Sunday, April 6, 2008
Washington still remembers the events of April 1968. The three-day outburst of rioting, rage and lawlessness that followed the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. changed the lives of thousands of residents and transformed the city in ways that continue to ripple across four decades.
For many residents, the '68 riots were a touchstone, a moment in their lives as compelling as Dec. 7, Nov. 22, Sept. 11. Their memories remain vivid, as we learned when more than 300 people responded to a Washington Post invitation to share their stories. Here are a few of those recollections, some recounted in interviews and some from letters and e-mail messages sent to The Post.
Larry Aaronson, 66
His dream was to be a crusading journalist, but with the draft board breathing down his neck in summer 1965, Larry Aaronson was finding it difficult to land a job, despite his newly minted master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. The Washington native applied for a teaching job, intending to stay in the classroom for a year or so before beginning his real career with the Washington Star or The Washington Post, maybe as an education reporter.
Aaronson taught that year -- and 40 more.
What he experienced in the aftermath of King's assassination radicalized him, he said recently from his home in Cambridge, Mass., where he taught for the bulk of his career. That "transformative moment" in the District, he recalled, convinced him that teaching was his life's mission.
Aaronson, teaching history and government at Cardozo High School in spring 1968, was watching a movie at the Dupont Theater on the night of the assassination. When he got home to his Euclid Street apartment across from Meridian Hill Park, his phone was ringing. Answering, he heard the frantic voice of one of his students, a young man who had recently become a Stokely Carmichael bodyguard and a Black Panther organizer.
"King was shot dead!" the student shouted.
"What king was shot dead?"
"Larry, Dr. King has been assassinated! People are rioting all over here! You can't hear the rioting? You're right in the middle of it!"
Aaronson hung up the phone and turned on the TV; the rioting, he learned, was roiling 14th Street a block from his apartment. He could smell the smoke.
Several African American students banged on his apartment door after midnight. "They were literally hysterical with wild, confusing eyewitness tales of looters, firebombings, police beatings and police panic," Aaronson recalled. They told of dodging bricks and of bottles flying at them from all directions. They described a news photographer being pummeled by looters, his camera smashed.
Aaronson and his students stayed up the rest of the night. "We were being swept up in the history we had studied and were seemingly being hurled into the mysterious future of the revolutionary war of our radical fantasies," he recalled.
The next morning he walked to Cardozo, two blocks from his apartment, and found chaos. In the hallway, a young man with arms wrapped around a dozen or so men's suits approached him. "What should I do with all this?" he asked. Another student offered him what appeared to be a fortune in looted jewelry.
As Aaronson stared out his classroom window at smoke-shrouded buildings down the hill, six or seven students burst in. "Larry, where is your car parked?" they shouted. "Give us the keys! We've got to rescue you!"
Aaronson was dumbstruck until his students told him of crowds stoning white motorists driving north out of downtown on 13th, 14th and 15th streets NW. "Come on! Grab whatever! Go!" his students urged.
Once they got outside, his students surrounded him and had him shuffle to his car in a crouch. They stuffed him into the backseat floorboard. His young driver could barely see over the steering wheel.
His rescuers drove him up 11th Street NW to East-West Highway and then down 16th Street NW. They stopped the car near his apartment, piled out and hugged their history teacher before walking back into the rebellion that had engulfed their neighborhood.
"I sat in my driver's seat, overwhelmed by emotions," Aaronson recalled. "I broke down and cried. I cried for my kids, for my school, for my city. I cried for my country, for our movement. I cried for Dr. King and his family."
-- Joe Holley
* * *
Vanessa Lawson Dixon, 50
Employee, Federal Aviation Administration
It took more than 20 years for Vanessa Lawson Dixon to accept the fact that her older brother Vincent was killed in the 1968 riots.
In 1971, after workers demolished an abandoned warehouse at 653 H St. NE, they discovered a skeleton. The building was next to Morton's Department Store, where Vincent and Dixon's mother frequently shopped.
Vincent, a 15-year-old Dunbar High student, had disappeared the first night of the riots. Vanessa's father, Prentiss Lawson, was called to the morgue to identify the clothes and belongings found on the skeleton as part of a follow-up to a missing person's report. Lawson identified the skeleton as his son based on a sweater, one the elder Lawson had given his son for Christmas.
Although the family had a memorial service for Vincent, Dixon never believed the skeleton was her brother. She didn't attend the memorial service.
