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Rolark, and others, took the first step
(Published March 6, 2006)


February saw the passing of two champions of democracy and human rights: Coretta Scott King and Wilhelmina Jackson Rolark. One was world-famous, and the other not as well-known as she should be.

King, of course, needs no eulogy from me: She took up the mantle of her fallen husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and carried it forward with grace and dignity, becoming the living symbol of the fight for civil and human rights here and around the world.

Rolark’s death came on Valentine’s Day – ironically, the same day the Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C. Coalition, the D.C. Democratic State Committee and the D.C. Black History Celebration Committee hosted a tribute to Dorothy I. Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women. The gala celebrated Height (one of Stand Up!’s founders) as a champion of the values embodied by King and Rolark. As the announcement of Rolark’s passing was made at the event, it became easy to draw links between the lives and works of all three women.

To some, Rolark’s achievements may pale beside those of King and Height, both of whom counseled presidents and whose names and achievements are known far and wide. Even here in D.C., Rolark is known by many mostly as the council member who was defeated for re-election in 1992 by Marion Barry at the start of his political comeback. That’s unfortunate, because Rolark was one of the major forces behind the District’s achieving its first measure of self-governance in 1974.

For most of the quarter-century following World War II, Rep. John L. McMillan of South Carolina was the effective lord and overseer of D.C., calling the shots from his perch as chairman of the House District Committee. McMillan had no interest in ceding an ounce of control over his domain to local activists and their allies around the country who supported local self-government for the District.

In response, Rolark, along with her husband, Washington Informer editor Calvin Rolark, and other luminaries – including the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, who became the District’s first D.C. non-voting delegate to Congress, and Martin Luther King Jr. – launched a voter registration drive in McMillan’s district, expanding the share of African-American voters from 3 percent to 29 percent of the electorate. As a result, McMillan’s hold on power became increasingly shaky, and he was defeated for re-election in 1972. That paved the way for the Home Rule Act that provided for an elected mayor and council for D.C. Even though the local government’s actions still were (and still are) subject to congressional review, at least the District finally had a local government, responsible to the voters, which could pass legislation and carry out the people’s business.

This campaign against a legislator hostile to democracy in the District prefigured a drive a quarter-century later to oust Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina. In 1997 Faircloth pushed legislation through Congress that effectively stripped the D.C. government of its already limited powers. This outrage led to the rise of a re-energized D.C. democracy movement, including the founding of Stand Up! Less than one month after the bill passed, Stand Up! and other local organizations filled 13 buses with D.C. residents who traveled to Faircloth’s North Carolina, where they protested the District’s further disenfranchisement and educated Faircloth’s constituents about his hostility to democracy. Over the next year, the groups that sponsored the caravan continued to work with Faircloth opponents, helping to bring about his defeat for re-election in 1998 by John Edwards.

With her championing of home rule for D.C., Wilhelmina Rolark took the global vision of freedom and democracy espoused by both Kings, Height and others and put it into practice on the local level. She not only showed that the District was capable of governing itself, but also planted the seeds for greater democratic aspirations among D.C. residents. The struggle to achieve the same rights as other U.S. citizens – full, effective local government not subject to congressional oversight, and voting representation in Congress – continues. Home rule was only the first step, and we can be thankful Wilhelmina Rolark and others took it.


Mosley is a member of the Stand Up! For Democracy in DC Coalition. Contact him at

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator