In A Nutshell
In the mid-1960s, Washington, DC, had a rat problem. When only half of the city received funding to fix the problem, Julius Hobson decided that was not acceptable. Catching a dozen “possum-sized” rats, he threatened to release them into the Georgetown area unless lawmakers cleaned up the entire city equally. When the press ran with the story, claiming that he had truckloads of rats he was going to dump on the White House, the rest of the city got its funding.
The Whole Bushel
A lot of big cities have rat problems, even though some of those problems are constantly exaggerated. In the mid-1960s, though, Washington, DC, had a very real rat problem, and it got worse in certain parts of the city. When it came to pest control, the parts of the city where the more affluent citizens went about their daily business were much more likely to get the funding that was needed to take care of the rat problem.
Meanwhile, the northeast and southeast sections of the city languished in the summer heat and an infestation of giant rats.
Sick of the problem, activist Julius Hobson decided to take on the problem in a very direct way. If half the city had to deal with rats, then the other half should, too.
Hobson set up rat traps and caught dozens of what were later described as “possum-sized” rats. He then made it quite clear that unless something was done to fix the problem in the other half of the city, the affluent, mostly white part of DC was going to have a problem. Hobson drove the cages of rats into Georgetown, saying he would let them go and keep doing so until lawmakers got the message.
In an interview in The Washingtonian, he said that “a D.C. problem usually is not a problem until it is a white problem,” so that’s what he intended to create.
And there was nothing that lawmakers or law enforcement could do to stop him from making his threats and carrying them out. Hobson was doing nothing illegal, simply catching rats and cleaning up one part of the neighborhood. There were no requirements as to what he had to do with the rats afterward, and releasing them right into the middle of Georgetown and the homes of countless Congressmen was a perfectly legal thing to do.
It worked, in part because of the tactics themselves, and in part because the press did what the press often does best: It blew the whole thing out of proportion. At one point, it was reported that he had not just a cage of rats, but a whole truck full of them, and they were all destined for the White House. It was also reported that he had a whole fleet of rat-catchers standing at the ready to catch more rats.
In the end, his plan was a resounding success. The other parts of the city got their funding. Later, Hobson came clean about the whole thing. The papers had done him justice, when in reality, it had only been him and about a dozen rats that he admitted were an absolute nightmare to catch. And even those rats he didn’t release in Georgetown; he disposed of them in the Potomac.
Tragically, Hobson died in 1977, only 54 years old. A victim of cancer, he had been an acting city councilman, and one of the figures instrumental in raising awareness to get Washington, DC, elevated to statehood. His obituary lists some incredible accomplishments, including radically overhauling the educational system, working tirelessly to ensure racial equality when it came to hiring practices, and being a driving force behind civil rights reform. An Alabama-born World War II veteran with three bronze stars, he continued to work almost until the day he died.