By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 2009
Late one night in 1985, Loree Murray's home in Northeast Washington caught fire and was largely destroyed. The home, on Seventh Street near Gallaudet University, was where she had raised seven children since moving to the city from the South during World War II.
She was homeless for the first time in her long life, and she blamed associates of Rayful Edmond III, who was barely 20 and controlled one of the city's most violent cocaine rings.
Her once-peaceable community was a never-ending vista of bullets and sirens -- and now flames. "That did it," she told a reporter. "That made me mad."
Mrs. Murray, who died March 27 at 88 of pancreatic cancer, founded the Near Northeast Citizens Against Crime and Drugs to lead street patrols that helped police document evidence of drug dealing. She was joined by a handful of other men and women, including a 105-year-old who had once worked for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
They endured taunts and threats by street thugs.
Mrs. Murray's tactics were equally blunt.
Near Northeast Citizens organized protest marches that hit the usual outposts of public displays of rage: the District building, the Capitol, D.C. police headquarters. But they also targeted the home of Edmond's grandmother.
The hope, Mrs. Murray explained, was to shame the grandmother for doing nothing to help stop the violence.
Mrs. Murray worked with the police but just as often criticized them for inadequately patrolling the area and appearing to let crack houses flourish. She would not let go, even after Edmond was sentenced to multiple life terms in 1990 for running a continuing criminal enterprise that authorities said once netted up to $2 million a week.
Yvonne Smith, director of community outreach for the D.C. police, said Mrs. Murray was "not a community activist who only showed up when the press was around."
Indeed, the retired Environmental Protection Agency secretary had long involved herself in community affairs before she was on any public radar.
She was an advisory neighborhood commission member and a president of the Citizens Advisory Board of the War on Rats, a group set up to reduce the city's rodent population. She courted arrest at rallies to free South African political prisoner Nelson Mandela and protests against the recent war in Iraq. She also helped start a business group on the H Street corridor, where her family owned a liquor store, and helped organize an "orange hat" citizens patrol to let city officials know when streetlights needed repair, trash needed collecting and houses needed to be boarded up.
She was an indefatigable volunteer for political campaigns and allowed her living room to be overrun with leaflets and pamphlets. No political cause aroused as much of her ire as District statehood and what she considered interference with the city's ability to run itself.
One of her chief targets was then-Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), a hog farmer who created legislation that stripped power from the D.C. mayor's office and gave it to a federally appointed control board.
Mrs. Murray, who tended to economize on restraint, donned a plastic pig snout and a "Free D.C." sign and cap to celebrate Faircloth's 1998 reelection loss.
Loree Harris was born Jan. 2, 1921, in Kershaw County, S.C., and raised in Pinehurst, N.C., where her father was a golf caddy. She moved to the Washington area in the early 1940s and married Robert L. Murray Sr., a public school teacher. He died in 2007. A son, James R. Murray, died in 1979.
Survivors include six children, Joseph B. Murray of Mitchellville and Robert L. Murray Jr., Donald K. Murray, Charles A. Murray, Norma M. Murray and David C. Murray, all of Washington; 11 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
Robert Murray said his mother could be an intimidating presence. She graduated from the District's Senior Citizen Police Academy in 2006 while recuperating from quadruple bypass heart surgery.
"She was one of the first people who decided to take back her community, and to do that, she had to break up some of the most notorious drug rings operating at Second and K streets Northeast," said developer Ronald J. Cohen, who worked with Mrs. Murray to win community support for a building project on land that had once been a haven for vice.
He said Mrs. Murray no longer wanted her neighborhood to be seen as "the other side of the tracks."
Cohen said he plans to name a building in her honor. The "Loree Grand" will be part of the Union Place residential-retail complex, scheduled to open next spring at 200 K St. NE.