James Edward Mercer

James Edward Mercer Pioneers Portrait

James Edward Mercer is a native Washingtonian. 

Many of us have experienced or witnessed acts of discrimination in the Gay community perpetrated against individuals because of race. Very few of us have been in a position to take meaningful and positive action to help eradicate this kind of undesirable behavior from our community. The new project being launched by our organization, called the Discrimination Response System, will afford us the opportunity to demonstrate and reaffirm our commitment to the principles of human rights and dignity for all.

Jim Mercer was born in Washington, DC, in 1948, and graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School. He attended Marietta College, and he earned an MA in History at Syracuse University. He was a graduate of Howard University Law School and a member of the District of Columbia Bar. From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, Jim practiced law in Washington. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, he was the Associate Director of the DC Office of Human Rights.

Jim never saw an injustice he didn’t hate.  He was a born egalitarian who instinctively fought to defend the constitutional guarantee of equal treatment under the law. Human rights were to be protected whenever they were placed at risk. Jim was concerned about the lingering vestiges of racial discrimination in the District. He and other observers were well aware that discriminatory practices could even be found in the admission policies of some Gay establishments. He knew that something had to be done.

Jim was active in various African American organizations, and he was on the board (steering committee) of Black and White Men Together (BWMT/DC). He conceived of a method by which BWMT/DC could be a leader in the fight against racial discrimination in the Gay community. He called his approach the “Discrimination Response System.”  People who had been victims (or observers) of discriminatory practices were now able to report what they had experienced to BWMT/DC. BWMT/DC would then use this information in an effort to bring an end to the reported offenses.

In 1983, BWMT/DC, with Jim as its (uncompensated) attorney, brought actions in the Office of Human Rights against two Gay bars in the city, alleging that they used discriminatory carding practices to make it more difficult for African Americans to enter. These cases were ultimately settled, and the bars agreed to make payments to support antidiscrimination programs. Bringing of these actions served to thwart similar practices by others.

Jim also was the motivating force behind the preparation of draft legislation designed to eliminate carding abuses in the District by defining (and limiting) the documentation needed to prove the age of a patron. This proposed legislation was approved in substantial part by the Council and the Mayor in 1884, and it became the DC Alcoholic Beverage Antidiscrimination Act.

In 1987, Jim was appointed the asociate director of the DC Office of Human Rights.  In this position he dealt with significant issues bearing on the equal treatment of all citizens of the District of Columbia. His work benefited us all.

Jim died in 1994 of complications associated with AIDS. He was 45.