Organizers erect a "51" sign during a rally for DC statehood before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs holds a hearing on the issue on June 22, 2021. Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP

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Inspired by the Freedom Rides 60 years ago, civil rights advocates mobilized in Washington, DC, on Saturday against the backdrop of the US Capitol for the first-ever national rally in support of DC statehood.

Holding signs that said “Protect our freedom to vote” and “DC statehood is racial justice,” civil rights activists linked the push for DC statehood to a broader effort to counter voter suppression, calling on the Senate to protect voting rights and pass the For the People Act, a sweeping democracy protection bill that offers support for DC statehood, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which does not address statehood but would restore provisions of the VRA that were gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.

“The suppression of Black votes is white supremacist violence,” Missouri Democratic Rep. Cori Bush said to the crowd. Despite having more people than Wyoming and Vermont, states that are almost entirely white, the diverse population of Washington, DC, which is nearly half Black, has no voting representation in Congress. That lack of representation skews power in the Senate toward whiter and more rural states, making it easier for Republicans to block bills that would protect the rights of voters of color.

The rally was the culmination of a nine-city bus tour by the civil rights group Black Voters Matter, which retraced the steps of the Freedom Riders in 1961 who were viciously attacked by white mobs when they sought to desegregate interstate bus travel. “Just like the Freedom Riders in 1961, we are at a crisis moment for our democracy,” said Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

In April, the House passed legislation for the second time to make DC the country’s 51st state, but like other voting rights bills, it has stalled in the Senate. (The Senate held its first hearing on DC statehood recently.) Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) says he does not support the bill, but even if every Democrat did, they would still need to abolish the 60-vote requirement to pass it.

Democrats could abolish the filibuster with just 51 votes—another strong argument for why they should want DC to become a state.

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