1968: The Year the World Ended

The spark reached the powder keg 50 years ago. The fuse was lit long before.

Moments after Dr. King was shot, Memphis, April 4, 1968

“Scarface Jones said ‘It’s too late to quit. Pass the dynamite, ’cause the fuse is lit.’” — Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller, “Riot in Cell Block 9”

On April 4, 1968, I was standing in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant in Four Corners, MD, Silver Spring, more precisely, and not more than 3 miles from the DC line, next to my car, at the exact same spot where I was parked five days earlier, on March 31, when I heard that Lyndon Johnson would not seek re-election in November. The car radio was on as usual. Nearby were some suburban acquaintances I had started to hang out with since most of my real friends were still in Vietnam or somewhere near it. A beautiful day, but I was restless, feeling dislocated since I had left (okay, had been asked to leave) Col. Hassan’s Black Man’s Army of Liberation, had taken his advice and contacted Stokely Carmichael (it hadn’t gone well), and had met DC’s future mayor-for-life, then-street activist Marion Barry, who troubled me greatly.

The music on the radio was interrupted by a news bulletin telling us all that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been struck down by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis. I Imagine for many it was like hearing the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. The fuse was lit.

Because many of the clueless suburban white guys nearby also had their radios on, word spread across the parking lot quickly, and the very next thing I had not seen coming: A bunch of young, privileged, middle class white men whooping it up and cheering the demise of Dr. King. In that moment I realized that I was still remarkably naive about white people.

I gazed Southward toward DC, my birthplace, my home town, the place I had spent the happiest years of my young life prior to having been dragged to the whitebread suburbs in 1959 because my father feared losing money on our modest semi-detached house that sat across the street from the Takoma Park ball field behind Coolidge High School. The field had been a swamp when we first moved there, six square city blocks of swamp. Prior to that we had lived with my grandmother in an odd apartment over a storefront on Park Rd. just off 14th St. in inner DC. A living room with no windows had not struck me as odd.

The fuse was burning as I silently drove out of the parking lot, past the skin-slapping know-nothings who hollered after me “Where ya goin’? See ya later! There’s gonna be a paaaarty!” They were serious. They didn’t know me at all.

I went to my parents’ home in Silver Spring to see how my mother was taking the news. My father, a traveling salesman, was traveling again. Papa truly was a rolling stone.

My mother was distraught, over both the murder of King and her certainty that all Hell was going to break loose. I hated to leave her there, but I had to touch base with the few people I knew I could still trust and find out what we’d need to do next. I found my most trusted (if somewhat unhinged) ally, Barry, the only one who had already been to Vietnam and come back, who was now the youngest private investigator in Maryland, and a photographer with press credentials (He would eventually become part of Nixon’s press corps). Together we’d be able to find others not associated with Hassan, Carmichael or (Marion) Barry, and hopefully help keep things tamped down.

I don’t know what I was thinking.

National Guardsmen patrol 14th St. in Washington, DC in April, 1968

We quickly learned we would be turned back at the District line if we tried to travel into DC, that the police wouldn’t let anyone into or out of the city. My mother expressed her relief, worried that anything could happen and that things would get worse as the night wore on. She was right, of course. I had expected that, but I hadn’t anticipated the sealed borders. Blame it on my youth.

We mostly sat on the radio and telephone that night, trying to develop a strategy to do something, anything at that point. My PI friend figured he could at least get some photos of the mayhem. I understood the potential historical value, but somehow the idea felt mercenary and I told him so.

“Somebody’s got to do it,” he said. “It may as well be us.” Us? My camera skills and equipment were crap next to what he owned and his skill at using it. On the other hand he admired my driving skills and my knowledge of the city. The idea sunk in slowly. Maybe it would at least be a useful pretext for crossing the barricades. We would try tomorrow. It should be over by then.

H St. NE, DC, day two of the riots.

Ultimately what happened was that on the second night we managed to sneak into the city via obscure alleys and side streets and make our way into Northwest where the 14th St. Corridor, my childhood stomping grounds. was burning. En route, driving down a dark street in upper Northwest, we spotted some people walking toward us on the other side of the street. Immediately Barry blurted out the catch phrase we’d heard on the radio for 24 hours, and previously from the media during riots in other cities (starting with Detroit, in 1967): “Negro youths hurling rocks and bottles!” He almost didn’t get the words out, choking on his own laughter. The four or five people passed beneath a street light and scattered into an alley. I don’t know whether they were black or white, but there were of course no rocks or bottles. I started laughing at Barry’s joke (he had a perfect radio voice), then found I couldn’t stop as we began trading news media cliches like “A Norwegian freighter limped into port…” and “Seven thousand people died today when a ferry overturned in the Arabian Sea. In other news….”

Gallows humor has always been one of my most dependable coping mechanisms, as well as a regular feature of my misfit friendships. There were no jokes about Dr. King, however. We didn’t even talk about it much that night. There was nothing to say.

