Tuesday, October 28, 2003
Media Source: 
Washington Post (DC)
Author: 
Milton Coleman and Craig Timberg

Walter E. Washington, who as the first modern mayor of the District of Columbia shepherded the city through riots, political upheaval and the dawning of home rule with dignity and a wry sense of humor, died yesterday morning at Howard University Hospital. He was 88.

The cause of death was kidney failure and cardiopulmonary arrest, but his wife, Mary Washington, said, "I think he was worn out."

Washington's many friends and admirers had been visiting and calling in recent weeks in somber tribute to a man many regarded as the father of elective democracy in the nation's capital. He was appointed mayor-commissioner in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, becoming the first African American chief executive of a major U.S. city, then kept the job in the District of Columbia's first mayoral election. He remained mayor until Jan. 2, 1979, when Marion Barry, who defeated him the previous fall, was inaugurated.

Washington did not fade from view after his loss. Politicians and activists regularly traveled to his house in the LeDroit Park neighborhood in the city's Northwest quadrant for guidance. He became a counselor of other city leaders, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams, and a steadying voice in crises over the decades.

A year ago, when a nominating petition scandal got Williams kicked off the Democratic primary ballot, Washington became a highly visible backer of the mayor, one cherished within the campaign for his ability to defuse tension with a quip.

"Walter was a big deal," Williams said. "He was one of this generation of African American men who not only lived through depressions and world wars, but also were intimately involved in the civil rights movement and in the [voting] rights movement in D.C., all in one man."

Williams recalled being on the receiving end of Washington's famously dry wit. Not long after Williams proposed moving the University of the District of Columbia to Southeast Washington, prompting outcries, Washington attended the opening of a housing development named for him.

In his public remarks, he joked, "Let's go ahead and get everybody moved in quickly, or before you know it, the mayor is going to advocate moving it."

Barry, despite his history of political differences with Washington, called the former mayor "a dear friend, a valued friend."

"He was just a fantastic individual, not afraid to take on challenges and overcome them," Barry said. "He truly loved the people of the city. . . . We're going to miss him."

Although Washington moved with growing difficulty in recent years, he continued to attend political events and had been working on his memoirs, which his wife said he recently completed. "He loved this city and its citizens so much," Mary Washington said yesterday. "Walter Washington was a remarkable man for the city, its citizens and his family."

Among his proudest moments, according to friends and associates, was his refusal to bow to federal demands to shoot looters during the riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. It was his leadership in that era, many said yesterday, that persuaded the federal government to relinquish day-to-day control over the city to its elected representatives.

"It was literally his mayoralty that demonstrated to Congress that the city could do it," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

Washington oversaw the transition while maintaining an easy, approachable manner, allowing him to move easily on Capitol Hill and on the streets of the city. Even so, he endured indignities as the African American mayor of the federal city. It took several years, he told friends, before white members of Congress routinely referred to him by his title instead of his given name.

"He knew progress was being made during one of his Hill visits when someone said . . . 'Good to see you, Mr. Mayor,' " recalled D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7).

It was Washington's perseverance in difficult circumstances that many recalled yesterday. Former D.C. police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. learned of the mayor's steely core during the 1977 takeover of the District Building -- the D.C. city hall -- by a group of Hanafi Muslims. As a reporter lay mortally wounded, Washington refused to leave.

He eventually did, but only after Fulwood pleaded with him for 40 minutes.

" 'I can't leave the building, turn it over to criminal elements. . . . I'm the mayor,' " Fulwood recalled Washington saying. "He always had this sense of calm about him."

Washington's appointment as mayor, on Sept. 6, 1967, was part of a reorganization of the local government ordered by Johnson, which also provided for an appointed D.C. Council. It was a dramatic change for a city that was 70 percent black, deeply divided along racial lines and ruled for 93 years by powerful congressional committees and a triumvirate of commissioners appointed by the White House. The new government was sworn in Nov. 3, 1967.

In 1973, Congress passed a Home Rule Charter, but it retained control over the budget and the power to veto council legislation. The next year, Washington was elected mayor.

Beginning with his appointed tenure, Washington transformed the face of D.C. government, placing blacks in positions previously held only by whites and extending city services to previously neglected neighborhoods. He was determined to convince residents that D.C.'s city hall was on their side and that they had a stake in making his programs a success. A major part of that program was improving police relations in inner-city communities.

A short, stocky man with a grandfatherly air and the ability to win friends in a hostile crowd, Washington believed in the basic fairness of people and the efficacy of face-to-face discussion to solve problems.

"We have to pull in the pieces," he used to say. "The problems of this city, or any other city, cannot be solved by a fragmented community. . . . When people get to know each other, they lose a fear."

In 1977, he summed up 10 years in office in these words:

"Mine has been a concern for the people, a concern to maintain stability, a concern to get people working together racially, ethnically, rich and poor -- all segments of the city."

Washington's most difficult test occurred just six months after he took office. On April 4, 1968, King was killed by a sniper's bullet as he stood on his balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Within hours, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities in 25 states.

