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Eleanor Holmes Norton: Living the Dream of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

From left, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., Harry E. Johnson, President/CEO of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation, and District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray, tour the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011, after a news conference. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
National Journal
Mike Magner
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Mike Magner
Aug. 25, 2013, 8:30 a.m.

Since work­ing for the March on Wash­ing­ton 50 years ago, Del­eg­ate Elean­or Holmes Norton, D-D.C., has come a very long way — and not quite far enough. In many ways her ca­reer mir­rors the story of civil rights and race re­la­tions in Amer­ica.

Norton, 76, has gone from be­ing a law stu­dent and vo­lun­teer for the Stu­dent Non­vi­ol­ent Co­ordin­at­ing Com­mit­tee, to be­come a law clerk in fed­er­al court, a prac­ti­cing law­yer for the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on, a law pro­fess­or at New York Uni­versity, the head of the New York City Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion, chair­wo­man of the Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tun­ity Com­mis­sion, Urb­an In­sti­tute fel­low and Geor­getown Uni­versity Law Cen­ter pro­fess­or, to rep­res­ent­ing the Dis­trict of Columbia in Con­gress.

But, alas, as an elec­ted mem­ber of Con­gress since 1991, Norton has nev­er been able to vote on any le­gis­la­tion. Like the oth­er five del­eg­ates from U.S. ter­rit­or­ies such as Pu­erto Rico and Amer­ic­an Sam­oa, she is al­lowed to par­ti­cip­ate in de­bates and work on com­mit­tees, but has no vot­ing rights on the House floor.

Black Amer­ica over the past five dec­ades has gone from strug­gling for equal rights to fight­ing to main­tain those rights now guar­an­teed un­der laws en­acted in the years fol­low­ing the his­tor­ic 1963 march, most not­ably the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Work­places and schools have been in­teg­rated, and the first black pres­id­ent is in the White House, but the na­tion is far from liv­ing in ra­cial har­mony. Un­em­ploy­ment among Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans is twice as high as it is among whites, gun vi­ol­ence is dis­pro­por­tion­ately killing Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, and vot­ing rights are sub­ject to leg­al and polit­ic­al chal­lenges across the land.

“Just as the first March on Wash­ing­ton, 50 years ago, was the dir­ect cause of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the first en­force­able civil-rights le­gis­la­tion since the Civil War, this month’s march must in­sist on tan­gible pro­gress equal to today’s im­port­ant un­fin­ished work for equal­ity and justice,” Norton said in a state­ment on the eve of Wed­nes­day’s an­niversary events.

In an in­ter­view last week, Norton re­flec­ted on life as a young wo­man in Wash­ing­ton in the years lead­ing up to the Aug. 28, 1963, march that drew more than 250,000 people to the Na­tion­al Mall.

“I was raised in se­greg­ated D.C., an auto­crat­ic­ally ruled city with no elec­ted of­fi­cials, and noth­ing was hap­pen­ing,” she said. “My gen­er­a­tion was really ready for the civil-rights move­ment. As a teen­ager, there wasn’t any move­ment.”

Act­iv­ism didn’t really be­gin un­til Decem­ber 1955, Norton said, “when Rosa Parks sat down and re­fused to get up” after board­ing a bus in Mont­gomery, Ala., and sit­ting in a sec­tion re­served for whites. Parks, a seam­stress at a de­part­ment store, was ar­res­ted, and with­in days blacks began boy­cot­ting the city’s trans­it sys­tem.

A third-gen­er­a­tion Wash­ing­to­ni­an, Norton gradu­ated from An­ti­och Col­lege in 1960 and went on to Yale Law School with the goal of be­com­ing a civil-rights law­yer. In the sum­mer of 1963, she went to Mis­sis­sippi with oth­er young work­ers for SNCC to help or­gan­ize voter-re­gis­tra­tion drives.

On June 11, 1963, the state field dir­ect­or for the NAACP, Medgar Evers, took Norton on a tour of Jack­son, Miss., try­ing to per­suade her to stay and work there as a civil-rights law­yer. Late that even­ing, Evers took Norton to the bus sta­tion to catch the last ride out of town. When he re­turned to his home not long after mid­night, Evers was shot in the back. He died an hour later.

Norton re­turned to Wash­ing­ton and went to work for the march sched­uled for late Au­gust. “One of my main jobs was help­ing people find trans­port­a­tion, so I knew how many were com­ing,” she said. “The av­er­age per­son couldn’t think about go­ing to the South [to work for the civil-rights move­ment], but they could come for a day to Wash­ing­ton, D.C.”

The day of the march was un­for­get­table, capped by the Rev. Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech that be­came the ral­ly­ing cry for the move­ment. “When I heard the speech, I felt picked off the ground,” Norton said. “It was so co­lossal — the ul­ti­mate vis­ion­ary speech.”

King’s ad­dress lit­er­ally put the civil-rights move­ment in­to full mo­tion, Norton said. “There’s no ques­tion you can point to be­fore and after and count pro­gress,” she said. “That sem­in­al ef­fect, like the 1964 law, was very rare for marches.”

A vot­ing-rights law was the first pri­or­ity, and after that was ac­com­plished, the move­ment began fo­cus­ing on eco­nom­ic is­sues such as labor stand­ards for more oc­cu­pa­tions, in­clud­ing do­mest­ic work­ers, and a fair em­ploy­ment law, she said. “The de­mands went to the most ba­sic hu­man rights — the right to pub­lic ac­com­mod­a­tions, the right to get a job, and vot­ing,” she said.

As one vis­ible sign of the pro­gress, 14 years after the march, Pres­id­ent Carter ap­poin­ted Norton to head the EEOC; she served as chair­wo­man from June 6, 1977, to Feb. 21, 1981.

A dec­ade later, she began her ca­reer in Con­gress, and for 22 years Norton has kept the is­sue of D.C.’s dis­en­fran­chise­ment in the spot­light. But her goal of giv­ing the city’s 630,000 res­id­ents full vot­ing rep­res­ent­a­tion in Con­gress, like Mar­tin Luth­er King’s vis­ion for full equal­ity, re­mains a dream.

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