The Washington Post’s Shadow Government

Photograph Source: Michael Fleischhacker – Public Domain

Good editing is rarely pain-free. To make a story flow – at least one of mine – copy must be jettisoned. And so it was with my recent story for FAIR, which examines the Washington Post’s racialized electioneering against DC Mayor Vince Gray in 2014.

In my early drafts I had a section on a forgotten part of the Post’s history, but I couldn’t find a way to tell that story without distracting from the larger one, so I cut it. But that excised story warrants telling.

‘White Man’s Business Organization’

My stomach tightens thinking back to Vince Gray’s press conferences, where Post reporters’ disdain for the mayor was palpable.

I couldn’t figure out why the Posties despised Gray. It wasn’t his politics, which were too middle-of-the-road for my taste, but in line with theirs: Gray wasn’t out to tax the rich, was pro-business, and continued pushing the Post’s cherished charter schools. So why the hostility?

Years later I got at least a partial answer when I stumbled across a forgotten history, one that reveals the deep roots of the Post’s dislike for Black Washingtonians and their preferred politicians.

In the 1950s, DC residents didn’t elect their own mayor or city council. (Congress only granted this right in 1973, and DC still doesn’t have full congressional representation or statehood.)

In the face of this glaring injustice, Post publisher Phil Graham hatched a plan: to fill this democratic void with his very own shadow government.

In 1954 – just as DC was on the verge of becoming the first major US city with a majority Black population – Graham brought business owners together to form the Federal City Council. “This was basically a white man’s business organization in a city that was very divided,” the group’s later-chair said at the group’s 50th anniversary.

Graham’s shadow government quickly got to work on its maiden project: reigniting a stalled federal plan to wipe out the mostly Black residents of Southwest DC, just blocks from the shining Capitol.

This effort – one of the earliest examples of so-called “urban renewal” – proved successful, as Southwest was “obliterated” and its 23,000 residents “dumped unceremoniously across the Anacostia river,” the Economist reported. When former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt toured the area in 1959 she asked, “What has happened to the people who once lived here?”

For many years Graham’s group maintained its power over majority-Black DC by quietly working behind the scenes with a mostly white (and not infrequently racist) Congress.

At the same time, Graham’s group opposed DC residents’ push for democratic governance. The group “had a vested interest in maintaining the political and governmental status quo in the District,” wrote Michael Fauntroy in Home Rule or House Rule?

Even after DC’s first modern election for mayor and council in 1974, the Federal City Council still “sometimes carried more clout on Capitol Hill than the District’s political leadership,” the Post reported.

The group used its clout to advance big-ticket items – stadiums, arenas, convention centers – that required vast sums of public dollars, but often lacked public support. (The group also advocated for creating the DC Metro system.) Along the way, some Federal City Council members – including major developers – benefitted financially from the projects they pushed. “It’s self-serving, of course,” a group member told the Post.

Meanwhile, the Post cheered the group at every turn. “The Post has provided consistent editorial support for the FCC’s projects, particularly its earlier ones,” the paper acknowledged in a parenthetical in 1994.

The synergy between Graham’s paper and his group was furthered by their overlapping composition. “[M]any Post executives had been or were members,” Katharine Graham, who succeeded her husband Phil as Post publisher, wrote in her 1997 memoir.

Fast-forward to today and the Federal City Council still exists, but it’s no longer the all-powerful white man’s group it once was. And the Grahams no longer own the Post (the family sold the paper to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2013 for $250 million).

Still, this unexamined history offers a glimpse at the deep roots of the Post’s dislike for Black Washingtonians and the politicians they elect. While other newspapers across the country embark on public reckonings with their racist pasts, the Post’s ugly history carries forward unchecked.

Pete Tucker is a journalist based in DC. He writes at