’s regular meetings and about 40 show up to special events, but members said the strides they have made and the revitalization in the statehood movement keeps them celebrating.
“We are celebrating because we are still on the battlefield,” said Free D.C. Executive Director Anise Jenkins, also known as “the face of D.C. Statehood” and “Ms. Free D.C.” “[In 1997], we were beginning a coalition that included young people, we were diverse, we were ready for business and we’re still ready.”
Jenkins said the movement is seeing a revival as the District’s elected officials ramp up measures to advance statehood for D.C. She also noted a transformation in the areas of focus when she joined the movement from “interim steps” such as voting rights and exclusive budget autonomy to pushing for full statehood.
“It is hard to be steadfast for a goal like statehood for 20 years,” D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton said during the event. “To fall behind is the way most people do it because it’s not around the corner.”
Norton announced record-breaking cosponsorship in the House and Senate for D.C. statehood with 136 and 20, respectively.
“Every journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step,” D.C. shadow Sen. Mike Brown said, citing a Chinese proverb. “We should celebrate every step along the way.”
But Jenkins does not want to wait much longer for statehood.
“I’m hopeful that it will not be another 20 years,” she said.