James Nabrit Jr came to the District as an up-and-coming Howard law professor. He developed the first course at an American law school on civil rights law and instilled in his students an unrelenting belief in the immorality and impracticality of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. As the lead counsel for the District's Bolling v. Sharpe case, Nabrit championed the position of attacking segregation outright, instead of relying on equalization. He pushed Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP to sharpen their attacks on school segregation and strongly influenced the outcome of all of the Brown v. Board school cases.
Charles Hamilton Houston is referred to as the "architect" of the civil rights movement. Before helping the Consolidated Parent Group kickoff their legal case, Houston built up the Howard University Law School into a world-class legal institution and mentored some of the most important figures of the civil rights movement, including Thurgood Marshall.
The history of school desegregation in the District is rooted in civil disobedience. The story is one of a grassroots organization of parents that challenged the institution of legalized segregation to guarantee better schools for their children. Throughout the seven-year struggle, the activists were supported by the District's Black churches, and their mission was grounded in the principles of faith and social justice.
Educator, author, and activist Mary Church Terrell was the first president of the National Association for Colored Women, the first African-American woman elected to a major city school board, and a founding member of the NAACP. A lifelong advocate for equality, Terrell participated in sit-ins well into her eighties. But out of all of her activism, one 1906 speech stands out as an insightful and damning critique of racial dynamics in the nation's capital.
If you lived in DC in August 1964, you might have seen Julius Hobson driving through downtown with a cage full of enormous rats strapped to the roof of his station wagon. Frustrated by the city government’s refusal to do anything about the rat problem in Northeast and Southeast DC, and about the District’s more affluent citizens’ apathy about the issue, he said that if Southeast was having this problem, then Georgetown should share it too. Hobson caught “possum-sized rats” in Shaw and Northeast, and transported them up to Georgetown, promising to release the cage full of rats in the middle of the wealthy district unless the city government acted to curb the epidemic. Since he was, as a piece in The Washingtonian put it, “[a]ware that a DC problem usually is not a problem until it is a white problem,” he decided to go ahead and make it a white problem.
In the early morning hours of June 23, 1968, thick clouds of tear gas rolled through a multitude of shacks on the National Mall. This shantytown was Resurrection City, and its residents were the nation’s poor. As many ran from their shelters, they saw Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final dream of economic equality withering in the gas. They had been citizens of the city for six weeks, all the while campaigning for rights for the poor around D.C. Now their work seemed all for naught. After an increase in violence and with an expiring living permit, the police had come to chase them out. Children were crying, adults screaming, and some were even vomiting. But amid the chaos, a song rang out: “we shall overcome.”
You might not immediately associate roller coasters with racial equality, but more than three years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, Maryland’s Glen Echo Park was a focal point of the Civil Rights Movement. It made sense: since its opening in 1899, Glen Echo had been the premier amusement park for white Washingtonians. The park featured a number of modern roller coasters, a miniature railway, a Ferris wheel, an amphitheater, a pool: everything and more that other parks provided.
Though he was the grandson of a Klansman, Bob Zellner realized at a young age that he didn't agree with segregation. As a young man, he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and became the first white southerner to be a SNCC Field Secretary. In a time of high tensions, particularly in the Deep South, Zellner and his wife Dorothy held their ground as supporters of black freedom and desegregation. They traveled from Danville, Virginia for the March on Washington. Years later, Zellner remembered the experience.
On the days leading up to the March on Washington, buses from every direction poured into the District of Columbia. Culie Vick Kilimanjaro and her husband John Marshall Kilimanjaro came from Greensboro, North Carolina. No one knew exactly what to expect prior to the March. Many feared violence. Many feared that no one would show up and the March would be a bust. Thankfully neither of those things came to pass. The March was a great success thanks to the bravery of people like the Kilimanjaros. Read their recollections after the jump.
A day that had been a long time coming... On February 2, 1959, Stratford Junior High School (now H-B Woodlawn High School) in Arlington was the first public school in Virginia to be integrated. That morning, four African American seventh graders – Ronald Deskins, Lance Newman, Michael Jones and Gloria Thompson – started classes at the school with over 100 Arlington County police officers in riot gear standing guard. To the great relief of the community, there was no violence or disorder (though two students were sent home for setting off a firecracker in a school bathroom).