A Conversation with Walter Washington
(Appeared in Bar Report, December/January 1996)
Walter E. Washington is a 1948 graduate of the Howard University Law School. On September 5, 1967, President Johnson appointed him the first mayor-commissioner of the District of Columbia, and in 1975 he became the District’s first elected mayor in 104 years. After leaving public office, he joined the law firm of Burns, Jackson, Miller, Summit & Washington as a partner.
Bar Report: Are you a native Washingtonian?
Walter Washington: No. I grew up in a small town in upstate New YorkJamestown. My father worked in the mills there and my mother was a school teacher. I graduated from Jamestown High School in 1933, which, of course, was at the depths of the Depression.
BR: What sort of future did you envision for yourself?
WW: Well, I didn’t know what the future would bring. My mother
felt that education was very, very important. That was instilled in me
at an early age. So I wanted to go to college.
’I was interested in attending Howard, and I came to Washington for a visit in 1933. That was the first time I ever laid eyes on the city, and I remember being struck by two things. First, Washington was a totally segregated city. The schools, the hotels, the restaurants, the neighborhoods were all segregated. And second, I’d never seen so many black people in all my life. You could’ve crowded all of the blacks from Jamestown, New York into a phone booth. But in Washington I encountered thousands upon thousands of black people. I was both thrilled and amazed by that.
BR: Did the segregation anger you?
WW: Of course it did! When segregation hits you in the face like that, it doesn’t take long for you learn that it’s absolutely devastatingboth psychologically and physically. Segregation not only denies you your constitutional rights, it denies you your right to dignity, your right to live as a human being in a so-called democracy.
BR: But the segregation didn’t deter you from attending Howard?
WW: No. Howard was an exciting, stimulating place with lots
of great professors. Howard was the jewel of the black colleges, and
it was where I wanted to go. I had the great opportunity to study under
such distinguished professors as Ralph Bunche, Alain Locke, E. Franklin
Frazier, Charles Wesley, Howard Thurman, and others. Outside of their
subject matter, they all encouraged students to strive for excellence
in all their endeavors.
’After I enrolled I became the chairman of a student group called the New Negro Alliance. We spent the summer of 1935 picketing some of the shops and department stores up and down 7th Street, 14th Street, and along U Street. In those shops black people were welcome to come in and spend their money, but we were prohibited from sitting down at the "whites only" lunch counter. We could buy things in the clothing departments, but we were not allowed to try on clothes before we made our purchases. These store policies were deeply offensive, and we spent the summer protesting.
’Some of the great men and women at the forefront of what would later become known as the "civil rights movement" joined us from time to time. Mary Church Terrell marched on the picket line with us, and Judge William Hastie joined us for a time. Eugene Davidson was the director, and I recruited a number of Howard students including my roommate, William Brown, the father Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown.
BR: Did that protest have any impact?
WW: Yes, eventually the stores changed their policies. They did so grudgingly, but they did so nonetheless.
BR: Did you go straight from college to law school?
WW: No, I graduated from Howard in 1938 and then took a rather
lengthy academic detour. I spent four years in graduate school at American
University studying public administration at night.
’I was in a Ph.D. program and had done everything I needed to do except write my dissertation. It would’ve taken me another two years, but I didn’t see the doctorate leading anywhere. All I could do with a Ph.D. was teach, and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life teaching public administration. So one evening, instead of attending my class at American, I left the campus and went directly to Howard and filled out an application for law school. My thinking at the time was, "Hey, maybe law school will get my life moving in the direction I want it to go."
BR: Did you find that to be the case?
WW: Yes, from the minute I first sat down in class I knew I’d
found my calling. I had great professors: James Nabrit, George E.C. Hayes,
George Johnson, William Hastie, and Spottswood Robinson were all among
my law school professors. And they were fantastic.
’One of the great experiences I had in law school was doing footnotes on the briefs that the NAACP Legal Education and Defense Fund was preparing for the series of desegregation cases that they were working on. Although I was only doing footnotes, I did get a feel for the lawyers who were developing the cases that would eventually culminate in Brown v. Board of Education.