“Shit! Cops!” Barry hissed, and I scanned the street ahead but saw nothing. “Sorry,” Barry said. “I can smell them. They’re around somewhere.”

“I’m sure they are. They’re probably pretty busy right now.”

We made our way to upper 14th Street, one of the areas that had been hard hit by rioting and looting. We could smell smoke, but still saw no police until we approached Columbia Heights, where I had lived as a child. Even then the police weren’t as thick as we had expected, and we were able to turn down an alley after catching a glimpse of flames. I had to stop the car for a moment, sick to my stomach. My neighborhood was on fire. My neighborhood. It was surreal, disorienting, and I began to feel as though I couldn’t get my breath as the reality of what I had expected all along began to sink in. All of it.

“Move it, man! Are you nuts?” Barry shouted at me as random people ran past us in the alley. “The cops will be behind them. Move!”

I moved. I tried to get closer to the Park Road intersection where there was considerable fire. It wasn’t going to happen. Between the police and the occasional rock hitting the car, and now phalanxes of National Guardsmen, I figured I’d best not try and force the issue. We were able to look down Monroe Street for a moment or so and there was Hell. The 14th St. strip where I used to go to the stores with my mother and aunt almost daily (from the late 1940s through the late 1950s) was on fire.

Somehow we got out and headed back into blessed dark and quiet. Barry was cursing about the lost photo opportunities. I said nothing.

“They’re really pissed,” Barry said softly. “I should have brought my gun.”

I just shook my head. Barry wasn’t naive. He was nuts.

National Guardsmen, third day.

We went home, talking about the weird dynamics that had led to this riot, us both understanding that it was going to happen anyway, sooner or later. I had lived in one of the three riot target neighborhoods as a child, what later became known as the “DMZ.” It was a small buffer area between the Jim Crow established “black” and “white” zones, just off the 14th St. commercial corridor, a madhouse, the Twilight Zone between two worlds. Barry had grown up in far Southeast DC, where not much rioting took place, but which had turned into a rather rough neighborhood following the demolition of the entire Southwest DC quadrant. There, a strange island of poverty stricken and working class people, mostly black, the city had decided to commit to the first huge urban renewal catastrophe. Between 1950 and 1959 all but three historically significant buildings were destroyed. This had forced about 20,000 families across the river into the Anacostia section of Southeast DC, which had been mostly white and blue collar up until then. Government housing projects sprung up in Southeast to accommodate the displaced Southwest residents, which left all parties dissatisfied and polarized. The displaced didn’t want to be there. The “natives” didn’t want them there. Meanwhile the clearing of Southwest had continued. As we talked about this I remembered in 1955 riding through Southwest with my parents past the place where an aunt and uncle, parents to my closest cousins, had run a waterfront restaurant in the 1940s. I remember looking around and recognizing nothing, the place looking like Berlin after the bombing or, in hindsight, like 1980s Beirut. It looked like that for a long while before the finished product, a melange of brutalist office and apartment buildings were erected and a leg of a highway (which had been intended to cut straight through DC, but that is another, happier story), was built. But that was all still under construction at the time of the riots, and Barry’s family had gotten out of Southeast in the early going. Our fathers may or may not have been stupid, but they were at least shrewd.

I had never forgiven my father for moving from our house on Sheridan St. Neither me nor my mother wanted to go but were given an ultimatum. Barry didn’t remember his life in Southeast all that well, but me, I had deep roots.

We talked about what a hell hole Southwest had been, and how instead of fixing conditions there (a large portion of the residences had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing), the Congressional committee charged with running “The Plantation” had made arbitrary and idiotic choices about the south side of the city that would leave scars that remain to this day.

Some of the Southwest “alley people” as they lived in the 1930s and ‘40s.

The Southwest urban renewal project had become, by 1968, referred to as “urban removal.” James Baldwin was more direct in calling it “Negro removal.”

Southwest was part of what some local white people had called “A colored man’s paradise,” as they believed the city’s majority black population (75% in ’68) had everything they could want or need, and since the schools had been desegregated in 1955, setting off wave after wave of white flight, the Jim Crow defined areas remained “black territory,” the white folks not realizing they could still travel safely anywhere within the city while black folks were only “free” inside small, tightly defined areas. While some were able to move out of those areas, white men still ran the show up until the year prior to King’s assassination, when the Congressional Oversight Committee for the District of Columbia had been castrated. It was a transitional period, but it was an improvement. The city even had an (appointed) black Mayor, Walter Washington.

