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In testimony before the D.C. Council today, Bishop Harry Jackson namechecked Martin Luther King and his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in talking about his opposition to gay marriage. Jackson quoted King: “A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a people, that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, have no part in enacting or devising the law.”
That, of course, was a reference to Jackson’s quest to have a citywide vote on gay marriage. He said, “I believe the people of the District of Columbia have suffered an injustice by being ignored already, and you’re about to do that again….There is an advisory referendum that you could endorse—-why don’t you do it?”
At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania, author and lead introducer of the bill, was ready to pounce.
“I want to thank you for bringing our history to this chamber, the history of voting rights in the city,” he began. “Bishop, are you aware of the last time an ‘advisory referendum’ was placed on the ballot in the District that attempted to diminish the rights of a minority?”
Jackson said he was not.
Catania went on to fill him in on the events of Dec. 21, 1865, after then Mayor Richard Wallach ‘fearing what the radical Republicans wanted to do in Congress, which is extend the vote to freed African-American males in the city,’ held a vote on that issue. It lost, 712 to 1 in Georgetown, then independent, and 6,591 to 35 in the remainder of the city.
Concluded Catania, “There is an opportunity, from time to time, to have tyranny at a ballot box that would take away the rights of some because a majority thinks differently.”
And then the coup de grâce: Catania asked Jackson how many times he’d voted in city elections in the past decade.
Jackson, who recently moved from the Maryland suburbs, said none: “I am recent resident of the District of Columbia.”
Later in the hearing, another historical analogue came up: the pre-Civil War “Bleeding Kansas” struggle over whether that state would be admitted slave or free.
That conflict, Catania pointed out, was exacerbated by meddling interlopers from neighboring Missouri.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery