Fifteen years ago today, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. outraged America and sparked days of rioting in cities across the country. By the evening of April 5, 1968, the day after King was killed, parts of the nation's capital were in flames.
The fires that burned for days destroyed the District of Columbia's three major shopping corridors outside of downtown: along H Street NE, 14th Street NW, and 7th Street NW. Ten people were killed, 7,470 arrested. Some businessmen, many of them white, scrawled "Soul Brother" on store windows in hope of protecting their property from looters. Other shopkeepers and their guards sat outside with shotguns.
Army paratoopers arrived, some with mounted machine guns, to restore order to a city that for the most part was still segregated. It was ruled by a white business community and its conservative Capitol Hill allies, most of them long-time Southern congressmen. The predominately black city had an overwhelmingly white police force led by a white chief. The city government was appointed, not elected.
"At that time, you hardly ever saw a black clerk or bank teller downtown," said Walter E. Washington, then the city's first appointed mayor and later its first elected mayor.
Today, the scars in the riot corridors remain, but the city's political landscape has changed markedly. The city government now is elected by Washingtonians, not appointed by the White House. Most of its officeholders are black. Marion Barry, in earlier years a street activist considered an unruly militant by the business community, is the mayor.
But this black political world exists side-by-side with an economic power structure that still is mostly white-controlled. To be sure, some blacks have penetrated this world, owning their own firms or rising in the hierarchy of Washington corporations. But even here, in a city that long has had a sizable, well-educated black middle class, this has happened for a relative few.
In short, black political ascendancy has not coincided with a comparable assumption of black economic clout. It is this economic arena that preoccupies many Washingtonians as they reflect on the anniversary of a tragic, seminal event.