Dixon's belief was in part due to what was found on the skeleton. A pair of low-top tennis shoes were found near the skeleton, but Vincent always wore high-top Chuck Taylor basketball shoes. Also, the body had a tooth missing, and Vincent did not.
For more than 20 years, Dixon believed her brother was alive. Twice she had gotten off a Metro bus to follow a seemingly familiar figure as he walked down a District street.
The last time she heard from Vincent, who also was known as "Egg," was the first night of the riots. He called his mother to tell her that he got two boxes of the pantyhose that she liked. Vincent's friends later told the family that Morton's was the last place they were before the police arrived and everyone scattered.
"I always believed that if anybody could get out of something, he could," Dixon said. "But I guess he didn't. It still hurts. It's like an open wound. Reopened. Still hurting."
-- Keith L. Alexander
* * *
Dick Jones, 73
Retired community activist
Dick Jones was running a tenant-organizing group called Concerned Citizens of Central Cardozo. With a storefront office on 14th Street, between Girard and Harvard, the organization's target was neighborhood slumlords. He originally organized the Clifton Terrace Tenants Association.
He was at work on the day of King's death. "It got kind of scary," the Pittsburgh native recalled. "Rocks were being thrown from behind buildings. The police had a bus-car caravan circling the area and warning people to get off the streets or be arrested. Those who didn't scamper were arrested."
Residents who had to get out of their houses or get back home during the curfew used his office to slip out the back door and walk through the alley. "It was the only way to get home unmolested," Jones said.
After the riots, Jones stayed in the neighborhood. For 20 years he worked on plans for redeveloping Columbia Heights, first with the 14th Street Project Area Committee and then as chairman of the 14th Street Local Development Corporation.
"I'm 73, and it's just now happening," he said. "Plans we drafted and that were approved way back in 1970 are just now going into effect. Three generations of kids passed through before anything was done."
Jones lived in Columbia Heights until last year, when he moved to Southeast. He volunteers as a counselor at George Washington University Law Center, assisting older people with health care.
-- Joe Holley
* * *
Kathryn Higgs, 90
"I was teaching cosmetology at Chamberlain Vocational High School. The day after the assassination, everybody was very upset. In the middle of the morning, two men wearing dashikis burst into my room and tried to get my students to come out. 'We're gonna burn this city down,' they said. I ran them out and stood at the door of my classroom. I told my students, 'You're not going anywhere. You need to stay right here.'"
-- Joe Holley
* * *
Doretha Barbar, 63
Retired housekeeping supervisor, Mayflower Hotel
"The city went crazy," Doretha Barbar recalled. On Thursday night, she was cleaning offices in a building across the street from the Treasury Department. When she got off at 7 a.m., no buses or cabs were running, so she had to walk to her home at Fourth Street and Rhode Island Ave. NE. It took her about an hour, "but I was young."
She heard sirens and saw police cars everywhere. She saw people breaking windows, looting stores. Later she heard James Brown sing "I Am Black and I Am Proud" at Howard University.
-- Joe Holley
* * *
Barbara Elsas, 61
Barbara Elsas was nervous about her first day as a D.C. tour guide. She had stayed up most of the night studying facts about the nation's capital. She already had thrown up on her new uniform, a green-and-white gingham dress.
She was aware of King's death the night before. Driving past the White House, she had seen President Lyndon B. Johnson talking to reporters. She burst into tears and had to pull over to the side of the road.
Once she met her charges on the morning of April 5 -- a busload of about 40 older women from a small Pennsylvania town -- she felt better. The group toured the monuments and visited the Library of Congress, then made its way to the final stop, the U.S. Capitol.
"We were just walking down the hallways when all of a sudden these men started running, security people, men with guns," Elsas recalled. "Then one comes over to me and whispers in my ear, 'You have to get your people out of here immediately. Washington is burning.'"
The women hurried outside to the Capitol steps. They could see flames over the trees. They returned to their hotel without incident, wide-eyed at what their day in Washington had become.
Elsas's career as a tour guide was short-lived. The company folded two weeks later. Since 1984, she has run a preschool in Northwest. She has told the story of her first day as a tour guide "a million times."
Over the years, she drove by the blighted neighborhoods left by the riots. "I thought, 'Why isn't this area being fixed? Why did it take 30 years to renovate this area?' I still think that. It's the saddest thing."
-- Sue Anne Pressley-Montes
* * *
Frank Rich Sr., 87
Frank Rich, who owned Rich's Shoes and whose family has been in the clothing business in Washington since 1869, was in New York on April 4. He heard about the assassination from the manager of his Chevy Chase store as he arrived at the store Thursday evening.
