It had its birth in the outrage that spewed out with the news that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot dead by a white man in Memphis.
But in a matter of hours, the victim had become, in the eyes of too many of us, all black people; and the murder was no longer one stupid, hate-filled white man, nor even bigoted white Southerners. It was that generic Whitey.
There is little doubt that some angry blacks felt that Whitey had shown his true colors, Whitey had killed the one man who had given black people hope that nonviolence could work; that Whitey had killed the man who merited the title “Negro leader” if anybody ever deserved that overused term; that Whitey had declared war on black people.
No matter that the world’s leaders, white men included, seemed more genuinely shocked by Dr. King’s murder than many blacks. George Wallace had expressed outrage, too, hadn’t he?
Black people, all over the country, poured out on the streets, first to share with one another their disbelief over what Whitey had done.
Then, on Washington’s 14th Street, someone threw brick through a store window – the breaking and looting started.
It grew out of control on Friday, and by Saturday night was still not really put down.
If the rioting started over the assassination, it was the prospect of free booty that kept it going. I have spent many hours on Washington’s troubled streets within the last few days and nights, and only occasionally did I encounter looters who were out there because of Dr. King.
An astonishing number of looters were mere children, as young as 8 or 9, who seemed almost unaware that there had been an assassination. They were aware, however, that you could get thIngs and the police wouldn’t bother you. They were having fun.
The rioting will burn itself out. Maybe it almost has already. From its legacy of bitterness, death and destruction, a few non-tragic facts can be garnered. It may be useful to recite some of them.
The police have been most remarkably restrained, a fact that may or may not have resulted in greater loss of property but that undoubtedly has saved scores of lives.
The firemen, some of whom have worked for as long as 48 hours at a stretch under terribly difficult circumstances, have been heroic.
Only rarely has the violence taken on the nature of a true war on white people. It has been in fact, strangely non-personal throughout.
Some 2685 persons were arrested during two days of looting and burning, and most of them were bIack. But even if only one in 25 of the looters was arrested that comes to about 12.5 per cent of this predominantly Negro city’s black population.
A good many people stood and watched. Others tried, usually with little success, to discourage the rioting.
Hundreds of people, black and white, managed to forget about race and set about doing what they could to treat the injured, feed the hungry, find lodging for those whose homes were destroyed.
These things helped greatly, but they do not erase the twin tragedies of the assassination and the violence that followed it.
Dr. King may not have been murdered by “white America,” as Stokely Carmichuael put it, but Carmichael saw correctly that other white fingers would gladly have joined that one on the assassin’s trigger.
He may have been right, too, when he said that the murder spelled the end of “all reasonable hope.” It is up to America and, I believe, particularly up to white Americans – who control this country – to prove him wrong.