- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2001

President Clinton and a slew of local officials yesterday turned a Martin Luther King celebration into a political rally for the cause of D.C. voting rights and statehood, with the occasional partisan jab at Republicans.

Mr. Clinton, with less than a week left in office, made one of his first public comments on the issue, telling an enthusiastic crowd, "I believe that you should still have your votes in Congress and the Senate."

"Maybe even more important, we should have the rights and powers and responsibilities that statehood carries," Mr. Clinton said at District's 16th annual celebration of the late civil rights leader.

While Mr. Clinton's comments thrilled the whooping crowd, home-rule activists have long complained that the president did little to advance their cause.

Department of Justice lawyers under Mr. Clinton last year argued against two home-rule lawsuits before the Supreme Court.

Activists also criticized the president for signing into law in 1997 his plan for revitalization of the capital, which they said put the District further under federal purview.

Mr. Clinton also appointed the members of the federal control board, which oversees the District's financial and management decisions. Some home-rule advocates see the control board, which is scheduled to shut down this year, as unwarranted federal meddling.

But in December, with his term winding down, Mr. Clinton ordered the District's new license plates with the protest slogan "Taxation Without Representation" attached to the presidential limousine.

The move puts President-elect George W. Bush, no fan of D.C. statehood, in the potentially awkward position of ordering the plates removed.

On Monday, local leaders predicted that Mr. Clinton would do more to help their cause as an ex-president.

Adrian Fenty, a D.C. Council member and the ceremony's master of ceremonies, said "we all look forward to working with him on [home rule] for the next six years," the period that Mr. Clinton's wife is expected to serve as a senator from New York. The Clintons recently purchased a home in the District.

Paul Strauss, the District's nonvoting "shadow" senator, said Mr. Clinton told him and several D.C. Council members, "I'm serious about trying to help y'all when I get out of here."

"I think he's done a lot for us," Mr. Strauss said. "And he'll have a bully pulpit for life. If voting rights and statehood are on the podium of that pulpit, that's a boost for us."

Several of the speakers yesterday also took some shots at Republicans in general and Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft in particular to the roaring approval of the crowd.

The keynote speaker, the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, told a modern version of the biblical Good Samaritan story, casting blacks in modern America as the robbed and beaten man found along a road.

The Republicans who pass by disadvantaged blacks would say: " 'They ought to pick themselves up by their bootstraps,' " according to Mr. Bryant, founder and pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore.

Mr. Bryant also said black slaves in America "were left behind by erroneous and halfhearted Christians, Christians like Mr. Ashcroft," whom some liberal special-interest groups have accused of racism.

Several D.C. officials compared the push for statehood and voting rights to King's civil rights crusade of the 1960s.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton recounted how a Republican-controlled Congress voted last month to deny her a vote on the House floor and exhorted the crowd to help her "wipe away the shame of a great city with small rights."

Mrs. Norton also asked crowd members to attend the trial next month of seven home-rule activists arrested last summer on charges of disrupting Congress after they broke into chants during work on the District's budget in Congress.

"No longer will we leave it to a group of activists to fight for the city," Mrs. Norton said. "A second-class citizenship is no longer tolerable by the majority of Washingtonians."

Mr. Williams made his usual plug for the cause, declaring, "In the District of Columbia, we are still denied full participation in democracy."

In other King celebrations in the District and around the nation, King's birthday was celebrated with marches, speeches and community-service projects.

Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III addressed an audience of thousands in Richmond on their state's first stand-alone King Day.

"This is a celebration, so let's celebrate," he shouted. "Let's celebrate."

Until this year, Virginia had combined the federal King holiday with a state observance for Civil War Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. They are now honored on the Friday before King Day, giving state employees a four-day weekend.

In Atlanta, Coretta Scott King asked Americans on Monday to keep her husband's "vibrant spirit of unconditional love" alive by working for peace, justice and economic equality.

The widow of Martin Luther King opened the annual King Day ecumenical service in the historic sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church by reviewing the accomplishments of "America's greatest champion of racial justice and equality."

Baltimore put on its first official celebration of King with a parade attended by 15,000.

In Birmingham, Ala., a veteran civil rights leader urged a breakfast audience to forgive the politicians and white supremacists who tried to maintain segregation in the 1960s.

"You must remember that if you can't forgive, God can't forgive you," said the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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