"My immediate response was, 'This city is going to fall apart.' I'd had a feeling for some time there were a lot of bad feelings under the surface," he said.
On Friday morning, Good Friday, Rich opened his shoe store on F Street, across from the National Press Club, and had his busiest day of the year. His manager saw the first signs of looting: young men throwing rocks and bricks through show windows. Traffic was beginning to build up on downtown streets.
Rich and his employees began ushering between 70 and 80 customers out. Using the store intercom, he told the young women working at the Georgetown store to lock the doors, stack chairs against them and go to the second floor. Everybody was out of the F St. store by 4 p.m.
Unable to reach his Georgetown store by phone, Rich drove from 14th and F streets NW to Wisconsin and P streets NW to check on the store. The trip took three hours. He drove the young women home and then drove to his own home in Tenleytown. He arrived about 11 Friday night.
The next morning he drove to the downtown store, where he found all the windows broken , the store reeking of tear gas, and furniture and shoe boxes scattered throughout. He noticed that looters had exchanged shoes they had taken from a store up the street for shoes from his store. "Bally, Ferragamo, Bass Weejuns -- that's what they went for," he recalled. He said he lost $50,000 worth of merchandise.
Rich said he had been involved in civic groups and organizations and redoubled his efforts after the riots.
He began attending a regular multiracial prayer breakfast and helped set up a training and employment program for young black men called Project Progress. He headed the Urban Coalition and served as chairman of the Mayors Advisory Committee on Narcotics Addiction, a group that recommended decriminalizing marijuana.
Rich stayed in business downtown until 18 break-ins in the late 1970s and early 1980s drove him out. "It broke our back," he recalled, "that and downtown construction, subway construction."
-- Joe Holley
* * *
Andy Moursund, 63
Former owner, Georgetown Bookshop; producer of college football posters
Andy Moursund was at Brunswick Billiards, a walkup pool room in the 1400 block of Irving Street NW. "The room was largely white by day and nearly all black by night," he said.
That evening, he was upset when some black players were laughing about King's death. The young white guy, who had been involved in civil rights activities in North Carolina and in Cambridge, Md., admired the civil rights leader. Later that night, at a bar on Mount Pleasant Street, he was equally disturbed by a white man who told him that King "got what he deserved."
"It was a confusing time," he said.
He wrote this: "Three days later, it was a beautiful Palm Sunday afternoon, and 14th Street was filled with bargain shoppers who were buying looted clothes on the cheap. I even broke down and bought a nice green knit shirt. The first time I put it through the wash, the colors ran and I had an instant wardrobe of green underwear to remind me of the Eighth Commandment."
-- Nikita Stewart
* * *
Reginald Kelley, 58,
Retired human resources administrator
Reginald Kelley was sitting in his Cardozo High School typing class Friday morning, April 5. Throughout the school, he recalled, there was a restiveness, an anticipation that something was going to happen, but teachers tried to carry on as usual.
About 9:30, a desk came crashed through the glass portion of the classroom door into the central hallway. As if the crashing glass were a signal, Kelley and his fellow students surged past their typing teacher into the hallway, now filled with students from other classes. Kelley stood for a moment among his fellow students and then made his way to the office, where he had a part-time job manning the phone switchboard.
"Parents were frantic," he recalled. "Parents were calling in, trying to find out what was going on."
Kelley recalled having to tell parents what he had been told to say, that school was in session as usual. Soon the message changed: School was cancelled for the rest of the day.
Kelley went outside on Clifton Street. "I was curious," he said. "It was like total chaos. People running and screaming with these fiendish looks on their faces. It was mob rule."
Later, Kelley watched a white motorist approach the intersection of 14th and Euclid streets NW. His car was hit with a barrage of rocks and bricks. He made the mistake of stopping, Kelley recalled.
"Guys in their 20s and 30s pulled him from his car, started beating him mercilessly," Kelley recalled. "When I saw blood start flying, that sickened me. I was scared and went home."
When he got home, he found his mother in a panic. Kelley's younger brother was missing. Kelley went back out to look for him. He saw Hines Funeral Home at 14th and Harvard being looted, liquor stores and gun-selling hardware stores on fire. He saw two youngsters commandeer a Wonder Bread truck and drive it through the front of a variety store. "They backed out, and the people poured in," Kelley recalled.
He made his way back home safely, as did his younger brother. A month later, he attended a job fair at the D.C. Armory and was hired by IBM.