In the District, a crowd gathered at 14th and U streets NW shortly before 9 p.m. Activist Stokely Carmichael led it down 14th Street and ordered business owners to close until after King's funeral. At 9:25 p.m., windows were smashed in a drugstore, and full-scale rioting and looting began. Over the next several days, various parts of the inner city -- principally the 14th Street and Seventh Street corridors in Northwest and the H Street corridor in Northeast -- were devastated. There were 900 fires, 1,097 injuries, at least 10 deaths and 6,124 arrests in the city.

During the rioting, the mayor seemed to be everywhere, consulting with the White House and reassuring residents. Believing that lives were more important than property, he resisted demands by some members of Congress that looters be shot.

On April 5, he authorized the deployment of 13,000 federal and National Guard troops. He also ordered a curfew that was not entirely lifted until April 12. It was not until April 16 that the last troops were withdrawn.

"The city has returned to normal," the mayor declared.

Washington's performance in the crisis enhanced his credentials as a leader and silenced skeptics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere who had questioned the ability of an African American to lead the city.

His political standing was such that on Jan. 21, 1969, the day after Richard M. Nixon was inaugurated president, Nixon toured the riot areas with the mayor, expressed confidence in his administration and pledged federal support for his programs.

In mid-May, a new crisis arose with the arrival of the mule-drawn wagons of the Poor People's Campaign. The last demonstration planned by King, it was designed to call attention to the economic plight of blacks in rural areas of the South. The marchers set up Resurrection City on the Mall. It was no more than a collection of shacks, but for six weeks, about 4,000 people lived in them. Their lot was made more miserable by unusually heavy rain, which turned the area into a quagmire.

There was little violence, however, and city and business leaders joined to make sure that the protesters had food and other essentials during their stay.

Meanwhile, the protest movement against the war in Vietnam had become a major force in the nation. Among its most dramatic episodes was the march on the Pentagon by 200,000 people on Oct. 21, 1967; 681 people were arrested. Other protests included a candlelight march on the White House in 1969 and a rally of 250,000 turned on the Washington Monument grounds that same year. The U.S. incursion into Cambodia in 1970 sparked a protest by 100,000 on the Ellipse. From the standpoint of public order, the most serious demonstration began May 2, 1971, when an estimated 120,000 set out to shut down the city and the federal government. About 12,000 were arrested, and the city remained open.

Promoting Black Officers

When Washington took office in 1967, four of five officers in the D.C. police department were white, and no black ranked higher than lieutenant. A presidential study commission said police-community relations were characterized by "tension, anger and fear."

To address the situation, Washington appointed Patrick V. Murphy to the new position of director of public safety. Murphy began by promoting blacks to high positions and recruiting blacks for the force.

In 1969, on Murphy's recommendation, the mayor appointed Jerry V. Wilson chief of police. With the mayor's backing, Wilson initiated progressive changes in personnel, administration and training that made the department more responsive to the needs of the black community. As a white North Carolinian who had made his career in the D.C. police department, the new chief was able to do this while retaining the confidence of Rep. John L. McMillan (D-S.C.), the powerful and conservative chairman of the House Committee on the District of Columbia.

In 1977, Washington selected Burtell M. Jefferson as the first black D.C. chief of police.

Throughout his administration, Washington had good relations with the city's real estate developers and other business interests. A boom in office construction along the K Street NW corridor in the West End was a boon to the city's tax base. But the mayor was blamed for the displacement of thousands of residents, principally in inner-city neighborhoods, because of urban renewal and public works projects.

At the same time, the city was experiencing an exodus of jobs, businesses and middle-class blacks to the suburbs, and the mayor was unable to slow it down, much less reverse it.

The city's public school system presented another problem, although the mayor had limited power there. The elected school board fought with a series of superintendents while enrollment and student test scores declined.

Washington also had difficulty gaining control over the city's fragmented and entrenched bureaucracy. There were 66 separate departments, agencies or administrative entities when he took office. The city's finances were a mess. Another problem that angered residents was the city's seeming inability to send out timely and accurate water bills.

In his early years as mayor, Washington was forced to pay close attention to the wishes of McMillan and other powers on Capitol Hill. He had good relations with them despite numerous slights. One congressman said Washington was no more than a ribbon cutter. Another warned that he could face a jail term if the city government continued to overspend. A third lambasted his government as an inefficient bureaucracy of thieves and political hacks.

"He was insulted a lot of times and didn't stand up for the city or himself," Sam Smith, publisher of an alternative newspaper, said a few years after Washington left office. "But he wasn't a coward. He just kept playing along and made some of the troglodytes in Congress feel a little more secure than they otherwise would."

Although he prevailed, the effort cost him credibility in a city in which politics were increasingly dominated by militant activists. In 1968, Julius W. Hobson, then the city's premier activist, said of Washington that in the black community, "he's not listened to. The middle-class black people are proud of him, though."

