Community

Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum: ‘Prepare to Participate’ — When Dr. King Urged for Community-Led Development in D.C.

Few D.C. residents today are aware — though longtime residents may remember — that in March 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a grand parade through the Shaw neighborhood. This parade took place thirteen months before he was assassinated and four years after he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Organized by Shaw native, longtime pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, and later D.C. Congressman Rev. Walter Fauntroy, it resulted from an initiative that Fauntroy headed — the Model Inner City Community Organization (MICCO). MICCO sought to reimagine the federal policy of urban renewal that was displacing more than 23,000 residents and 1,500 businesses from southwest D.C. in the 1950s and ‘60s. Rather than that kind of undemocratic redevelopment in which residents had no say, Reverend Fauntroy and MICCO pushed for urban renewal “with the people who lived there, by the people who lived there, and for the people who lived there.”

MICCO worked to empower residents and small business owners, pushed for citizen input into the planning process, and organized to bring economic benefits to the neighborhood. When Dr. King came to Shaw and led the parade from Dunbar High School to Cardozo High School in support of this effort, he called it “the most massive and comprehensive assault on human despair and physical decay ever initiated by Negroes in the United States.” In the speech he gave on the athletic field at Cardozo High, King said: “I stood in this city nearly four years ago now and told many of you at the historic March on Washington that I have a dream. Since that hot August day, I have seen that dream almost turn into a nightmare. But I want you to know that, in part, because of you and what you propose to do in Shaw, I still have a dream. … Renewal with the people, by the people and for the people.”

King was clear on the message he wanted to deliver that day to Shaw and District-wide residents: “Prepare to participate, and you will give to your city and our nation a constructive example of how we can deal with one of the most serious problems confronting us today. That’s the message I want you to carry away from this meeting today: prepare to participate!”

Just one year after this speech, King was assassinated. But the work of MICCO continued, assisting longtime residents with much-needed home repairs, helping local nonprofits build quality affordable housing, and enabling the community to participate in the planning and redesign of the then-decrepit Shaw Junior High School. Although this work was relatively short-lived, ending in the mid-1970s under a cloud of financial troubles, it offered one vision for what community-centered and participatory planning could look like.

Today, Shaw is a neighborhood transformed. It is home to one of the fastest-gentrifying zip codes in the country, with skyrocketing home values and a population that has gone from more than 90% African American in the 1970s to now less than 30%. As we mark Dr. King’s birthday this month, let us reflect — and act — on what his vision of community-led development might offer the District as it faces more change in the years to come. And join us at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum to view our “A Right to the City” exhibition which explores how and why neighborhoods have changed across the District, but also how residents have — in the spirit of King’s message — fought for their right to the city, to meaningfully reshape their neighborhoods in ways that best serve their needs and interests.

Meghelli is curator of the exhibition “A Right To the City.”

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