’This was the 1944-48 era and it was how I encountered lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, James Nabrit, and George E.C. Hayes. They were men of great courage, men of great character. And they were relentless. As law students, we worried about them because the southern reaction to court-ordered desegregation was very meanit was serious and it was violent. Yet, these lawyers would go into the deep south and argue their cases and ignore all the death threats and all of the intimidation. Day after day, case after case, they’d put their lives on the line. As a student, you couldn’t help but love them for it, and you worried about them all the time.
BR: Did you sense that massive social change was on the near horizon because of what they were doing?
WW: No, I can’t say that I did. But I had hope. And when you have hope you feel that you can move mountains.
BR: What did you do after you graduated from law school?
WW: Well, I was already working. I had a full-time job during my four years of law school. I’d put in an eight-hour day at the office, attend my law classes at night, and then I’d study until two or three o’clock in the morning. Then at dawn I’d start all over again. It wasn’t an easy routine, but I was young and full of ambition. Moreover, I had a family to care for.
BR: Where were you working?
WW: I was working in housing. Back in 1939-40 the Civil Service
Commission gave a junior professional assistant examination. Five-thousand
people took the exam, and 500 passed. Due to my study of public administration
as a graduate student at American, I was one of those who passed, and
I received an assignment to a Civil Service position.
’The job I was selected to fill was a supervisory position in North Carolina. The director of the Civil Service Commission called me into his office and said, "Now, Walter, do you really think you want to go down there?" I knew what he was getting at. He didn’t want to send a black person down to North Carolina to supervise whites. He thought that would be a real mess. I said, "Well, if North Carolina is where the job is, then that’s where I’ll go." I’d recently gotten married, and he said, "Now, Walter, you’re starting a family. Maybe you should think of staying here in Washington." I said, "Oh, no, I don’t mind going down to North Carolina."
’Well, I never did go. Congress had just created the Alley Dwelling Authority, and instead of sending me to North Carolina (and with the help of the congressman from Jamestown, New York) I was named a housing assistant in this newly formed agency. There were residential neighborhoods all over the District of Columbia where white families employed black servants. The white family would live in a nice big house and the servants would live in the back in dilapidated, poorly constructed buildings that had no running water and no indoor toilet facilities. Over time, the back alleys in these neighborhoods were transformed into slums. Congress created the Alley Dwelling Authority to get rid of these slums.
BR: Did you continue to work for the Alley Dwelling Authority after you received your law degree?
WW: Yes, it was important work that involved me in innovative government programs and initiatives. In our slum clearance efforts, we couldn’t just go out and tear down the dilapidated dwellings. People were living in those dwellings, so we had to give them a place to live. We tried to relocate families into better housing. That was the challenge. As I continued to work in the housing field, I found there were many, many occasions where my law background was vital.
BR: How so?
WW: Well, for example, one of the innovations I was responsible
for was the first "turn-key" housing project for senior citizens. This
was a program where the government agency would negotiate with a private
developer to purchase a building once it had been constructed. I never
could have put together that kind of collaborative government-private
sector program without knowing the law, and, more importantly, how to
use the law.
’The first project we built ran into a difficult problem. The developer built air conditioning into the housing units, but there was a regulation on the books that did not permit air conditioning in public housing because it was considered a luxury. Once again, the fact that I was a lawyer proved to be advantageous. By petitioning the federal office for a change in regulations I was not only able to get the problem resolved, I was able to do it in a way that provided for the comfort of thousands of tenants. It was that sort of thing that came up time and again where my being a lawyer made a crucial difference in my ability to get things done.
BR: President Kennedy named you executive director of the National Capital Housing Authority. How did that appointment come about?
WW: The Alley Dwelling Authority was the forerunner of the National
Capital Housing Authority. Over the years, I worked my way up from junior
housing assistant to housing unit manager to supervisor of field operations
to deputy executive director. Along the way, I suppose I developed a
bit of a reputation as an innovative housing expert.
