Reflections from 1984: Interview with Josphine Butler

Metro-DC DSA’s busy season of campaigning for local candidates in 2020 is just the latest chapter in a long history of electoral activism that goes back to the earliest years of the organization. Local DSA members turned out in force to support Josephine Butler, the Statehood Party candidate for At-Large Council in 1984, who took a break during her campaign for an interview with DSA’s Stu Comstock-Gay. Butler, who passed away in 1997, was a major figure in D.C. politics and activism for six decades. Although she lost her race for the Council, her spirited campaign united much of the D.C. left behind her, and her legacy of activism and community service inspired countless D.C. residents over the years. Because of her tireless work in helping to revive Meridian Hill / Malcolm X Park as an oasis for the Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights neighborhoods, the Josephine Butler Parks Center was named in her honor.

– Bill Mosley

Interview with Josephine Butler

by Stu Gay

Josephine (Jo) Butler is the D.C. Statehood Party candidate for a D.C. Council At-Large seat this fall. Butler has lived and worked in the District for the past 50 years. In that time she has been a union activist, co-founder of the Statehood Party (along with the late Julius Hobson and others), neighborhood organizer, and dedicated worker on many and varied causes.

Butler chairs the Statehood Party, People vs. High Utility Bills, and the D.C. Statehood Commission. In 1967, Butler was elected vice-chair of the Morgan Community School Board, the first governing body in the District in over 100 years. Butler is a recently retired health educator with the D.C. Lung Association and is currently the Office Administrator for Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1-C in Adams Morgan.

Her battle for the At-Large seat on D.C. Council is a tough one. In addition to stiff opposition from Rev. Jerry Moore (Republican) who is supported by many of the Democratic powers in the city, Butler also faces Carol Schwartz (Republican), Brian Moore (Independent) and Maurice Jackson (Communist).

Among her endorsers are the American Federation of Government Employees, Council 211; Americans for Democratic Action; Food and Allied Service Trades Council of Metropolitan Washington; Langston Hughes-Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club; Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO; Ward 5 Democrats; and DC/MD Democratic Socialists of America.

The following interview was conducted in mid-October by Socialist staffer Stu Gay. Butler arrived a half-hour late, because she was “fighting with the Social Security people not to cut off my payments. They say I owe them six hundred dollars because of a check I got when I retired in 1980. Now how do they expect me to pay my rent?”

Tell me something about your background. How did you become an activist?

I came to Washington as a bride in 1934 – I’ve been here 50 years already. And my husband was a trade unionist and so he got me concerned about working people and the working conditions. My husband was a hod carrier because that’s where the Black males usually came in. They’d put this little thing, made like a trough, on their shoulders, and they’d carry brick and cement blocks up the buildings – they went up the scaffolding with these carrying boxes. The men spent their days filling their little troughs up and carrying them up the building.

So we were organizing the hod carriers because those guys at that time often sat on the corner with their little troughs waiting for somebody to come by and say, “We got a job over here for you guys.” But those guys – their fear was similar to those of people standing on the corner today. Sometimes you went out and did a day’s work and sometimes at the end of the day the guy cursed you out and kicked your butt and sent you on your way. So it was important that they got organized.

This waiting on the corner for work is also very common in Third World countries.

And that’s why part of my campaign is really concentrated on making the neighborhoods more self-sufficient. So that people are not totally dependent on somebody giving ’em jobs. For example, my buttons are made by a fourteen-year-old girl. This is a talented little lady. And it’s very good that we give her this work. Because she wants it – she is capable. Now she doesn’t turn out a thousand buttons in an hour, but she makes buttons.

Sometimes we get so involved in the cost of things, we forget the value of things. There’s value in this button. It is helping a young person to get started – to show them that creative abilities are counted and worth something and the dollar staying in D.C. a bit longer. If I had sent this dollar to Philadelphia that dollar would’ve been gone out of D.C. But now I sent this dollar to this little girl, who will probably send it to somebody else so the dollar moves around a little bit longer right here in the communities.

How can we build these kinds of skills throughout entire neighborhoods and communities?

