By Bill Mosley
The inspiring but largely untold story of DC’s heritage of radical politics bears many lessons for today’s activists, a gathering at Metro DC Democratic Socialists of Americas monthly salon learned last month.
Longtime local activists Debbie Hanrahan, her husband John Hanrahan, and Howard Croft gave wide-ranging talks about the leftist ferment that characterized much of DC politics in the 1960s and 1970s and how it languished afterward – but also offered clues as to how determined activists can keep it alive and revitalize it. About two dozen DSA members and friends attended the October 26 salon at Hunan Dynasty restaurant on Capitol Hill.
The Hanrahans’ presentations were drawn from Debbie’s background in numerous movements, including the fights for DC statehood and the preservation of McMillian Park, and John’s work as an interviewer for “Lessons of the ‘60s,” an oral history of left movements. Their talk featured remembrances of some of the champions of DC’s progressive history, including Julius Hobson, Hilda Mason, Sammie Abbott and Josephine Butler. They described Hobson as a driving force in many causes, most prominently forcing businesses with all-white workforces to hire African American workers. He also fought inequities in school funding – not only between black and white schools, but also in the favoritism shown to “elite” black schools. “He was interested more in justice than in race,” Debbie Hanrahan, who once worked as Hobson’s secretary, said. Hobson was one of the early advocates of DC statehood and in 1974 was elected to the District’s first home-rule Council, where he served until his untimely death in 1977. Hobson “was a Marxist and an atheist and everybody knew it,” John Hanrahan said, and his ideology and confrontational style put him in the crosshairs of the FBI which tried unsuccessfully to discredit him.
Debbie also worked for Mason, the beloved “Grandmother of the World” who succeeded Hobson on the Council and served there for two decades. Mason championed countless progressive organizations (including DSA, serving as national vice-chair) and causes, especially education and civil rights. She first came to prominence by helping to free the jailed members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. On the Council she was a central figure in saving the besieged DC School of Law and ensuring all DC elementary schools had nurses. She and her husband Charlie Mason donated generously to many progressive causes, they noted. When asked long ago by Debbie what motivated her activism, Hilda answered: “It’s in the marrow of my bones.” She remembered her parents’ struggles in the pre-civil rights era and wanted to make sure no one had to face such discrimination and deprivation in the future.
Abbott, a longtime left activist, earned fame as the leader of the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis, which was formed to oppose plans by the federal government and local business interests to crisscross DC with freeways in the 1960s. Abbott, working with Hobson and others, united local residents across racial and economic lines – “black militants with Georgetown matrons” – to stop the highways and prevent the destruction of mostly African American neighborhoods with the rallying cry “no white men’s roads through black men’s houses.” The victory was especially remarkable because it occurred when DC was still fully under the control of the federal government and had no elected leadership of its own, the Hanrahans said. Abbott capped off his career as mayor of Takoma Park, which under his leadership became one of America’s early “nuclear-free zones” during the Cold War.
The Hanrahans described Josephine Butler as the supporter of numerous causes – DC statehood, striking Washington Post pressmen, and public parks among them. One of her lasting legacies is her championing the rehabilitation of Meridian Hill Park (also known as Malcolm X Park), helping turn it from a drug and crime-infested eyesore into a beloved oasis in Northwest DC. The Josephine Butler Parks Center, across the street from the park, stands as a monument to her legacy.
Croft drew from his background in community, labor and prisoner-advocacy movements and his longtime membership in DSA to assess the history of local radical activism. He began his presentation by noting the recent passing of many champions of progressive politics, starting with national figures Tom Hayden and Julian Bond and continuing with DC activists and leaders Marion Barry, Josephine Butler, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Richard Rausch and Lawrence Guyot. Croft said the DC left in the 1960s and 1970s was “ecumenical” in that it united activists from a variety of backgrounds and movements, noting that his philosophy as a DSA activist was to “have no enemies on the left.”
He said that “it saddens me that the issues have not changed. . . The forced movement of people” – urban renewal in past decades, gentrification today – continues to haunt the city, he noted.
The early days of the District’s home-rule government, which first took office in 1975, was a reflection of DC’s progressive activist community, he noted, with eight of the first 13 councilmembers having roots in social change movements. “Where are the voices today that have moral authority?” he asked rhetorically. Today, DC’s leaders are more likely to look to technocratic solutions than to root policy in social justice considerations, he lamented.
Croft discussed the legacy and appeal of Marion Barry, who moved from civil rights activism in the 1960s to the halls of government and the office of mayor in the 1970s. Despite having become a butt of jokes for late-night comedians due to his conviction for drug possession, DC’s African American community continued to lionize him for his significant contributions to their interests. In the 1960s, for example, it was nearly impossible for black communities in DC to get permits to hold block parties, so Barry defied the police by organizing block parties without permits.
The lesson that many of the participants in the salon took away from both presentations is that while social change has always been hard to achieve, and might be even harder today than 50 years ago, it is not impossible as long as activists refuse to give up. The path for such achievements as the heightened visibility of the DC statehood movement and the rise of Black Lives Matter and the Occupy encampments were paved by the work of forebears such as Hobson, Mason, Abbott, Butler and many others.
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