By Chris Barber
RN and Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall swearing in Walter E. Washington, accompanied by his wife, as Mayor of the District of Columbia.
This week marks the 45th anniversary of President Nixon’s swearing-in of Walter E. Washington as Mayor of the District of Columbia. The Mayor of D.C at the time was by law an appointee of the President of the United States, yet the decision by RN to reappoint Washington marked the first stages of a prominent shift in Washington D.C. local governance that ultimately led to the ratification of the District of Columbia Self-Government and Reorganization Act signed in 1973. In hopes of propelling his “Home Rule” campaign–that of strengthening the representative capacity of local government to tackle local problems–through an effective cooperation “yet achieved in the relations between the Federal and city governments”–RN retained Washington as his select man in 1969.
Mayor Washington, a democrat, was one of three African American mayors to lead major American cities by 1967 and the first of these three to do so. Mayor Washington was also tasked with leading a predominantly African American city underrepresented, and to a large degree, under-served by the federal government for whom they relied upon.
The condition of America’s capital in 1969 was that of societal disarray. Crime rates were soaring at calamitous rates, the standards of education were faltering, and uncertainties flourished in the face of massive social readjustment. Amidst prevailing riots and increasing illicit drug use, the latter half of the 1960s effectively steered the District of Columbia onto a road of incivility and outright lawlessness.
President Nixon would not stand idly by and witness the crumbling of the capital city at the footsteps of Federal leadership. 14 days prior to the swearing in of Mayor Washington, RN delivered a resounding statement outlining proposed actions and recommendations to be taken for the District of Columbia. The common theme among his proposals: the establishment of local responsibilities and local mechanisms. It was then that President Nixon said “responsibility begins at home.” Mayor Washington would be the man he could rely on at the local level to bring about this shift.
That is why, as we look at the city of Washington, while the Federal Government has a greater responsibility here than toward any other city, that here, too, we must recognize that without a strong local government, without real home rule, and without the support of the citizens, the people of Washington, the Federal activities will come to naught.
Over the next two years of the Nixon presidency, Washington D.C. experienced a profound drop in crime, with crime index offenses decreasing by 5.2% in calendar year 1970 and 13.2% the following year. The drop was attributed to Mayor Washington’s local crime action effort, and the provisions for which his early 1970 “Crime Action Plan” proposed. Below, read Mayor Washington’s D.C. crime plan memorandum and accompanying report. Note the synchronized relationship between Federal oversight and local action plans. The success of Washington D.C.’s fight on crime and drug use was contingent upon the appropriate distribution of funds in key areas.
A concept that predated RN’s presidency and one that helped shape his early domestic policy framework, “New Federalism” would be birthed, appropriately so, at the nation’s capital. Demanding that the high standard of American government be reflected upon in its Federal City, that the high standard of American civil rights be upheld, particularly as it applied to the underrepresented African American population, RN promised to instigate home rule for the District, to push for Congressional representation, a criminal justice system operated at its own sovereignty, and a locally elected body of lawmakers. Because of the self-government reorganization act, Washington became the first locally elected Mayor to head the District of Columbia in 1975.