’One day in 1961, I was sitting in my office in the 1700 block of New York Avenue when my secretary buzzed me and said, "There’s a Mr. Kennedy here to see you." I was wondering who it could be. The door opened, and in walked Robert Kennedy. Needless to say, I was shocked and surprised.
BR: The attorney general of the United States just walked over to your office unannounced?
WW: Yes, he walked over alone. The elevator in the Lemon Building
was a shabby old thing, and he took one look at it, then walked up five
flights of stairs to my office. He didn’t waste any time on small talk.
He came straight to the point and said, "The reason I’m here is because
my brother wants to know if you’d be interested in serving as the executive
director of this outfit."
’I said, "We already have an executive director."
’He said, "I didn’t ask you that. My brother wants to know if you’d be willing to serve as executive director."
’I said, "I’d consider it a great honor." And with that it was done. The entire conversation lasted maybe five minutes. I took charge that afternoon, and stayed in that position for the next five years, serving under presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
BR: During this time were you at all involved in the campaign to win home rule for the District?
WW: Oh, goodness yes. I was a member of the original Home Rule
Committee way back in the ’40s. Even as a young sprout, that was an issue
that I followed closely.
’In 1966 President Johnson was trying to get a reorganization bill through Congress that would give the District greater autonomy. At one point, he invited me over to the White House and said that he wanted me to become the president of the board of commissioners. Then, in his very next breath President Johnson indicated that I would not have responsibility over the police and fire departments. I told him that I couldn’t accept the position under those circumstances. "Mr. President," I said, "that wouldn’t be good for you and I know it wouldn’t be good for me. If this city is going to have a mayor then that mayor, even though appointed, must have appropriate responsibility over the police and fire departments."
’President Johnson didn’t like hearing that. He became incensed and the conversation was terminated.
BR: Did you feel you’d burned your bridges to the White House?
WW: Not really, no. President Johnson always wore his emotions on his sleeve. He was asking me to do something that I couldn’t do. That’s all there was to it.
BR: How did your appointment as mayor come about?
WW: A year later President Johnson called me back. In the interim
I’d moved up to New York and taken over as chairman of the New York City
Housing Authority in the cabinet of Mayor John Lindsay. I was immersed
in my work there when I received a call from the White House. It was
Louis Martin, who was an assistant to the president, and Louis said, "Now
listen, Walter, President Johnson wants to talk with you, and I think
you should be a little more civil than you were when you last talked
’I said, "What do you mean? I was perfectly civil last time."
’Louis said, "Well, when he asks you for something, just say, ’yes.’"
’I had to chuckle. I said, "If the president asks me to do something that I can’t do in good conscience then I’ll have to say ’no.’"
’Louis let out a huge groanhe sounded like he’d been shot. "No, no, no, no. Whatever you do, don’t tell him, ’No.’ When the president asks you for something you say, ’Yes.’"
’Well, the next morning I flew down to Washington on the shuttle and met with President Johnson at the White House. He told me about the new reorganization legislation he had succeeded in getting through Congress, which included provisions for local control over the police and fire departments. Then he said he wanted me to come back to Washington to be mayor. The new legislation put all the marbles together. It wasn’t home rule, but it was a positive step in the right direction and I told President Johnson that was I willing to do it.
’I’ll never forget, when I told him that I was going to take on the job, he said, "Walter, I don’t think you’re going to survive more than a year."
BR: Why did he say that?
WW: This was the summer of 1967. People were talking about "the long hot summer." There’d been the Watts riot in ’65, and then there were major riots in Newark and Detroit in ’67. He was immersed in the Vietnam war. It was a very tough, difficult time, and most of the chairpersons in Congress at the time were disposed in favor of home rule for the District.
BR: Did that intimidate you at all?
WW: No. I saw it as a challengea big job that needed to
be done. Almost immediately, I became known as "the walking mayor," because
I’d get out and walk around the city. As I walked, I could feel the tension.
