This could be considered the makings of a decade of reconciliation for progressives such as Vincent C. Gray, who later this summer will host the dedication ceremony of a national memorial to honor Martin Luther King Jr.
“I did march,” said Mr. Gray, who during the seminal Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was attending George Washington University and had gathered with other students that day.
In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Gray discussed the march, the assassination of King, which sparked riots whose scars remain to this very day, and what he wants to do as mayor in a city where urban renewal efforts are easily construed as “urban removal” plans that lead to constant despair.
In some ways, residents’ personal inertia and politics are similar to those of the march, he said, saying that blacks need to “get rid of the entitlement mentality” and that not all blacks supported the march because “they thought it would rock the boat.”
Nonetheless, he said, the march was “electrifying” and emboldened a nation of people to push for a passel of federal laws that buried overtly racist Jim Crow limits and changed the social culture in the nation’s capital. In time, it also led to limited home rule in the District.
History has proven that new federal racial, class and political lines were redrawn, but new D.C. racial and class divides also emerged immediately afterward, with black and white middle-class flight and poor blacks being pushed into the southeasternmost neighborhoods of the city.
So it falls to Mr. Gray, a native son and Democrat who took over the reins of the city in January, to remain true to what he dubbed that “romanticized era” of the 1960s, when Americans expressed their displeasure with war, discrimination, injustice and gender inequality with large protests. It also falls upon him to erase dividing lines like the Anacostia River, where a “cruel hoax” plays out with generational poverty, joblessness and separate but unequal educational opportunities.
Mr. Gray said that is why he dubbed his mayoral approach “One City” and why his chief inspiration remain his parents, who “never went to high school” and the march, whose push for freedom included the right for residents to relinquish their unique status as denizens of the nation’s capital and replace it with the right to govern themselves by becoming the nation’s smallest state in the union.
Mr. Gray said he knows no singular event can serve those purposes, but he said his job is to lead the beating of twin drums often, consistently and simultaneously: “Economic opportunities that lead to jobs for residents of the District” and to “push for self-determination” at every moment.
He also said the socioeconomic problems east of the Anacostia River stem as much from “the dissipation of the family structure” as they do from “some policies” devised and implemented by the black middle class.
Indeed, the mayor said a central policy theme of his “One City” philosophy is “nobody owes you anything [except] equal opportunity.”
Plans and speeches for the King memorial dedication, which were sanctioned by Congress and will be nation’s first homage to a black American on the Mall, are not yet finalized. But Mr. Gray promises not to waste the opportunity as host of the event in his city.
But for desperate D.C. stakeholders, who wear parochial blinders, the mayor’s actions over the course of the second half of his first year are more important than a speech honoring the life of even King and noting the considerable progress by Americans for Americans.
The mayor was certainly spot on when he remarked during the interview that “we’ve make a lot of progress.”
“There’s an African-American president,” he said. “That’s probably the most dramatic progress.”
But for too many D.C. residents, they aren’t living the promise of King’s dream but an urban nightmare from which the mayor promised he would awaken them.
A column next week will look at H Street Northeast. Is this major D.C. corridor finally rising from the ashes of the 1968 riots?
c Deborah Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.