Residents of the District of Columbia are not quiet about their lack of political autonomy, so it only makes sense that they elected equally outspoken and appropriately named Walter Washington as their first “home rule” mayor in 1974.
Washington, the great-grandson of a slave, was born in Georgia and grew up in New York. He traveled to the District to study at Howard University and American University, and remained there after completing his education. His early career was focused on helping residents who needed the city’s aid.
He spent years working for the National Capital Housing Authority, which was established to find low-rent housing, but expanded into social programming. In 1961, Washington became the housing authority’s first black executive director. According to Washington’s New York Times obituary, Attorney General Robert Kennedy showed up unannounced to offer him the job.
The Washington Post reported that in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Washington discussed the possibility of Washington taking a position as one of the District’s commissioners. However, the idea of a black man being in charge of the city’s police force was “unthinkable at the time.”
Washington instead moved to New York City to work for its housing authority. During his short time in New York, he continued to focus on offering services like day care, financial counseling and children’s programs.
Meanwhile, in the capital, Congress was making moves to change the District’s governing structure. It established the position of mayor-commissioner and President Johnson convinced Washington to take the position, accept a pay cut and return to Washington in 1967.
Months later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Riots erupted in cities across the country, including Washington. Walter Washington ordered that looters not be shot, and has been credited for his handling of that crisis. The city sustained tens of millions of dollars in damage.
Washington was later reappointed to his post by President Richard Nixon. Then Congress granted the District’s residents a huge win in 1973: the Home Rule Act.
The District’s history of governance is wild. In its 228 years, it has been split into separate entities with different governing units, run collectively by a commission, and eventually put in the hands of the mayor-commissioner and city council. Finally, the Home Rule Act granted residents the ability to elect a mayor. (They are still taxed without voting representation in Congress, but that is another story.)
Washington ran for mayor and won. He was sworn in by Justice Thurgood Marshall on January 2, 1975.
“The only cure for democracy is more democracy,” he said, according to The New York Times. “When people ask me if I’ve had enough, I say, ‘Hit me with some more of it.’ “
In 1978, Washington lost re-election to Marion Barry and turned to practicing law. In 2007, the city’s 2.3 million-square-foot convention center was renamed after Walter Washington. He died in 2003 at the age of 88.