The D.C. flag being waved outside the U.S. Capitol
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In August 1963, around 250,000 people gathered in D.C. as part of the March on Washington—where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now-legendary “I Have A Dream” speech. Over 58 years later, another voting rights march will take place this Saturday. And this time it won’t only be ON Washington… it’ll also be FOR Washington.

“After everyone went home after The March on Washington in 1963—residents of Washington, D.C. were left behind without any congressional representation,” Jamal Holtz says. 

Holtz is the lead organizer for 51 for 51, a national campaign focused on passing statehood legislation in the Senate with 51 votes. 51 for 51 is joining other organizations in the “March On for Washington and Voting Rights.” Groups across the country will advocate for voting rights legislation to protect citizens from over 400 proposed voter suppression bills in state legislatures—some of which have already passed.

But the D.C. march will have additional relevance. One of the bills demonstrators will advocate for is the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, which would make D.C. a state and grant over 700,000 residents the right to vote.

“We’re centering D.C. statehood finally,” Holtz says. “We always have to rely on … other American citizens to voice our interest because we don’t have voting representation for ourselves. This march Saturday is people across the country standing up not just for us, but with us, to say the fight for D.C. statehood is important.”

Advocates have been working for over a century to revive D.C.’s voting rights after they were arguably gerrymandered out of existence. D.C.’s “Chocolate City” roots began after Abraham Lincoln emancipated enslaved people in D.C. two years before the Emancipation Proclamation, creating a new Southernmost point for enslaved people to gain their freedom. During Reconstruction, White elites chose to avoid having a biracial democracy by pushing to lose their own voting rights.

“When the city was majority Chocolate City, 70 percent Black and Brown people, the federal government found every way possible to shut voter rights away from the people of D.C.,” Holtz says. “We’re seeing at its core racism.”

“We’ll be the very first state that will have a plurality of Black and Brown people in the state,” Holtz says. “We’ll be able to elect and put Black leadership that advocates for D.C. values in the halls of Congress.”

That racism against D.C. continues. Holtz points out that Republican members of Congress have used arguments like the city “doesn’t have real people” or “doesn’t have car dealerships or landfills.” 

“These are all racist dog whistle tactics around what the true fight is about. And that’s about voting rights,” he says. “The generations of my family who have lived here do not come from a family of politics. They do not come from government. They come from doing things like educating our young people, working in the production industry, and doing a lot of factory work.”

Family is the “personal” reason the 23-year-old Holtz joined the fight for statehood. He remembers President Barack Obama’s legislative push for the Affordable Care Act where he told people to “call your senator” to show support for the initiative.

”I remember my mom not having access to quality health insurance,” Holtz, who of course has no senator, says. “I realized that I lived in the shadows of democracy.”

“The unfortunate truth that people like me at 23 years old are still a part of this fight,” he says. “I assure you that this will be the last generation that has to experience what it means to not have voting rights in their democracy.”

The march will begin at McPherson Square at 9:45 a.m. and walk by Black Lives Matter Plaza, the White House, and Washington Monument. Organizers will hold a closing rally between 7th and 14th streets on the National Mall.

Holtz says they’re taking precautions against the more-contagious delta variant seriously and are observing CDC guidelines. They’ll provide masks and hand sanitizer and are encouraging physical distancing. Holtz also notes that studies showed last summer’s protests against White supremacy and police brutality showed demonstrations like the one this Saturday were unlikely to spread COVID, though the delta variant is more contagious than the variant spreading last summer.

Bailey Vogt (tips? bvogt@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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