Three Days of Fire Still Seared in Witnesses' Minds

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

F orty years ago today, the District was emerging from three days of riots that began after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Hundreds of stores had been looted or burned. Thousands of federal troops were standing by to prevent further disturbances. And residents had witnessed chilling scenes that would remain vivid in their minds for decades.

In April 1968, students and store owners, civil rights activists and politicians, police and firefighters had encountered a wave of rage, pent-up frustration and lawlessness that devastated the commercial strips along Seventh and 14th streets NW and H Street NE.

Trouble began barely an hour after King's death on April 4, a Thursday. When a brick crashed through a window of a Peoples Drug Store at 14th and U, it was the beginning of a frenzy of looting, burning and violence.

Washington's disturbances were a visceral reaction to King's assassination, but they were also a response to racial tensions in a city where blacks were angered by inflated prices at neighborhood stores, real or perceived cases of housing and job discrimination, and incidents of brutality by a predominantly white police force.

During the first 24 hours, police and firefighters struggled to keep pace. Fires had consumed whole blocks by the time the first of 13,000 federal troops arrived Friday afternoon.

The assault, for the most part, was on property, not people, and most of the 13 people who died were accidental victims trapped in burning buildings. Mayor Walter E. Washington ordered a curfew and rejected federal officials' calls to shoot looters. During the disturbances, police killed two people.

On April 16, Washington announced: "The city has returned to normal."

Calm had returned, but things had changed for the city and its residents.

Jayne Withers, a native Washingtonian, recalls the cumulative influence on her of King's death, the rioting and the Poor People's Campaign, which sought economic security for minorities and the poor.

"I was no longer Jayne, the free-spirited little girl without a care in the world," she recently told The Washington Post. "I was a black child in white America, and because I was born black, I was different, and understanding that fact made me very angry."

The cost of the riot, including property damage, troop deployment, city expenses and business loss, was estimated in the tens of millions. At least 900 businesses and nearly 700 housing units were damaged or destroyed. More than a thousand people were injured, and more than 6,000 were arrested.

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