’People felt that their government was distant and unresponsive. The vestiges of segregation were evident. There was a great disparity in the way services were rendered in black and white neighborhoods. People were angry. They had a lot of legitimate complaints, and their anger was close to the surface.
BR: Do you think your appointment as mayor took some of the edge off of that anger?
WW: Yes, but I said, "We find ourselves at a critical stage
in the history of our city and country. We are being given the staggering
job of governing the nation’s capital city, which is burdened and plagued
by the full array of complex and stubborn urban problems."
’I was the nation’s first black mayor of a major city, and that generated great excitement in the black community. But it was a tense time. There was the sense that a tiny spark could ignite the anger and the rage that people felt. It was a palpable thing. You could touch it, you could feel it.
BR: And that spark was provided by the assassination of Martin Luther King?
WW: Oh, that was a terrible day.
BR: Can you remember what you were doing when you learned that he had been shot?
WW: I was sitting in my office. The telephone started ringing,
and when I looked up I could see the smoke. People were rioting all over
the country. The assassination of Martin Luther King touched off riots
in 110 cities. We had three days of very bad rioting and looting here
in the District.
’One of the things I did was issue an order to the police and the National Guard not to shoot any of the rioters or looters. There must’ve been 100,000 people in the streets with only about 2,300 policemen. Nothing angered the conservatives more than my order not to shoot. Chairman McMillan of the U.S. House District Committee called me and raised holy hell. He said, "Did you mean to say that? Don’t shoot?"
’I said, "Yes, that’s the order I’ve given."
’He said, "The only way we can stop this nonsense is to shoot these people! They’re rioting and looting and they need to be dealt with!"
’I thought that attitude was extremely dangerous. If the police had started shooting people it would have made a bad situation worse. I said, "Mr. Chairman, I know people are looting, but we can always replace a case of whiskey or a suit of clothes. We can’t replace a human life." I was absolutely adamant about that. I knew there was no way we could rebuild the city on a river of blood.
’As it was, no one was killed by the police. Of all the things I did as mayor, I think that "don’t shoot" order was the most important. As bad as the rioting was, a much worse catastrophe was averted. During those three days, the potential for a bloodbath was very real.
BR: What were you doing during those three days?
WW: I spent a lot of time in the streets, where I got tear-gassed
time and time again. We had a command center set up, and every night
I’d go to the command center to report on what I’d observed in the streets
and ask the people to assist me in putting the rioting down. Cyrus Vance
had just returned from the riots in Detroit, and we worked very closely
together in coordinating National Guard troops and the local police.
I gathered a group of community leaders together and we marched down
14th Street telling people to go home, telling them that this wasn’t
the way to accomplish anything. By the third day, we had over 14,000
National Guardsmen and over 2,000 police officers in the streets, and
by sheer force of numbers and support from citizen volunteers we managed
to bring things under control.
’Then, the challenge was to put the city back together. There were huge areas that had been absolutely devastated. Thousands of people had lost their homes and businesses, they were in need of food and shelter. I met with community leaders and business leaders, telling them, "What we need to do is come together for the benefit of the city." And we had success in doing that. I said to the people of the city, "We are at the crossroads in the history of the city. We must unit in our efforts to move along the paths lead to self-government and to a city of decent living standards, of secure streets and homes, of grace and warmtha city that will be a place of price to its residents, its visitors, and to the entire nation."
’The private sector joined with the local government in a number of initiatives to rebuild. We created new jobs and new businesses and an environment where economic development could begin to flourish. And we did so in an environment where the demonstrations were constantpeople were protesting the war in Vietnam, they were protesting the invasion of Cambodia. We were the repository of the major antiwar demonstrations because people wanted to come to the national capital to express their grievances. We experienced over 2,000 demonstrations in two years. They were doing this at the very time that we were trying to build a new government and recover from the riot period. Sometimes I hear people talk about the sixties like they were "the good old days." Man, I don’t know what the good old days were. I remember crisis after crisis, and I take great pride in the fact that we did initiate a new era of growth and opportunity despite the distractions of thousands of demonstrators.