Kelley, now retired, manages his investments, dabbles in photography and volunteers with a Georgia Avenue heritage trail project. "I believe the riots is a story that must always be told," he said. "We can't improve ourselves by hiding history."
-- Joe Holley
* * *
Sharon O'Meally-Miller, 61
Sharon O'Meally-Miller could not believe her eyes: A man was running out of Peoples Drug Store on 14th Street NW with a handful of syringes and a bagful of drugs. A woman was pushing two racks of dresses out of the Lerner's store. But no one seemed to be bothering Hahn's Shoes, the only business in town that allowed blacks to try on shoes in the store, she said.
As she rode through the riot zone in her family's yellow 1961 Ford Galaxy, O'Meally-Miller, then 21 and a college student, was speechless. This could not be her home. It was still daylight April 5, and the looting had begun.
That night the young woman would beg her father, George M. O'Meally, to let her come along as he surveyed the damage in the riot zone for Mayor Walter E. Washington. O'Meally worked as a liaison for the mayor.
"It made me cry a little bit, when we passed many, many places that were burning," she said. "As my father was explaining to me, those people were burning down their own neighborhoods. I was ashamed to see that. I also thought that Martin Luther King didn't want that. I thought, 'Why are you doing that, when he preached nonviolence?'"
On U Street NW, fire engines battled the blazes, and the sounds of breaking windows filled the night. People were running from police officers. The yellow Ford bumped over dozens of fire hoses. O'Meally-Miller's father told her she was witnessing history.
"He said, 'Sharon, listen very carefully, write down what you see . . . tell your babies what happened," she said.
Her father died suddenly in December of that year. Now an administrative assistant for continuing dental education at Howard University, O'Meally-Miller often recalls that ride with her father. She did tell her two daughters and her granddaughter about it. And for years afterward, she would drive through the shell-shocked neighborhoods and wonder why it had to happen.
-- Sue Anne Pressley Montes
* * *
Kristin Lindstrom, 54,
On the day King was assassinated, Kristin Lindstrom's parents were in Chicago for a conference. She and her three older brothers were at home, where they were finishing the task their parents had given them: sanding and refinishing the living and dining room floors. The had carried two large area rugs out to the front porch.
When the varnish dried, they went to retrieve the rugs, only to discover that they were gone. Goodwill Industries had picked them up. Lindstrom and her brothers were supposed to have left the rugs on the back porch.
Trying to decide what to do, they turned on the TV and watched looters breaking into businesses along 14th Street, including Goodwill. They watched people carrying out every imaginable item, including rugs, perhaps even theirs.
"My parents flew into Washington National Airport that night, coming in over the city and watching it burn from the air," Lindstrom recalled in an e-mail message. "Our city was burning and the rugs were forgotten."
-- Joe Holley
* * *
John Breen, Jim Gallagher, William Hopkins, Pat McGhee, Steve Souder and Harry Gates
Retired D.C. firefighters
For D.C. firefighters, the riots would prove to be the biggest event of their careers, one singed in their memories, one they hope never occurs again. The sting of the tear gas. The chaos on the streets.
Ranging in age from 68 to 85, six firefighters have remained close after 40 years, recalling what seemed like endless days of battling one blaze after another. John Breen, Jim Gallagher, William Hopkins, Pat McGhee and Steve Souder gathered recently at the Silver Spring home of Harry Gates, who keeps yellowed newspaper clippings in a scrapbook the size of a coffee table. They speak in awe of Target and new restaurants and H Street hipsters reinventing those charred streets.
Breen, 85, was a battalion chief. He knew the city was restless, based on seminars on riots in other cities. He recalled the chief saying, "It may not happen this summer. . . . But it will happen."
Breen didn't get to work until April 5. In the firehouse, "I could see shadows."
Those shaded figures were National Guardsmen. "They were sleeping on the floor. They were sleeping on the pool table. . . . It dawned on me. We're in trouble."
He recalled how police Chief Jerry V. Wilson walked through the streets with a bullhorn, telling rioters to "cease and desist."
"When he finished . . . I said, 'For all the pretty speech you gave, you can take that bullhorn and shove it. Where's the Army?'"
Breen had another message for the police chief: "You go back and tell them to do it quick or we're going to lose this city."
-- Nikita Stewart
* * *
Larry King, 57
Partner, PRM Consulting
Growing up in Anacostia in the 1960s, Larry King and his family were among the 30 percent or so whites who lived in Southeast in the predominately African American section east of the river.
