It was barely an hour after the news that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed in Memphis when a brick crashed through a window of the Peoples Drug Store at 14th and U streets NW.
The shattering of that window, 20 years ago tomorrow, marked the beginning of three days of rioting that left 13 persons dead, more than a thousand injured, and the nation's capital a different place.
I want to tell my teen-age children about that week, hoping they'll learn something of the history of their city and their people, and I discover that my own recollections aren't to be trusted entirely.
Oh, the facts are clear enough, or are recoverable from newspaper files. What I have trouble recapturing, for my children as well as for me, is the mix of pessimism, fear, black rage and journalistic exhilaration I felt as I joined scores of Washington Post reporters roaming chaotic streets, ducking tear gas and interviewing looters and counterrioters, trying to get a sense of what was going on.
One of the problems is that the riots were so many things. They were, of course, eruptions of anger, no question about it.
Blacks in Washington and across the United States, in the five years after the great March on Washington, had gone through a period of unprecedented hopefulness. The combination of their new-found political power, landmark legislation and court decrees, a seemingly changed white attitude, and a sympathetic president had black America believing, for a time, that things were about to get permanently better.
The dream evoked by King in 1963 was about to become reality. All that was required was a little more political pressure and a little more goodwill from whites.
But by 1968, it had became clear that for a huge segment of black America, things were not getting better. In Washington, housing discrimination continued apace, turning the Capital Beltway into a white noose around an increasingly black central city. Police brutality at the hands of a predominantly white force was commonplace. Job discrimination, actual and imagined, kept the Human Relations Commission and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People busy investigating complaints. Militant black leaders were commanding new respect, and the nonviolent King was at pains to defend his left flank. The dream was dying.
And then they killed "the Dreamer."
The rioting that began the night King was murdered was partly a reaction to that unspeakable outrage.
But that's not all it was. It also was a lashing out at an amorphous "Whitey" -- not just the white man who had fired the fatal shot, but the whites who didn't want blacks in their neighborhoods or schools, who treated them unfairly on the job, who seemed to value them primarily as captive customers for overpriced merchandise.
It was a chance to overwhelm the hated police, that occupying army whose function, blacks were convinced, was not to protect them but to protect white people from them.
It was a show of militancy in a city thought by many black residents to be too complacent. After all, most U.S. cities of any importance had already had their riots.
And it was a theater, a lark, a looting party, a laboratory demonstration of what people will do when they are convinced they have nothing to lose. It was a rare opportunity for oppressed blacks to enjoy the spectacle of whites scared out of their minds.
There was the petrified white woman, trapped in traffic on her way home to the suburbs, being harassed by a group of black youngsters clearly enjoying their power. She was rescued by a big black man who thereupon planted a huge kiss dead on her mouth. Talk about mixed emotions!
There was the clutch of black men, shaking their fists into the television camera and shouting blood-curdling threats to "Whitey" and paeans to King -- men who had been shooting the breeze, idly watching a burning building before the television crew arrived.
There was the man who, reminded that the apartments over the store that had just been torched were blacks' homes, told me: "Brother, there's got to be some sacrifices in every revolution."
There were the looters, hustling home with anything from fake zebra sofas out of Roessler's furniture store to shopping carts full of soft drinks from Safeway. There was the woman yelling at looters in the Walker Thomas furniture store, noted for its high-interest charge accounts, to "Get the books! Get the books!"
And there was, whenever there was a street-corner orator to evoke it, genuine rage at what "Whitey" had done to black America.
My sense is that the rage was real -- even when it manifested itself in looting and laughter. But it was not a race riot, though nearly all the rioters were black and white-owned business proved especially vulnerable. Most of those who died were accidental victims, blacks trapped in burning buildings. It was, with scattered exceptions, an assault on property, not people; and the restraint of the police and National Guard units helped to keep it that way -- and also helped to make the subsequent healing easier.
Did any good come of the episode? The rioting, here and elsewhere, may have helped white Americans -- especially those who had hoped that King's nonviolent movement would point the way to progress without bloodshed -- appreciate the depth of black disillusionment and anger.
It forced D.C. officials and business leaders to fabricate half-hearted (or at any rate, ineffectual) programs for rebuilding the city and improving the lot of down-and-out blacks. It helped to pass more civil rights legislation and free up more antipoverty money.
But it also destroyed the economy of the black business strips along U Street and Seventh Street NW and H Street NE, as well as much of the old downtown -- areas that are only now recovering.
The District's new city office building, on the 14th and U site of the drugstore where the rioting started, was completed just three years ago. Vacant lots still dot the riot areas. And although there has been some new residential construction, it's probable that many families that were burned out 20 years ago have left the District.
So, too, have thousands of middle-class families, black and white. What renaissance the inner city has experienced is less the result of riot-induced planning than the laissez faire city policy that has allowed for gentrification.
Race relations may have improved marginally since the riots, but hardly because of the riots. The churches are nearly as segregated now as then, the amount of interracial socializing has scarcely increased, and where it has, it seldom is the result of the self-conscious efforts at social integration that followed the rioting.
And although the black middle class continues to make some progress, the plight of the black underclass (though Doug Glasgow hadn't yet invented the term) is as desperate now as it was then.
In short, the riots didn't "work." But then, riots are not programs, and rioters are not urban planners.
What happened 20 years ago was not calculated to bring improvements, but was an expression of profound dissatisfaction with the way things were. It was not so much a demand for specific change as a statement that people who feel that their own humanity has been violated will violate yours.
For my children and for the people who run this town, that may be the only enduring lesson of the riots of 1968.
The first federal troops arrived at the Capitol on April 5. A soldier with a machine gun guarded the building.