BR: During this time, did you continue to fight for home rule?
WW: Absolutely! Remember, in 1967 I was appointed, not elected.
My official title was commissioner, but President Johnson told me, "I
want everybody to call you ’mayor.’ I want you to use the term and to
act like a mayor."
’When I agreed to take the job, I had a long conversation with President Johnson. He was supportive of my efforts and of home rule as the ultimate solution to our problems. In that conversation he gave some interesting advice. He said, "Walter, when you deal with Congress don’t wait for your matter to come before the committee. Go and meet with the committee chairmen and influential members at a time when they can sit and talk. Let them get to know you. Let them learn that they can trust you. That will get you more than you’ll ever get by testifying before a committee, because once the committee hearings begin the agenda has already been set."
’I thought that was interesting and practical advice, and I put into practice.
BR: Did you find it to be an effective strategy?
WW: Very effective. Not only in regard to home rule, but for all of the matters I had to deal with that came before Congress.
BR: What was the principal opposition to home rule?
WW: In my opinion it was race prejudice and a little of the
Constitution thrown in for good measure.
’I pursued home rule very aggressively, and civil rights leaders from all over the country joined in that effort. I worked very hard at trying to focus Congress and the community on the need for an elected government, trying to focus attention on the fact that our Constitution guarantees every citizen certain rights at birth. As President Johnson advised, I met with members whenever they were availableon Saturdays, on Sundays, in the evenings, for breakfast.
’Finally, in 1973, a limited home rule bill was passed that President Nixon signed into law. That was a major breakthrough. Even though it was "limited" home rule, it gave us something to build on. In 1974 the citizens of the District went to the polls and gave the District of Columbia it first elected government in over 100 years.
BR: And that was when you became Washington’s first elected mayor?
WW: Yes. I took the oath as the first elected mayor from Justice Thurgood Marshall on January 2, 1975 on the steps of the District Building. It was during my final term that I was an elected, not an appointed, mayor.
BR: Was it difficult to leave office in January 1979? Did you miss being mayor?
WW: No. I was so tired I was glad to get out. However, in my view, I had laid a sound foundation for the future. I had led a government of honesty, decency, good will and concern for the people. I believed that this foundation could be built on. I thought, as Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post observed in 1978, "that a sense of maturity and self confidence now characterizes what was once a dispirited doubting, sullen and somewhat stagnant political center. I truly believed that the best were ahead for the city because of my tireless efforts to ease tensions and set the basis for a new pride in our community.
BR: What did you do after you left?
WW: I joined the New York-based law firm of Burns, Jackson, Miller & Summit and opened the Washington office.
BR: Did you enjoy the practice of law?
WW: Very much. I built up a fairly good practice and enjoyed having the opportunity to be of service to clients. Right now, I’m semi-retired. Although I’m not taking on any new clients, I’m still finishing up some of the estate matters I took on over the years. I still have clients trying to push things on me. The phone is constantly ringing.
BR: After having been such an advocate of home rule, does the creation of the Financial Control Board and the current fiscal crisis disturb you?
WW: Yes, it does. I thought the limited home rule charter provided
a foundation we could build on. To see it fall apart with the courts
appointing receiverships to run government departments and the creation
of the Financial Control Board is distressing.
’I do believe, however, that the Financial Control Board is our only salvation, it’s the only way we can restore home rule to its legitimate place. I take heart from the fact that Congress is trying to preserve home rule. The foundation that was established is still meaningful. The foundation is still there.
BR: Why do you think we’re in the mess we’re in?
WW: I don’t want to point fingers of blame. I love this city
as much as ever. I’ve given my blood, my sweat, and most of my energy
during my adult life to assure the welfare and progress of Washington,
D.C. I want the city to prosper and survive in the interest of all its
citizens in the future.
’When people ask me about our current troubles, I tell them, "Hey, you don’t need to love the mayor to love the city. And if you love the city, do something good for it. If you do something positive, the city will be better for it."