Well you know I live in Adams Morgan and I’m inspired by what I see there. We have many small businesses, mostly restaurants. But restaurants need services so that other businesses are created to bring services to the restaurants. And so we have about five hundred small businesses and these five hundred small businesses employ over six thousand people. And it makes Adams Morgan self-sufficient in many ways. I think all neighborhoods can look around them and think “what is the need?” Everybody doesn’t need restaurants to that extent. But there’re other things they can begin to create.

I hear people talk about these enterprise zones, but they’re like shopping malls and we see shopping malls bloom out today and fail tomorrow. But I’m talking about making a neighborhood self-sufficient to that people – they’re protecting each other. The community’s protecting its businesses and the businesses are protecting the communities.

And then there’s one other piece of behavior we have to change. We have a habit of not supporting neighborhood businesses. And we have to start doing that and realize the importance of them and support them. You can’t have a dress shop in your neighborhood and then every time you get ready to buy something you go downtown to someplace else. You know you have to support your neighborhoods. Even if it costs a little more, because then we get into again what is cost and what is value.

So you would see every neighborhood developing its own specialty and …

Yeah. Just look around you at what you can do and how you can do it.  

We have a group in Adams Morgan called Round-the-Corner-To-the-World , who are interested in environmental projects. Well, they go to Rock Creek Park and get the horse manure and the bedding and make potting soil – garden food. And they sell this in five-pound bags. And they have a sufficient inventory now to go to garden shops and market what they have. It’s called “D.C. Doo.”

We want to see products called “D.C. – whatever” all over the world. There are things we can make in our own neighborhoods using the resources that are there. I’m really outraged that the City Council didn’t see it in its own interests and the interest of their city to pass the bottle bill – so that children and unemployed people again can make some money gathering the bottles and cleaning our streets and alleys of this nuisance.

One of the good things that happened in Adams Morgan between the youth and the fact that we have so many restaurants – and our effort to get a handle on the crime situation – was that earlier in the summer a group put together a workshop on training for restaurant and hotel management. What they did was go into the streets and get these guys that hung out on the basketball courts and just hung out on the street corners all day, and began to educate them on how the skills that they had learned on the street could enhance their training for restaurant work and hotel management.

So see this is the thing. It’s recycling, I guess – looking around you for problems and finding the skills that’re already there and to inspire people to say, gee whiz, you know, we can do this. And just begin to work together.

We have got to learn how to market what is produced by the urban lifestyle. If it’s manure, it’s manure.

In your platform you talk about the need for more job training programs. Could you describe your proposals?

We need to put together a program that will bridge the gap between the schools, the labor unions, and the businesses. Right now I work with the Community Services Arm of the Greater Washington Central Labor Council on these very things. It’s quite a thing because the labor unions will balk about small businesses that are most unionized. And small businesses back off when they think, if you bring the unions in, you’re gonna unionize ’em. But you’ve gotta get these people talkin’ together.

Are you having any success?

Yeah. You know, it’s no big success. But you make a step up every now and then. At one time many of the different unions would put training programs in the schools. Before there was integration, the Printers’ Union would help train young people to become printers. But after the schools were integrated, they left. Because the unions were closed – the Printers’ Union was closed to Black people – the industry was closed to Black people.

And so we’ve gotta now move back to that and hook it up again and make it work.

You’ve also mentioned the need for more daycare centers. How do you see this developing?

You know, there was an article in Sunday’s paper about a pharmaceutical factory in New Jersey where they had discovered that daycare was the best thing that they had done to increase the productivity in their plant since they had been a plant. Now, they didn’t mention restrooms and cafeterias, but I see no difference.

Daycare is just as important to people who are raising the children, who will be the future of our country, as your physical needs. How can people work when they are not sure of the security of their children? Or when they’ve gotta think about, my god, I’ve got to leave here and drive umpteen hundred miles to pick up a child and bring it back home and then get dinner. Or get up in the morning and can’t concentrate on going to work because my first thing is to take this child someplace, and then get back to work. And so, I was happy to see that article, where it was proof that daycare is a need for the present.

