The date was Thursday, April 4, 1968. It was time for change. If you were somewhere around the corner of 14th and U Street (Little Harlem) in Washington, D.C. things would’ve seemed normal. Unbeknownst to the people, it would become a transitional period in this nation’s history. It was early in the evening and there were people moving about. Black people. There were nurses, police officers, prostitutes, construction workers, pick-pockets, pimps, and preachers just carrying on like any other day. I often imagine that day even though I was just an eight month old baby living in Northeast Washington, D.C. with my parents.
I imagine a young black man walking down 14th Street that day in 1968. He's carrying a small transistor radio. The radio is playing Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s new hit, Ain’t nothing like the real thing. He seems to enjoy it as he smiles and pops his fingers to the melody. Suddenly, the song is interrupted and the disc jockey’s voice comes over the radio. He isn’t his usually exciting self. His tone is low-spirited and sad. The young man first stopped to see if anything was wrong with his new radio and then he heard the disc jockey announce that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis. In disbelief, the young man stopped a woman on the sidewalk and asked if she'd heard about Dr. King! The woman's mouth fell opened as she placed her hand on her chest.
All around people began to stop all along the 14th and U Street corridor. They are all talking about the death of a King. It was felt all over the nation that day. In fact, the same thing was taking place in Baltimore City, 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in New York, 63rd Street and Cottage Grove in Chicago, and Third and McLeiuore in Memphis. The nation stopped. Again, it was a transitional period for the descendants of Africans in America. The cool and non-violent Negroes of the Dr. King era were quickly becoming volatile, hot, and Black!
Violence erupted in at least 110 US cities. The brunt of the rioting took place in predominantly black urban areas. The worst riots were felt in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The government ordered 22,000 federal troops and 34, 000 national guard to aid local police departments. The atmosphere was complete pandemonium. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, appeared on national television to urge the people to not react in anger towards Dr. King's death. This did very little to put out the flames of change. Rioting continued throughout the weekend here in DC. By Sunday morning, 12 people were dead, 1,097 injured and over 6,100 were arrested. Additionally, at least 1,200 buildings were burned. 900 of those buildings were businesses. Damages were said to reach $27 million. The 1968 riots had a devastating affect on Washington's inner-city economy that can still be felt today. Nationally, state and local governments did very little to repair the damages in the largely affected/infected black areas. Many of the businesses did not return and urban decay set in. The date was April 4, 1968.
Photo credit and sources: The Progressive Review, the Smithsonian institution Research Information System, Scurlock Studios of Washington DC and Wikipedia
Books on Subject: Ten blocks from the White House: Anatomy of the Washington riots of 1968, Ben W. Gilbert, 1968
Hard Revolution, George Pelecanos, 2004