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The Wreckage of a Dream

After King's assassination, riots tore through Washington, eroding the hope of a few years before.

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2004; Page B01

It was the summer the dream died, the hot and impossible months after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and the commercial hubs of black Washington melted in the fires of next time.

By 1968, the hopeful days of King's "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial five years earlier seemed to belong to another era. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated not long after King's speech; Malcolm X was shot to death in February 1965. Watts rioted that summer. Detroit and Newark went up in flames in 1967, and by the time King was gunned down on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, it was no longer clear who would overcome what.

The day after the King assassination, riots tore through Washington -- eroding the hope of a few years before. (The Washington Post)

Gallery: Capital Conflict

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Moments after the assassination, Washington began to erupt.

Stokely Carmichael, a former Howard University student who was leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led an unruly group from the intersection of 14th and U streets NW, demanding that stores close out of respect. The crowd spun out of control; windows were shattered and looters piled into men's fashion shops, appliance stores, five and dime discount marts, women's clothiers and liquor stores.

The city spun into full-blown riots the next day along the black business corridors of 14th Street NW and H Street NE. In the ensuing three days, there were 12 deaths, 1,097 injuries and more than 6,100 arrests. More than 900 stores lay in ruins.

Undeterred, King's lieutenants decided to push ahead with plans for the Poor People's Campaign, a summer-long protest in Washington.

It started in May, when hundreds of the nation's most impoverished citizens -- black, white and brown -- camped on the Mall and staged demonstrations. The hub was Resurrection City, a 15-acre encampment in West Potomac Park, near the Lincoln Memorial. For six weeks, protesters lived in huts made of plywood and plastic sheeting to dramatize the misery of the disenfranchised.

The camp's population peaked at 2,600, an uneasy melange of country folk, urban street gangs, elderly blacks and idealistic young whites. They were joined by thousands more local protesters.

Skirmishes with police were common, with the ever-present fear that a single event would trigger another riot. Tourism was cut in half. Downtown restaurants were almost deserted after dark.

Worse, rain fell in monsoonlike deluges, turning Resurrection City into a nasty, mud-filled swamp. Tempers soured.

Then, on June 5, Robert F. Kennedy, presidential candidate and one of the last major heroes of the civil rights movement, was assassinated in California.

"That was the turning point," said the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, then and now pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church in Northwest Washington and D.C. director of King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "The summer got very bitter. . . . Quite frankly, we had a collective nervous breakdown. It became very difficult to control people, to get them out of their sense of despair. Bobby had been our last sense of expectation that things could get better. It is not a good memory. I don't like to think about that time."

The last hurrah was Juneteenth, the June 19 holiday that commemorates the day slaves in Texas learned of their freedom. Some 50,000 came to the Lincoln Memorial.

Days later, Resurrection City fell apart. There were reports of drunken brawls and assaults on women. Youths began to stone passing cars.

Police moved in, firing canisters of tear gas into the camp. Hundreds emerged vomiting and screaming; clouds of tear gas streamed across the Reflecting Pool. King's successor, Ralph Abernathy, said at the time that it was "worse than anything I ever saw in Mississippi or Alabama."

When the encampment was shut down for good June 24, angry crowds of up to 500 surged along the 14th Street corridor, a replay of the first day of the April riots. This time, police and the National Guard swarmed the scene, firing more than 1,000 tear gas grenades in two hours. The crowd eventually dispersed, with no fatalities.

But the haze of gas, stagnant in the heat and humidity, hung over the area for days. The sense of malaise, of something precious lost, seeped into the marrow of the city's bones.

More than 2,500 jobs had been lost. Washington's black business districts were devastated. Piles of rubble marked buildings destroyed in the April riot. Insurance rates in the areas soared, if policies would be written at all. The two corridors of the riot remained crime-ridden shells for decades.

Patricia Kearney, then a teenager who was working one block from the epicenter of the 14th Street riot, lived out those years in her home town.

The oldest of seven children, the first in her family to graduate from college, she grew up to become the adult embodiment of the opportunities earned in the civil rights years.

Now the meetings director at the Washington Convention Center, she and her husband settled on Capitol Hill, not far from Eighth and H streets NE, where the riots raged 36 years ago. There is a husk of regret to her voice that time has not erased.

"The saddest part was that [the rioters] destroyed everything we owned and used," she said. They "burned down the corner stores, the areas we shopped. . . . It's taken three decades for things to even begin to come back."

Perhaps two photographs best define that unhappy summer.

The first was taken on a Sunday morning, not long after King was killed.

It is dominated by an enormous pile of rubble, 10 or 12 feet high, with broken wood and twisted pipes rising out of the frame. Walking past are a mother and daughter, hand in hand, on their way to church. The woman is elegantly turned out in a striped dress, matching jacket, sling-back pumps and a pristine white, wide-brimmed hat. The little girl, who barely comes to the mother's waist, is wearing an Easter bonnet, white lace stockings, white dress, those shoes that everybody called Mary Janes (you know they're patent leather without looking) and a white purse (ditto).

In the second image, taken later that summer, a lone protester wades through the mud and water at Resurrection City in galoshes, a long row of plywood tents stretching into the distance. She is holding one arm out to balance herself in the slop. Her reflection is mirrored in the stagnant water next to a trash can.

Washington, summer of 1968: aspirations of a finer life and a belief in things not yet seen -- and the watery muck and wreckage that season wrought.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company