D.C. Burned, but a Sense Of Identity Was Sparked

40 years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death and subsequent riots, condos and cafes have replaced gutted shops in Washington, D.C.
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 7, 2008

The principal's voice crackles through the intercom at Powell Elementary School, a surprising intrusion on a sunny April morning: We're closing the school. Run, don't walk. Go home. Now.

I run-walk through the streets of Northwest Washington, my head to the sky, looking up at the yellow-green leaves forming patterns of lace in the trees above me. I hurry along, because that is what they told us to do, but I don't really understand the urgency, can't grasp the importance of what is going on: Martin Luther King Jr.? Shot? Dead?

Never heard of him.

April 5, 1968. The day after. I am 6.

At home, life is put on mute. The phone rings, and my mother jumps. My dad hasn't made it back yet from his medical school assignments at D.C. General Hospital. Worry rides her. I hear her talking to her friends, about how female teachers at her school were warned to stash their cash in their girdles before heading home. Just in case. Because you never know.

She hangs up the phone, brings in our cocker spaniel, Blackie. Just in case. Because you never know.

Minutes later, I spot a looter dashing through our back yard, fleet of foot and sporting a do-rag. His arms overflow with clothes.

Such is my introduction to the civil rights movement: King, with whom my family in Atlanta had more than a passing acquaintance, had just been taken out by a sniper's bullet. And the streets of my birthplace have gone up in flames.

Pretty confusing stuff for a first-grader who'd yet to grasp the concept of race.

Images of King flashed across the screen of our black-and-white TV: We listen to speech after speech, especially that one, given just two days before, the one about how he's been to the mountaintop but might not make it to the promised land. My mother, home from teaching French to pupils at elementary schools in Georgetown and on 14th and V, sits watching. Silent. I take in her grief, the fiery speech of the slain man on our TV. I sit behind her, peppering her with questions as I brush her hair: If he's dead, how can he be on TV? Does he get back in the coffin after he makes his speech? Who is this guy, anyway?

"I wanted you all to understand what [the riots] were all about," my mother, Yvonne, remembers. "So that you would fully understand his importance and the role that he had played. That what was happening around you was unusual -- it was people's reaction to having lost something that was so important to them."

The next year, by the time we'd moved to Staten Island for my father's residency, and I listened to a nun tell my class that King was a communist, I would have a much better grasp of who King was and why he mattered. And that the nun was wrong, very wrong.

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