It's almost mind-boggling to think that we haven’t always recognized these connections.

Yeah, right. And it’s time that we did. Because people recognize that it’s easier to have a cafeteria in the plant than for people to have to go out and find someplace to eat. And it’s easier to have a restroom there than for them to have to go down to the public toilet and stand in line. And daycare is right up there with them.

Why do you choose to work with the Statehood Party?

Well, I’ve been in other parties. My father and mother were Republicans, and I grew up – until Roosevelt – as a Republican. Then I came to D.C. and was a Democrat. But after the Convention in Chicago in ’68, I realized that the Democrats really didn’t offer me everything that I needed in politics.

So a few of us got together and the situation in Washington was livening up, with people crying out for more and more political involvement and control, and the Congress throwing little crumbs. We just said enough of this, we are gonna sit right down right now and start fighting for just what other people have. And that’s statehood for D.C. So, we formed the Statehood Party. And I’m very, very happy, ’cause we have a platform that I totally agree with and was involved in creating. To this day, I don’t know what the platform – I mean the ongoing platform – of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party is, I don’t know what their basic idea of moving people is.

So you think Statehood is here to stay?

Oh, yes. You know, “statehood” is only one plank in our platform. We have a hundred and eleven planks – all the way down to a plank to end U.S. imperialism. So, do you think we’ll be around for a while?

Is Statehood growing?

Well, people come in and out of the party. We keep a membership of a little under a thousand. But size doesn’t bother us that much because we get things done. And we know that a lot of people would rather be involved in the politics at the national level and make those connections between local and national. And they still support us.

So, they come in and they go and they come back. That doesn’t bother me. I think that we are sort of the beacon to move things forward. We moved statehood – we moved a lot of things forward.

Why do you think that so many of the Democratic Party powers are lining up not behind you but behind Republican Jerry Moore?

Well, we asked the Chairman of the Council about this. And he said to us that the reason he was pushing Reverend Moore’s write-in and the reason that he was campaigning for Reverend Moore, even during the Republican primary, was that he wanted a Council that got along. He wanted a Council that was agreeable and didn’t make a lot of trouble, and could get along well. And that he didn’t trust people who might come on and break this little club up.

And I think you’ll notice that it is he and the leadership of the Democratic Party who are pushing the Moore write-in. Now, I don’t think that the people elected a closed club. I think they elected legislators who would make laws and who would oversee the job that the administration is doing. And none of this is getting done. Because this little closed club is sitting there being a little closed club. And so I think that it is a general fear of people like myself, like Maurice Jackson, like Brian Moore, like Carol Schwartz. They’re trying to push a person who will not be voting for their own nominee for president.

The thing is that they are so afraid of breakin’ up their little club that they have turned their back on their own Democratic body structure. They’ve tried to turn their back on the Republican party structure. And so, naturally, a little party like mine, which has done so many things, and is moving right along, in spite of everything else, is frightening to them.

What do you see as your most important role in Council if you are elected?

Well, first, of course, getting to know the Council, and equally important is giving Hilda Mason and the progressives who are outside of the club support – increasing their numbers. And two, to go about my work with community forums. I intend to use the City Council to bring the ANCs together, ’cause some of the ANCs are doing tremendous things, and others just don’t know what to do. I want to bring them together – begin to help them develop the strength that they should have by this time. Bring together the civic associations and see how they can work with the ANCs and other community organizations. And begin to use the City Council chambers as a forum for all kinds of groups to come and sit and talk – about how we can work together, why it is important for the gay community and the straight community to get together and begin to see what they have in common, and why it’s important for each to support the other. And all of these kinds of things. Just get people to talkin’ together.

I know I’m not gonna have a committee or anything, you know. That’s not gonna bother me. But I’ll be there to give Hilda all the support that she needs. And to help others outside of the club – not to form another club – just to give support. But my main focus will be to begin my forums and begin community access to them.

Do you have any predictions on the outcome of the election?

Not yet, other than I’m gonna win.

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