In 1974, when the District held its first mayoral election under the Home Rule Charter, Washington handily defeated lawyer Clifford L. Alexander, a former head of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in the Democratic primary and easily won the general election. Historically, there had been mayors of parts of the District, and Alexander Shepherd had been governor of the District for a short time, but the 1974 election marked the first for mayor of the District of Columbia.

By the mid-1970s, long-simmering problems that had plagued the bureaucracy for years began to surface. In 1975, auditors reported that it was impossible to audit the city's finances. Several of the largest social service and health care agencies were under court order to do their jobs or were facing loss of accreditation. The city's housing programs were crippled by mismanagement, and many fee and license offices were backlogged with unprocessed permit requests.

Some of the most heated controversy centered on the director of the Department of Human Resources, former D.C. Council member Joseph P. Yeldell. In 1978, he and developer Dominic F. Antonelli Jr. were indicted on charges related to leasing and contracting irregularities. They ultimately were acquitted, but the affair was the low point of Washington's career.

As the 1978 election approached, the mayor delayed announcing whether he would seek another term. When he finally did so, he told cheering supporters that the city needed an experienced mayor -- "That's me" -- instead of a new "miracle mayor" claiming power to "whisk away every problem, to bring instant solutions."

It was a great day for the faithful, but it was too late. Washington had never used his power to develop a political machine that was loyal to him. When the ballots were counted, D.C. Democrats turned him out in favor of Barry, who had campaigned against the "bumbling and bungling" of the Washington administration and promised a younger "can-do" generation of leadership.

Walter Edward Washington was born April 15, 1915, in Dawson, Ga., a cotton and peanut farming town and the seat of Terrell County in the southwest part of the state. His mother, the former Willie Mae Thornton, had gone there to be with her parents when she was pregnant. When he was 2 months old, she took him home to Jamestown, N.Y.

His mother died when he was 6. His father, William L. Washington, who never remarried, worked as a laborer in a ball-bearing factory and as a bellhop, hotel valet and cook. In the tradition of the extended family in the black community, the future mayor was raised in a succession of other families.

Educated in public schools, he ran track -- the half-mile and the quarter-mile -- and managed the football team at Jamestown High School. One of two blacks in his 400-member senior class, he was an average student.

In 1934, Washington moved to the nation's capital and enrolled in Howard University. He majored in public administration and sociology and graduated in 1938. For the next four years, he took night classes at American University to study public administration. He received his law degree from Howard in 1948.

In September 1941, he began his career in government as a $2,000-a-year, GS-5 junior housing assistant, an entry-level white-collar job, with the Alley Dwelling Authority. The agency had been established in 1934 to find homes for the thousands of city residents living in run-down alley slums. In 1943, it became the National Capital Housing Authority. Washington worked his way up through the ranks, and in 1961 he succeeded Francis X. Servaites as director.

He pushed to get more people into public housing by raising the income eligibility ceilings, pioneered efforts to rent buildings from private landlords and then re-rent them to low-income tenants, and pressed for federal rent supplements.

He also heightened the housing authority's emphasis on social programs by creating an office of community and social services, appointing aides to work with problem families and opening up space for social activities on public housing property.

Taking a Stand

Washington was mentioned as a possible successor to Walter N. Tobriner as president of the three-member board of commissioners. A stumbling block was the fact that it was unthinkable at that time to place a black man over the police department. In 1966, when President Johnson sounded him out about the job with the understanding that another commissioner would supervise the police department, Washington turned him down.

He soon accepted a chance to head what he called the "Supreme Court of housing," signing on as director of public housing for the newly elected mayor of New York, John V. Lindsay.

Within a year, however, the president issued orders reorganizing the District of Columbia government. Washington was his first choice to head the new government. "My blood is out in the streets of this city, sweat and work -- hard work -- in an effort to serve all people," he told members of the Senate District Committee during confirmation hearings. "This is the only way I know."

When he left the mayor's office in 1979, Washington became a partner in the Washington office of Burns, Jackson, Miller, Summit & Jacoby, a New York-based law firm, and settled down to a life of shorter hours and much honor.

His first wife, the former Bennetta Bullock, whom he married in 1941, was one of eight children of the Rev. George O. Bullock, pastor of the Third Baptist Church and the patriarch of a prominent family of high achievers. She died in 1991.

In addition to his wife, Mary, Washington's survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Dr. Bennetta Jules-Rosette, an anthropologist and author, of Leucadia, Calif.; two stepchildren, Tracy Nicholas Bledsoe of West Barnstable, Mass., and Scott Nicholas of Wilton, Conn.; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Washington's body will lie in state at the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, on Friday. His funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Washington National Cathedral.

In an interview after he left the mayor's office, Washington expressed this wish:

"What I would like to be remembered for is that Walter Washington changed the spirit of the people of this city, that he came in as mayor when there was hate and greed and misunderstanding among our people and the races were polarized. And in the span of just a little over a decade, he brought people together through love and compassion, he helped bring about home rule . . . and helped people have more meaningful, satisfying and enjoyable lives."

Staff writer Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.

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