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Authentic leadership, sincere convictions, supreme dignity, a unifying presence, and a soul that embraced with ease humanity’s oneness, regardless of overt differences. Those were the characteristics that defined the life and career of Walter Edward Washington, the first elected mayor of the District of Columbia. Washington died at Howard University Hospital on Oct. 27, after 88 triumphant years. When Washington took over as mayor of the District in 1967, he became the first African-American to head a major urban center in the United States. The city was crumbling under the weight of poor police-community relations, racial inequities and ascending tensions, urban blight, high unemployment, inadequate public health facilities and housing, and a challenged education system. By the estimate of President Lyndon Johnson, who appointed him to office, Washington should have lasted only a year. He served for 12, including one elected term. A CALM AND GIFTED LEADER Beyond his role in moving thousands of people from city slums into public housing, Washington was a transitional figure, standing between the white southern congressional representatives who controlled the District government and the majority black residents who were increasing agitation for self-rule. Through it all, Washington remained a calm and gifted leader, managing to a great degree to unify opposing forces, and always pointing to the welfare of the city as the overriding and common goal for all. He was unafraid to challenge his superiors on issues for which he chose a nobler path, rather than the political expedient. Born in Georgia and raised in Jamestown, N.Y., where he was one of two blacks in his graduating class of 400, Washington was an enchanting blend of his Southern heritage and cosmopolitan upbringing, a combination that undoubtedly contributed to the easy grace with which he negotiated diverse territories. A skilled advocate and negotiator, Washington earned his undergraduate and law degrees at Howard University in, respectively, 1938 and 1948. At the law school, he studied under or worked with such luminaries as Thurgood Marshall, James Nabrit, George Hayes, George Johnson, William Hastie, and Spotswood Robinson, all central figures in the critical desegregation cases that became Brown v. Board of Education. Washington had the distinction of preparing the footnotes for the briefs produced by the NAACP Legal Education and Defense Fund for the cases. Though he described his foray into law as “a calling,” it was within the realms of public administration that he most frequently employed his training. Consequently, his most enduring image is that of an effective public administrator, deeply committed to urban renewal, the provision of decent housing for the poor, and self-rule for the District of Columbia. By the time of his appointment to the post of mayor-commissioner in the late ’60s, Washington’s reputation as an extraordinary leader, dedicated to the welfare of the city and its 810,000 residents, had long been established. His work with the Alley Dwelling Authority, a slum-clearing program, had caught the attention of President John Kennedy. In 1961, Kennedy appointed him executive director of the National Housing Authority, an expanded version of the Alley Dwelling Authority. His service in housing administration and his involvement in the campaign for home rule for the District ultimately catapulted him into local politics, climaxing with his appointment to the mayorship. At his swearing-in ceremony in 1967, President Johnson called Washington an authentic leader who had devoted a lifetime to effective and inspired work in the nation’s capital. “He has lived and worked on the streets of his home city. And he has said that he is going to travel those streets again, in pursuit of the progress that the people want and the people need and the people desire and expect,” Johnson said. DEALING WITH THE PRESIDENT By then, Johnson was well-placed to comment on the authenticity of Washington’s leadership. The year before, the president had invited Washington to the White House and asked him to preside over the Board of Commissioners, then the governing body of the District of Columbia. Washington rejected the offer because the position did not include authority over the police and the fire departments. “Mr. President,” Washington said, “that would not 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 department.” An angry President Johnson terminated the conversation and Washington serenely put the issue behind him, satisfied that he had made the right decision. A year later, President Johnson summoned him from his job as chairman of the New York City Housing Authority. A plea from presidential aide Louis Martin that he should say yes to whatever the president asked elicited a chuckle from Washington, a man well-known for his wry sense of humor. “If the president asks me to do something that I can’t do in good conscience, then I’ll have to say no,” he told Martin. This time, however, Washington accepted the president’s offer to return to the District as mayor, because his office would have control over the police and fire departments. Such was the character of the man who eventually became mayor of the nation’s capital in a period wedged between the Watts riot of 1965 and the Newark and Detroit riots of 1967. All over the United States, African-Americans were clamoring for civil rights in a struggle that was playing out on numerous city streets, including those in Washington. The struggle for civil rights often intersected with opposition to the Vietnam War, and, together, these movements converged on the streets of the nation’s capital, constantly challenging the wit and wisdom of the mayor. On April 4, 1968, Mayor Washington looked out the window of his D.C. office and saw his city burning. An opportune phone call told him why: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., America’s most revered civil rights leader, was dead — felled by an assassin’s bullet. King’s assassination touched off rioting in 110 cities across the nation, including Washington. Three days of devastation, rioting, and looting threatened the city’s fragile political, economic, and social structures. Racial tensions threatened to degenerate into an all-out bloodbath and fear burned brighter than the roaring fires across the city. A lesser man than Washington would have been daunted by it all, tempted to give way to intemperance as many often do in the face of crisis. But in a gesture that would forever define the quality of his leadership, this grandson of slaves defied the House District Committee and resisted calls from Congress to shoot the demonstrators, crush the insurgency, and restore “order” to the city. Instead, Washington issued an order to the police and the National Guard not to shoot a single looter or rioter. “If the police had started shooting, it would have made a bad situation worse,” Washington said in 1996. “I know people are looting,” he continued, “but we can always replace a case of whiskey or a suit of clothes. We can’t replace a human life.” Perceptively, he observed, “there was no way we could rebuild the city on a river of blood.” No one was killed by the police, and Washington’s courageous decision was credited with defusing the tension and averting a major catastrophe. ‘NOT AFRAID TO TAKE ON CHALLENGES’ Close to four decades after his initial appointment as mayor and three decades after his 1979 defeat by Marion Barry Jr., even his political opponent acknowledged the special qualities that Washington brought to public life. “He was just a fantastic individual, not afraid to take on challenges and overcome them,” Barry said in tribute to the man he called “a great friend.” Washington did not live to see the fulfillment of many of his dreams for the District. Social services remain less than adequate, and the fight for full statehood, rather than limited autonomy, is ongoing. But his herculean contribution to the District of Columbia paved the way for much of its current successes and future growth. His memory, hopefully, will inspire a new era of civic-mindedness and rekindle anew his legendary passion for the welfare of his beloved city and the nation’s capital. H. Patrick Swygert is the president of Howard University.

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