In April 1968, he was 17, a senior at Anacostia High School and student council president. He was used to being a minority, but he never saw himself as one. His friends, his neighbors and his classmates were mostly African American.
"In 1993, it was an oddity for whites to live in Ward 7, but not in 1968," King said.
Being white was never a concern, he recalled, until the day after King's death. The next day at school, the principal of Anacostia High ordered two of the school's large black football players to serve as King's bodyguards as he made his way through the riot-torn city to attend a student council meeting at Roosevelt Senior High School.
Today he laughs at the thought of himself, a slight, blond man walking between two linebackers. "I didn't feel I needed any bodyguards," he said.
King, a former personnel director for two former mayors, Sharon Pratt and Marion Barry, lived in Anacostia from 1950 through 2000, when he decided to move into the 14th and U corridor to escape the growing traffic of Maryland commuters and to be closer to supermarkets and retail stores. He still owns a house in Fairfax Village.
-- Keith L. Alexander
* * *
Donna J. Deters, 58
Retired federal government worker
Donna Deters was a 17-year-old student at the Washington School for Secretaries, which was in the National Press Club.
"My father refused to let me attend school downtown. . . . I remember sitting at my grandmother's house in rural Maryland watching television coverage, fearing the entire city would burn to the ground," she wrote.
She said she will always remember the first morning she returned to school, riding on the bus. "Posted every few feet were National Guardsmen in full uniform, rifles with fixed bayonets held in their arms. I can still remember the panic that seized my stomach," Deters wrote. "I watched the sidewalks and street corners from the bus all the way downtown. They didn't seem to make me feel safer. I was, if anything, more afraid."
-- Nikita Stewart
* * *
James Lawson, 53
On Saturday, 13-year-old James Lawson was involved in a craps game in an alley off Constitution Avenue near RFK Stadium. He was with Daddy, Catfish, Clarence, Magpie, Long Legs, Charles and Lester, his caddying buddies from Kenwood Country Club. They were older and looked out for him, called him "One-Armed Sling," for the way he carried a golf bag.
They broke for lunch, and Charles's wife, who had been listening to the radio, said, "You've got to get Jimmy out of here."
They heard an explosion, went out on the porch and saw black smoke. With Lester and Long Legs, he climbed into Daddy's Chrysler 3000 and hunched down in the back seat. Driving north on North Capitol Street, they made it as far as Florida Avenue before getting caught in a mob. Spotting the white boy in Daddy's lovingly-tended car, members of the mob began bombarding it with rocks and bricks. They shattered the windshield, and Daddy gunned it.
"We cut through these people and kept going. It was almost like a cowcatcher with the people in front of the car, even though we didn't hurt anybody," Lawson recalled.
Daddy stopped the car a few blocks farther up, and Lawson climbed into the trunk. His friends dropped him off on Eastern Avenue at the District boundary.
"They were in danger there, and that was as far as they could go," Lawson said. "I made it home and watched America burn on TV."
-- Joe Holley
* * *
Marsha S. Mirsky, 65
Part-time worker at a foundation
The day after the riots, Martha Mirsky, who lives in Bethesda, was wearing maternity clothes for the first time. "It was sort of a cream-colored fabric," she said. "That was back in the day when women only wore dresses. . . . It was a nubbly fabric with buttons in the front."
She stood at 16th and P streets with throngs of people, all trying to catch a bus to Silver Spring. Finally she gave up and started walking up 16th Street, smoke swirling around her.
"Pregnant, yes. I thought if I looked more pregnant, maybe someone would have given me a ride," the Bethesda resident recalled.
She finally caught a ride near Walter Reed Army Medical Center. That September, she gave birth to Jonathan Mirsky, who is now a lawyer in the District.
-- Nikita Stewart
* * *
Lawrence Guyot, 68
D.C. resident; original member, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
Lawrence Guyot was in Jackson, Miss., when he heard King was killed. "I was riding with Owen Brooks, Harry Bowie and other civil rights leaders. We immediately placed a call to Charles Evers, the president of the NAACP in Mississippi. I was the chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the time, and he and I held a statewide press conference to call off all protests."
Guyot was concerned that a local sheriff or justice of the peace would decide whether a protest was a riot or a peaceful demonstration. "This was too much of an opportunity for the enemies of the civil rights movement to use this as an excuse to attack people exercising their rights," he said.
There's still unfinished business of the civil rights movement, Guyot says, particularly justice for activists killed.
-- Hamil R. Harris