Wednesday, April 04, 2007

DC Riots of 1968

The corner of 14th and U Street in Northwest DC

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



Anonymous said...

Yeah, this was a heavy day for many. My uncle remembers this event as he was in DC at the time. It's an incredible story to hear. And how far have we come in terms of the peace Dr. King embodied, 39 years later?

Stephen A. Bess said...

My family was not involved in it. My grandmother made sure none of my mother's younger brothers and sisters left the house. As for how much we've grown as a nation...a little. Thanks.

MJW said...

The government had prior knowledge of the riots? I don't understand.

Stephen A. Bess said...

I've always believed that someone knew that King, JFK, RFK and X would be murdered.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I agree with you in response to Zapped, we have not changed enough in 39 years! If Dr. King were not murdered, think of how different the world probably would be.

Another strong woman in your family with your Grandmomma not letting the kids out... no wonder you are such a great man, you are/were surrounded by strong women!

Thank you for the sad reminder that today is the anniversary of MLK's murder.

Stephen A. Bess said...

Hi! Yes, I've always been surrounded by strong women. This is why I had to marry one. I'm not always ready to handle her strength, but I'm blessed to have that strength in my life. Thank you Faith for that positive word. Bless you and big hug~

NML/Natalie said...

I think that it's sad that so much time has passed yet the legacy of what happened still has devastation that shows today. Thanks for your post :-)ps I hope you're all settled in now.

Analía said...

I was less than one yearwhen all of this happened...and so far away...
Sometimes it's so difficult to imagine how hard those times were.
I always feel that by coming to your blog I learn. I love learning and I love the things you write about. Very enlightening. Thank you Stephen.
Oh! Thanks for the link, too!

the prisoner's wife said...

interesting. i am not familar w/ the riots in DC, i guess here in LA we focus so much on our own "uprisings." i do know that a lot of cities went up in flames that year. i have a lot of family in Cleveland & that city STILL hasn't fully recovered from their riots. it's sad.

i agree that your grandmother had strength. much like my mother when i watched my neighborhood evaporate into ash and smoke in '92, post Rodney King trial. with so much chaos, thankfully there are those like James Brown, your grandmother, and my mother, who's voice of reason rings louder than the noise.


Stephen A. Bess said...

Thank you. I'm nearly settled in. :)

Thank you so much. I'm happy you can take something from this blog. I love talking about what I've learned. Thank you for the link as well.

Amen to that. Thank God for the strong matriarchs in the family. I know that your mother has prepared you to be just as strong. I remember that feeling around the time of Rodney. The people were restless. I was in Savannah, GA. The authorities there were on alert. We had a rally at my college. The 90's were interesting times. Be blessed and peace~

Xave said...

Goose bumps bro! Damn powerful piece of writing, but no surprise from the likes of Professor Bess. Wow, the images you painted are still reflecting off the back of my mind and through the prism of my intellect, resulting in a kaleidoscope of intense colors. Hats off to you Brother.

Peace and Love,

Ali’s Zay

Learn about Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Anonymous said...

HI Stephen! Thanks and big hugs back to you!

Anonymous said...

This is so sad, but very informative to those who didn't know.

Stephen A. Bess said...

Thank you sir. You're too kind. :)

Have a good weekend Faith! :)

It is very sad, but part of our history. Thank you and welcome.

Anonymous said...

"Little Harlem" or U street is like home to me. That's the only place in DC where I feel like it's truly apart of me.

I guess I learned something today about "my home".

I was studying the photos and noticing how different DC looked back then.

Thanks for sharing this, Stephen!

black feline said...

a tainted page in history...a good reminder.
In the early 60s...we have racial riots back home in's basically between the malay and chinese.

Stephen A. Bess said...

Yes, it's so interesting. There are only a few remaining who know this history. There's a barbershop on U Street that was there during the riots. The owner said he was sick and in the hospital that day.

Blk Feline-
Yes indeed. Now, that riots between the Malaysians and Chinese sounds interesting. Thanks for that brief history.

Lola Gets said...

My family lived down the street from 14th and U Streets, NW, DC. I never heard any of them talk about the riots, and now they are deceased. My former mother-in-law however, had a few tales to tell. Her family owned the Omni-Shoreham Hotel at the time, and she sat on the roof and watched downtown burn.

Stephen A. Bess said...

Those were some difficult times. Thanks for that personal account. Welcome.

Anonymous said...

Check out's blog (a new one) he used to own the smith's drug store in washington dc that was burned down in the 1968 DC Riots. Thought you might be interested in viewing his photos or chatting with him.

Anonymous said...

I was a teen then. Most of us White kids were listening to Soul Music and there wasn't really much racial animosity among our generation. That changed after the riots. The Black kids started getting into a Black Power mode, wearing one black glove, buying bush combs with a fist on the handle and not associating with us anymore. We White kids had every James Brown 45 record that ever came out. The he came out with "Say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud". Well, we couldn't exactly sing that now could we? So, the separation that had disappeared for our generation returned. Whites were affraid to go in town and that further separated the races and brought blight to the inner cities. We can blame politicians of both races for using us all as pawns. We were all born with Natural Rights but politicians of both races want to grant us rights when and where they see fit. Natural Rights can't be granted, we are born with them.

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