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.