April 8, 1968 marked the end of the riots in DC which began after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. These riots changed many of the city’s commercial corridors and neighborhoods forever.
On the last day of February 1968, a leap year, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner released its report on the causes and implications of the riots that had previously touched sections of Los Angeles (1965), Chicago (1966), Newark, Detroit and even Anacostia in the summer of 1967.
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” was the famous edict of the Kerner Commission.
“I don’t like to predict violence,” Martin Luther King Jr. told an audience at Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968. The mostly white crowd of 4,000 packed the cathedral and spilled onto the lawn, according to an article in The Washingtonian Magazine.
“But if nothing is done between now and June to raise ghetto hope,” King continued, “I feel this summer will not only be as bad but worse than last year.”
King was killed days later in Memphis, Tennessee on Thursday, April 4. Word spread quickly via radio and with Walter Cronkite’s evening broadcast on the CBS Evening News.
By this time, Stokely Carmichael, in town working with Howard University students who had seized academic buildings in protest of the curriculum and other grievances, was walking along the U Street corridor asking businesses to close early in respect for Dr. King’s death. Reportedly, a large crowd quickly gathered and a brick or a rock, an object that is still consequential today in the ramifications of its historical and residual impact on the city, was thrown through the window of the People’s Drug Store at 14th & U Streets NW.
The city ignited with riots consuming 14th Street NW, U Street NW, H Street NE, 7th Street NW, downtown areas, and parts of what is now Historic Anacostia. The National Guard was called up by President Johnson to control the city and enforce the curfew. Browning .50 caliber machine guns were mounted on the steps of the US Capitol.
In some of the first incarnations of DC graffiti, black owned business owners painted “Soul Brother” and other tags on their doors letting looters know that their business identified with the rage felt in the city streets.
They were reportedly 10 deaths, seven directly related to the violence, with more than 7,600 arrests mostly for looting. The city’s 2,800 member police was mobilized along with more than 13,000 federal troops.
More than 1,200 fires burned during the four days of rioting resulting in estimated damages of more than $13 million according to the DC Redevelopment Land Agency.
With the romanticism that is sometimes expressed over the riots and the resulting demographic shift that branded DC “Chocolate City” in the 1970’s it is intellectually and sociologically dishonest to not connect the changes that DC is still undergoing today as a major metropolis with the devastation that the city inflicted upon itself in April of 1968.
Decades later the memories of those fateful days have not faded for one 14th Street merchant whose mission is to not be forgotten and have his story heard by anyone who will listen.
With a city press corps and community members that often erroneously and shamelessly equate gentrification as a pestilence monolithically associated with race it must not be forgotten that DC is still recovering economically from the destruction of the 1968 riots. The roundabout blame game scenario many play for the city’s changing ethnic composition, reflected in the latest Census figures, must take into account a major causality; the 1968 riots.
“When the smog lifted — especially, it seemed, on Sundays when automobile traffic was light — you could rediscover Washington the beautiful,” wrote legendary DC activist and journalist Sam Smith.
On April 8th, 1968, the city’s fires and rioting came under control. Today, the city continues to develop and become a desirable place to live for young professionals and families of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and walks of life who are indigenous to the city, now less inclined to move to Mitchellville or Gaithersburg, and newcomers who want to live within the city limits instead of Silver Spring or Vienna.