We made one more foray into DC during the riots, which were slowing down on the third day, thanks in no small part to the fact that Police Chief John Layton (a friend of my family), and Chairman of Public Safety Patrick Murphy, had decided on a riot plan some time before this one finally happened. Part of that plan, a huge part, was to order no shooting unless it was to protect life, not property. In fact National Guardsmen, who lined up and wielded rifles, were not allowed to load those weapons. They had ammunition on them, but the guns were not loaded, so that no one would “accidentally” shoot someone (although one of the two police-related shooting deaths was put down to accidental causes). The other three shooting deaths were caused by rioters. A total of 13 people died in the rioting, five by gunshot, two by police gunshots, and one of those accidental. The other eight deaths were all fire related. It was a far cry from other cities where similar riots had taken place, though the property damage was about the same. The death toll no doubt would have been far higher had Congressman John McMillan (R, Tenn.), chairman of the Oversight Committee, had his way. But Home Rule was becoming a reality at that time, and the most McMillan could do was convene a meeting of the Committee to demand to know why police and National Guardsmen hadn’t killed a lot of people. Patrick Murphy was asked directly about the conduct of police and Guardsmen, and if he were satisfied with the outcome. Murphy said “Some mistakes were made but I am generally satisfied.” When pressed, Murphy said “I am terribly dissatisfied with the destruction.”

A store I visited on H St. NE on the third night of the riots.

When we ventured into the city on the third night it was much easier to gain entry and we drove directly to the H St. corridor, which had been devastated as badly as my old neighborhood. I parked on the street, and a young woman I had been dating at the time waited in the car while I walked up and down the block talking to black store owners who had painted “Soul” or “Soul Bro” on their store windows with white shoe polish to hopefully be spared. Some of them took no chances, sitting out in front of their stores into the night, a few with shotguns. One man I spoke with said “I didn’t work all these years to have this burned up. I’ll shoot a fool.” I asked him if he was surprised at what had happened. He said of course not, it was only a matter of time. He had just hoped it would land on more white neighborhoods. It had been a shame, but then had it worked out that way, we agreed, more people would have been shot by police and the Guard.

The riots ended, but the 30 year hangover was just beginning. It hadn’t happened just because a beloved leader had been murdered. It had been because of all the neglect, the refusal to hear and understand — or simply listen. As Dr. King himself had once said, in an address at Standford University:

“ …I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

DC had been a slave city itself until mid-Civil War, and then only because President Lincoln ordered the practice stopped. There were white-on-black race riots, especially one in the 1920s, that took many black lives and much property. In 1925, 12,000 robed Kluxers marching down Pennsylvania Ave. Jim Crow segregation had continued until 1955 when, due to Brown vs. Board of Education, it was deemed expedient to integrate the public schools, although that was, then, the extent of the listening. By that time most of Southwest had been leveled by anxious developers and social engineers and given over to brutalist architecture which, had it been open to blacks, would have been unaffordable — as well as foreign.

By 1959 most of Southwest looked like this, but with a new highway and builders poised to create a new “Paradise” — for white people.

The destruction of Southwest DC had been a different kind of riot, a slow and deliberate one sanctioned by government and the gods of commerce, but the result looked the same as the three days of damage inflicted on “mainland” DC — except for the lack of fire.

Later that year:

Senator Robert Kennedy showed up in Columbia Heights right after the smoke had cleared, to speak with the residents and reassure them they had not been forgotten. Kennedy was on his way to the White House, we all thought, and was “the most trusted white man in America.” In two months he was dead and Richard Nixon would be president and ultimately disgrace the office.

Nixon’s win was in no small part because of the cataclysm that was, in another two months, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a fiasco so unspeakable and with so many villains and culprits and idiots to blame (including of course the Chicago Police Dept. and Mayor Richard Daley, but not excepting the DNC and a whole lot of random lunatics) that Nixon would have little trouble seizing the White House.

By the end of the year there was nothing left to care about. My home town lay in rubble and ash. Thousands of people were homeless there or out of work. Other major cities around the country had suffered even worse in terms of lives lost. Bobby Kennedy, our bright light, was dead and Tricky Dick Nixon was on TV’s Laugh In. The dream, it appeared, was dead as well. My eight years involved with the Movement seemed to have been wasted. I could not see 50 years into the future, nor 40, nor even 30. But I am still here, still standing, and the lessons of 1968 are not lost on me. I just needed a rest.

Corner of 14th and Park Rd. in October, 2006, upon my return. The guy and his truck have become symbolic to me of the spirit of resistance and resilience.

I am rested now, and have been for quite a while. I became active again in the mid 1970s, then gave up again in 2002 and fled to Southern California, but I came back to discover the resilience of my city. I have seen us elect our first black president and our first non-president, back to back. There is work to do, and if I don’t do my part, how can I expect anyone else to?

“How can one respect, let alone adopt, the values of a people who do not, on any level whatever, live the way they say they do, or the way they say they should?”
― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Once again, we rise — together.

Writer, activist, novelist, sixth generation DC, local historian-storyteller, and 1:1 patient care technician five days a week.

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