This editorial, with some minor alterations as indicated, is a reprint of one that first ran in this space 12 years ago this week--and that could have run almost any day in the last 15 years:
It was shortly after 7 p.m. on a balmy April 4, 1968, when the first bulletins hit the transistor radios in the crowds that regularly filled the intersection at 14th and U streets NW--Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis. A little more than an hour later, the dreaded word had come: "Martin is dead." The awful news raced by word of mouth up the busy 14th Street corridor, with shock soon turning to frustration and anger wild enough to trigger more than three days of rioting that ripped at the heart of Washington.
For many of us, the traumatic scenes are still vivid --the huge clouds of smoke from the fires along 14th and 7th streets NW and H Street NE, the open looting, the screaming of sirens, Mayor Washington on television, federal troops with Palm Sunday fronds in their helmets, families in search of shelter.
Still, with the passage of three (15) years now, these memories fade and it is the aftermath-- ruined buildings, boarded storefronts, debris and desolation--that lives on to haunt the community. To the passerby or, worse yet, to the people who live with these riot scars every day, little has changed--and no flood of explanations by officialdom can really sink in anymore.
Some people could understand in 1968 why Mayor Washington's early hope for a start on some rebuilding by summer's end had become impossible. Then came Richard M. Nixon, only 11 days into his presidency, 1969, paying a sudden visit to the riot-torn areas and committing his administration in ringing terms to a crash program to rebuild Washington's inner city. . . . Said the president:
. . . These rotting, boarded-up structures are a rebuke to us all, and an oppressive, demoralizing environment for those who live in their shadow. They remind us again of the basic fact that the principal victims of violence are those in whose neighborhoods it occurs.
The decisions on what to do, Mr. Nixon emphasized, rested with the people and the city government; the federal government would be ready with full support for programs, and a pledge of "the utmost Executive energy in responding to formal applications from the District."
A top White House aide said the president and the mayor were pressing for a start on 7th Street by Sept. 1 and on the other corridors by Decem- ber, adding that "forward motion is the basic ingredient. . . ."
But within less than two months, bickering began among community groups over who should develop the renewal plans, who would man the planning staffs and who would control the federal funds. . . .
Now--three (15) frustrating years since Dr. King's assassination--some gutted structures have been razed, some debris cleared, some parks created. But nothing (little) yet has touched the charred, hollow shells of . . . buildings; the even more eery desolation of these areas at night; the hardening cynicism of the residents; or the desperation of the isolated businessmen who are trying to make these neighborhoods live again; the criminal industry -- drugs, prostitution and the rest--that has moved in as the shaken shopkeepers moved away. . . .
Credit is tight, construction costs are rising . . . and so it goes--officialdom is busy, but tangible results do not meet the eye. . . . Leroy Martin is telling staff writer Ivan C. Brandon that ". . . They ain't done nothing. If this was Connecticut Avenue, it would have been fixed a week after the riot. The Man just don't care about us and all that talk don't mean nothing. They ain't never gonna rebuild this street and they want us to die just like it."
Today it serves little purpose to lay the blame for all this on anyone in particular; there's probably enough for everyone to share.
But is there no sense of emergency here? There has to be, if we are to believe that Washington is not decaying, if the cancer of hopelessness is to be arrested, and if the promises of officialdom are to be any less hollow than the shells of buildings that stand in the riot corridors.