Friday, April 04, 2008

40 Years Ago

(An occasional reminiscence on the events of 1968)

Monday, April 1, started out as a normal work week. It may have been my first day in the Washington Post's library, although I might have started the week before. Whichever, I was in a strange new job working with people I was just getting to know, in a city I didn't yet know well. This week would be a defining time.

In Vietnam, troops in Operation Pegasus began the fight to open the road to Khe Sanh.

On Tuesday, April 2, the film 2001 Space Odyssey, based on writings by Arthur C. Clark (who died last week) had its world premiere at the Uptown Theater in Washington. General release --with 19 minutes deleted -- would be April 6.

That day, Sen. McCarthy got 56 percent of the vote in the Wisconsin primary.

On Wednesday, Martin Luther King returned to Memphis and that evening gave his 'I have been to the mountaintop' speech.
Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world....the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. ...But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.

North Vietnam agreed to meet with U.S. representatives to discuss peace talks.

April 4 was the one year anniversary of Dr. King's speech at NY's Riverside Church, Beyond Vietnam-- A Time to Break the Silence, which had defined political thought of the last year:
A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. ... Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war....If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

That evening, as King stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel (now the National Civil Rights Museum) in Memphis, preparing to go to dinner with a few close associates, he was shot by a sniper. News of the shooting came over the wires shortly after 7; the announcement of King’s death around 8:30.

Washington Post reporter Hollie West arrived soon after at 14th and U Streets, where Dr. King's SCLC had its DC headquarters. Nearby was the office of the more radical SNCC, once led by Stokely Carmichael, who was now back in Washington heading a local 'Black United Front'. Inside the People's Drug Store, solemn shoppers were listening to President Johnson's announcement of King's death and request for non-violence.

As West watched, Stokely Carmichael and some of his followers began going into shops along the streets and asking proprietors to close in honor of Dr. King. All remained peaceful for awhile, as store owners agreed and closed their doors. But about 9:30 a window at People's Drug broke; it was the beginning. Soon teenagers were marching up the street, shouting 'black power'. Carmichael, and chairman of the DC city council, Rev. Walter Fauntroy, tried to calm the crowd down. But eventually the crowd got out of control. Police, who were staying away to avoid clashes, had to move in. The formed a wedge and moved up 14th St., forcing people to the side. That night many of the 300 shops in the 20-block strip of 14th St and adjacent streets, had windows broken and goods looted. In the early morning hours, the first fires were set, in two food markets near 14th and Fairmont. Some stores in downtown Washington had windows broken too. By about 3 a.m., though, police had broken up most of the rioting.

The next morning, things were calm and city officials hoped the violence was over. Schools opened as usual. We went to work. But kids began walking out of schools and roaming the streets, and at Howard University, Carmichael told a rally crowd that more violence was coming. By noon, the 14th St. corridor was jammed with people, and the Safeway market went up in smoke. As the day went on new breaking, looting, and arson cases spread, further up the 14th St. hill, along 7th St. closer to downtown, and on the H street corridor near the Capitol. By afternoon there was smoke everywhere from fires.

Stores owned by blacks had 'Soul Brother' signs in the windows (whatever happened to that phrase?), but it didn't always help. Post reporters and photographers, many of them black, were covering the streets. One man stopped columnist Bill Raspberry, pleading 'Soul brother, get them to stop'.

I didn't know much about what was going on except for reports we were getting through the newsroom talk from reporters coming back from the riot zones. At some point in the afternoon, some of us were sent home. The city was a giant traffic jam as office workers fled downtown and city buses may not have been running.

So I walked home, up 16th Street, passing within two blocks of the main riot corridor. I could see and smell smoke coming from 14th St and some of the nearby streets. About halfway between the Post and our apartment in Mt. Pleasant, a couple of blocks north of U St., is the beautiful Meridian Hill Park, with terraces, fountains and statues. From the overlook here is a good view over the city, so naturally I wandered through the park and watched for awhile before going up the hill.

As I stood watching, people were passing by, carrying things that had obviously been looted from stores. Some were struggling with TVs and other large items. One young man came right by me with his loot, and when I looked at him, he stopped and talked to me: "It's not against you. I'm just getting what the system owes me". Everyone was friendly; some seemed slightly embarrassed. There was some disorder in the small business section near our neighborhood further north, too, still only 3-4 blocks from the upper section of the 14th St. where more stores were looted and burned. Tear gas had been set off by police so I had my first whiff of what would become a familiar smell over the next few years.

That afternoon several expensive stores in the downtown area, just 10 blocks from the White House, were looted and burned too. Large areas of the city were aflame. Looting and fires also occured in the Anacostia section of DC, and spread into other neighborhoods. Around 4 o'clock, the first Army troops, from the 3d Infantry at Fort Myer, crossed the bridge into the District. Several more troops and National Guard units, from as far away as Fort Bragg, were on the way. About that time Mayor Walter Washington ordered a curfew to start at 5:30 p.m. and lasting until 6:30 a.m.

Once we got home that afternoon, we would have to stay there. But by nighttime nearly 6000 troops had turned the city streets into a ghost town. More were coming.

(More on King's death: In the Atlanta Journal Constitution: Martin Luther King Jr. In the Memphis Commercial-Appeal: King photo from this site. Leonard Pitts: When MLK died, one man reached across the divide. The Root.)

(Riot references: 10 Blocks from the White House, the Post's recap of the riot published later that year, by Ben Gilbert and staff.)

I'll post more on this and some of my photos this weekend.

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  • _10 Blocks_ is a testament to how powerful and well-staffed the Post was in its heyday - it's difficult to believe, given the shell that's now left, that it was ever capable of such detailed, historically valuable journalism. I'm glad the record survives.

    By Blogger Ryan Shepard, at 1:03 PM  

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