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On May 19, 1993, the D.C. government lost one of its early Home Rule-era leaders and most accomplished legislators. D.C. Council Chairman John A. Wilson was found dead in the basement laundry room of his Southwest home by his wife, Bonnie, and chauffeur. His death, ruled a suicide by the Metropolitan Police Department, sent shock waves through the D.C. political scene, of which Wilson was a 20-year veteran. The longtime Ward 2 councilmember, who assumed the council chairmanship in 1991, was known for his own brand of brazen politics.
Wilson, who died at age 49, helped bring the civil rights movement to nation’s capital. In the 1960s, he was one of the “po boys,” as Jet magazine wrote in an obituary, that also included future D.C. Mayor and Councilmember Marion Barry and future Georgia Congressman John Lewis, to fight alongside Stokely Carmichael‘s Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. When the battles turned bloody in the South, Wilson and his fellow activists shifted their efforts to Washington.
Jet wrote that Carmichael had warned them that “[b]lacks can’t change the system.” But Wilson didn’t listen and moved to the predominately black city with the hopes of helping black residents in their fight for an equal vote in Congress and more autonomy for the D.C. government in the federal city, fights which continue today.
Shortly before his death, Wilson opened up about his political woes, saying that he might retire, despite pressure to run for mayor the following year. The Washington Post reported at the time that trouble at home may have also fueled his chronic depression. In 1992, Bonnie Wilson learned of her husband’s infidelity and threatened him with divorce. She moved out of their home, until Wilson convinced her to move back.
The Post also reported that Wilson sought medical treatment and counseling for his depression six months before committing suicide. A funeral service was held at St. Augustine Catholic Church. Barry, who was no stranger to personal turmoil, offered tearful words. “I’m not concerned about how John Wilson died, I’m concerned about how he lived,” Barry said at the time. “He was daring. He had so much courage.” Lewis, a veteran of the Freedom Rides, said Wilson’s death was a “tragic loss. He was my friend and I will miss him terribly.”
In 1994, the seat of the District government, at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, was renamed in Wilson’s honor.
Photo by Flickr user m.gifford using an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license