D.C. is Burning

In the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination, riots broke out across the U.S. Nathan speaks to Samuel Walker, author of “Most of 14th Street is Gone: The Washington, DC Riots of 1968.”


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NATHAN: News of King’s shooting sent shock waves across the country. Riots broke out all across the nation in cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Baltimore, and Chicago. But no city faced as much violence and upheaval as the capital, Washington, DC. Images of troops guarding the White House with machine guns while plumes of smoke snaked into the sky were beamed across America and the world.

And how to deal with the riots proved to be a leadership challenge for both President Lyndon B. Johnson and the city’s first black mayor, Walter Washington. Historian Samuel Walker says the tragic news reached the capital shortly after 7:00 PM.

SAMUEL WALKER: People began to gather at 14th and U Street, which was kind of the epicenter of black Washington, and a major commercial area for black Washington. And the crowd was sad, it was concerned, and it was in shock. Shortly after, word came through that King had died from his wounds. It wasn’t too long after that that the rioting began as a way of venting frustration and anger and resentment.

NATHAN: Now when the riots erupt in April of 1968 in Washington, DC, they ended up being really dramatic in terms of their consequences. You have 13 people killed, thousands injured, some 8,000 people arrested. And what were the conditions in America’s urban communities that seemed to make the King assassination just the natural explosive element?

SAMUEL WALKER: Yeah. Poverty, deprivation, poor schools, soaring crime rates, joblessness, high unemployment. And perhaps most discouraging, limited opportunities. So it was a conversion of conditions.

Once the word came through that King had died, they were angry, and there’s a sense of helplessness. And a way to deal with that was to start looting. There was some arson, or at least some fires being set. And the police were outnumbered, so things were out of control for several hours.

But then it calmed down and people went home. There was a brief rainstorm, and that helped. And there was a concern that things would break out again. The assumption was based on the experiences from previous rioting that if things broke out again, it wouldn’t be until after dark on Friday.

NATHAN: Did that happen? Was there another flare-up after the first day had subsided?

SAMUEL WALKER: Things got really bad on Friday, and that’s when things really went out of control. There was more looting of stores. Stores that hadn’t been attacked on Thursday were cleaned out on Friday.

And one of the major stores there was Morton’s Department Store that served people of that community. And on Friday afternoon after things got bad on H Street, looters went in. Pretty much cleaned out the store of its merchandise.

And once everyone had left, or at least they thought most everyone had left, a guy who’d been watching what was going on, watching the looters come out of Morton’s Department Store stepped up and threw a firebomb into one of the open doors or open windows of the store. And within a very short time, it was up in flames and burned to the ground. What we found out later was that there was at least one teenager in there who didn’t get out in time and who was burned beyond recognition.

NATHAN: Now as the riot is spreading, at some point you literally have plumes of smoke in the wake of the Capitol building, right? I mean, it gets to the point where you can see the center of government, national government, and the riot literally juxtaposed in the same shots.

SAMUEL WALKER: Yeah, that’s exactly right. When the Capitol Dome was lighted, the lighted dome was largely obscured by the smoke that was rising from the city, depending on where you were. But President Johnson said he looked out the window at the White House, and all he could see was smoke. And he said, what must people be thinking about what’s going on?

NATHAN: What’s Johnson’s sense of how to remedy this problem?

SAMUEL WALKER: Johnson didn’t know. Johnson was torn between, on the one hand– and he clearly recognized that the rioters had legitimate grievances, but he also was outraged that they were using violence to try to redress their grievances. By Friday afternoon, early afternoon, once the rioting resumed, Mayor Washington was saying, Mr. President, you know, you have to call out the troops, even if we use the National Guard.

The National Guard in Washington was only 2,000 strong. The police force was maybe 3,000 strong. And that was not enough. Those numbers were not enough in themselves to contain what was going on. So he was saying, we need troops.

But Johnson did not want to call out troops, because he was afraid that, you know, I don’t want to call out troops and have them shooting women and children. And he finally only called out troops after he sent out three of his advisors, and they quickly concluded that the police could not possibly restore order. That was his first step toward restoring order.

NATHAN: How would you describe the long-term impact of the riots that erupted in the wake of King’s assassination? I mean, describe them on the scale of Washington, DC, but also in terms of the country and the way that the country’s sentiment might have changed after seeing DC in flames.

SAMUEL WALKER: The impact on the riot areas in Washington was enormous, especially Upper 7th Street. 14th Street, the whole run from U street up for 20 or more blocks and 8th Street were pretty much burned out areas, very depressed areas until the early 1990s. So a quarter of a century.

The impact in terms of the country is interesting, and rather hard to figure out, because we haven’t had major riots or many major riots since 1968. Los Angeles, 1992 and Baltimore a couple of years ago are exceptions, but they are exceptions.

And scholars and journalists and others have tried to figure out why that is, and the bottom line that everyone has come up with is that we don’t know why there haven’t been more rights. It’s not as though conditions have improved. Conditions in the struggling areas of most cities, including Washington, are no better than they were in 1968, and in some ways, worse. One reason that I wrote the book was to kind of heed the lessons of history. I think there’s reason for concern that we could see it happen again.

NATHAN: Sam Walker is the author of Most of 14th Street is Gone– The Washington, DC, Riots of 1968.