Washington, Walter 1915–2003
Walter Washington 1915–2003
As the first modern mayor of Washington, D.C., Walter Washington was instrumental in bringing self-government and elected representation to the citizens of the capital city of the United States. As one of the first black mayors of a major American city, Washington helped usher in a major change in big-city politics and government. Beyond these “firsts,” however, Washington was remembered for making things happen behind the scenes and for making a difference in the lives of ordinary Washingtonians. “Walter Washington will be remembered as a uniter, not a divider, as a healer, not a destroyer,” Washington Post writer Colbert I. King observed after Washington’s death in 2003. “And he did it all with a style and a light touch…that we shall never see the likes of again.”
Walter Edward Washington was Born April 15, 1915, in Dawson, Georgia, but was raised in Jamestown, New York. His father did factory work and ran a small shop in a hotel, and his mother was a schoolteacher. Washington was one of two African Americans among the 400 students in his high school graduating class, and he went off to college at Howard University in the District of Columbia. Majoring in public administration and sociology, he graduated in 1938 and went on for further study at American University.
After getting a job in 1941 with the District’s housing authority and marrying Bennetta Bullock, a Baptist minister’s daughter, Washington worked toward a law degree at Howard in the evenings while his wife pursued a career as an educator and administrator. The couple had one daughter, also named Bennetta. Washington helped the city cope with the housing shortages brought on by the movement of troops during and after World War II, and soon after he received his law degree from Howard in 1948 he was given new responsibilities at the National Capital Housing Authority (NCHA).
Washington worked his way up through the ranks of the housing authority’s administrators, and in 1961 he was named its executive director by President John F. Kennedy. His record at the NCHA was a progressive one, including many innovations, such as day care centers and job counseling, that would become common everywhere as agencies tried to make public housing into more than simply warehousing for the poor. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson offered Washington a seat on the three-member commission that governed the District at the time, within limits laid down by the U.S. congressional committees that held the city’s purse strings.
Washington realized, however, that Johnson’s offer would leave a key commission seat, the one that oversaw the District’s police force, to be filled by a white commissioner. Realizing the symbolic importance of police oversight to the city’s long-suffering black population, Washington, a master negotiator, turned down the President’s offer. He moved to New York City to take a position as chairman of the New York Housing Authority. There he was once again ahead of his time in introducing the idea of scatteredsite housing as a replacement for the usual collections
At a Glance…
Bom on April 15, 1915, in Dawson, GA; died October 27,2003; married Bennetta Bullock, an educator and social worker, December 26, 1941 (died 1991); one daughter, Bennetta jules-Rosette; married Mary Burke, 1994. Education: Howard University, Washington, DC, BA, major in public administration and sociology, 1938, LLB, 1948; American University, Washington, graduate study, early 1940s.
Career: Alley Dwelling Authority (later National Capital Housing Authority), Washington, DC, junior housing assistant, 1941-45, housing manager, 1945-50, administrative positions, 1951-61, executive director, 1961-66; New York Housing Authority, chair, 1966-67; City of Washington, DC, mayor-commissioner, 1967-74; elected mayor, 1974-78; Burns, Jackson, Miller, and Summit law firm, partner, late 1970s-1980s.
Selected awards: National Civil Service League, Career Service Award, 1973; Howard University Law School Alumni Association, Distinguished Service Award, 1974; Greater Washington Board of Trade, Man of the Year award, 1983; American Civil Liberties Union, Judge Egarton Award, 1984.
of bleak high-rises that had been typical of public housing up to that time.
A year later, in 1967, President Johnson gave in to Washington’s dreams for his city. He reorganized the structure of city government to provide for a single mayor-commissioner, plus an appointed city council. Washington was named mayor-commissioner, taking a $6,500 pay cut from his New York City job. Soon he was referred to simply as the mayor. Naming crime, unemployment, and welfare as the major issues facing his administration, Washington faced major challenges. On April 14, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The District of Columbia, along with many other cities, erupted in rioting. The city simmered under the deployment of 13,000 Army and National Guard troops sent in to restore order.
Longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover demanded that Washington issue an order to shoot looters on sight, but Washington refused, telling Hoover (according to the Washington Post), “I’m the mayor, and I make those decisions.” And when Hoover repeated his demand, Washington terminated the meeting. He headed out into the streets and neighborhoods, where he would often be found over his entire tenure as mayor, and his “Don’t shoot the looters” policy carried the day. “I walked by myself through the city and urged angry young people to go home,” Washington was quoted as saying in Jet. “I asked them to help the people who had been burned out.” “Few men,” Judge H. Carl Moultrie told the magazine, “can boast that they received a burning city and led it on its way to recovery.”
The District of Columbia had long had been run basically as a fiefdom of the U.S. Congress, and it had only mere outlines of a municipal government. Working with a staff of only three assistants, Washington nevertheless wielded major influence and often made national headlines. Reappointed twice to the post of mayor-commissioner by Republican President Richard Nixon (in 1969 and 1973), he was instrumental in paving the way for the massive anti-Vietnam War demonstration held in the District on November 15, 1969. After Hoover’s Justice Department refused to issue permits for the march, Washington personally interceded with Nixon to reverse that decision.
The major task facing Washington in the early 1970s was to nudge the U.S. Congress toward approving true self-government for the District. The congressional committee overseeing the city was home to an entrenched group of Southern lawmakers who were loath to relinquish control and had little use for black political representation. When Washington visited South Carolina Representative John McMillan, the committee chairman, McMillan produced a watermelon and told Washington, “Here’s a letter from home.” “Walter would bite his tongue,” Washington aide James L. Hudson told the Washington Post. “That took a unique talent. I certainly couldn’t have done it.”
“Much is made of the home rule movement and the people taking to the street to bring about self-government. Much of what you hear about that period is pure, unadulterated myth,” argued the Post’s Colbert King. “It was the work of Walter Washington, moving and shaking behind the scenes on Capitol Hill, that kept alive the drive for home rule.”
Some militant African Americans were unhappy with Washington’s diplomatic nature, but he enjoyed support among a wide cross section of ordinary District residents. After Congress finally passed a bill in 1973 allowing partial home rule and direct mayoral and council elections, Washington entered the race for mayor in 1974. He cruised to victory over future Carter administration Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander and took office early in 1975. Washington’s style as the District’s first elected mayor in 104 years was the same as ever; he spent a great deal of time in the city’s neighborhoods and met frequently with community groups. The tone for his new administration was set just a few hours after he took office when he met with a group of 300 marchers to discuss cuts in anti-poverty programs.
Many observers considered Washington an ideal figure for fostering a smooth transition to majority black rule in the District. “This city,” he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post, “is already too much divided along race and income lines. We have got to take the lead and set the example in bringing this city together. We’ve got to become just one Washington.” After 11 years at the helm, Washington ran for reelection in 1978, but by that time voters were ready for a new face and were frustrated by the slow pace of economic progress African Americans made in the years after the civil rights revolution.
Washington lost in the primary election to an activist candidate seen as more allied to the city’s poorest citizens: Marion Barry. Although the District later ended up in dire financial straits, the city government was running a $40 million annual surplus when Washington left office. “I brought the city forward,” he was quoted as saying after the election in the Herald newspaper in Scotland. “What I would like to be remembered for is that Walter Washington changed the spirit of the people of this city.”
Retiring from political life after his election loss, Washington by no means called it quits on his career. Taking a position as a partner with the New York law firm of Burns, Jackson, Miller, and Summit, he garnered a host of honorary degrees and awards, among them the 1984 Judge Egarton Award from the American Civil Liberties Union. Among the accomplishments of his later years were key roles in establishing two museums, the City Museum of Washington, D.C., and the National Museum of African Art, with its high-profile location on the National Mall. As usual, Washington excelled at the behind-the-scenes diplomacy necessary to the creation of new institutions. He also served on the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Washington’s first wife Bennetta died in 1991. Three years later he married Mary Burke, an economist. On October 27, 2003, Washington died at Howard University Hospital at the age of 88. One Washington Post writer suggested the installation of a Washington statue bearing the legend “The Father of Modern Washington” in the city’s Freedom Plaza. The description seemed an apt one for the man who had done so much to gain for Washingtonians the same means of self-determination that other Americans took for granted.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), October 28, 2003, p. 23.
Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), October 28, 2003, p. 16.
Jet, November 10, 2003, p. 6.
Washington Post, October 28, 2003, p. A22-23, p. Cl; October 29, 2003, p. Bl; November 1, 2003, p. A23.
—James M. Manheim
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