The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After bloodshed in earlier U.S. riots, D.C. police showed restraint in 1968 unrest

Former D.C. Police Chief Maurice J. Cullinane, 85, is seen at home in Bethesda, Md. A lieutenant in 1968, he was away from the city during the riots that year. He later commanded the department's responses to such events. (Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post)
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Six weeks after rioting destroyed huge swaths of Washington in 1968, one of the city’s supervisors in Congress, an unrepentant segregationist named John L. McMillan, convened a committee hearing to grill public safety officials about their handling of the crisis. “Johnny Mac,” as folks called him, was upset that police and military troops, in his view, had been meek and ineffective in combating the mayhem.

Why hadn’t looters been shot on sight?

McMillan, chairman of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, was a leader among the conservative white Democrats on Capitol Hill who governed the majority-black city like a board of aldermen in the years before municipal home rule.

As the fiery chaos raged in early April, sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, authorities in the District had shown unusual restraint. To avoid further inflaming the disturbance and to minimize injuries, riot-control forces had been told to stand back from rampaging mobs unless adequate manpower was available to subdue them safely. And no shots were to be fired except to save a life.

The result: While property damage in Washington was worse or nearly as bad as the destruction during previous urban riots in 1960s America, the body count was relatively low, with 13 deaths attributed to the unrest. D.C. police were responsible for two of the fatalities — a small toll compared with the carnage caused by police and soldiers in other cities in earlier years, when rioters had been met with reckless gunfire.

Explore the four days in 1968 that reshaped D.C.

“For that I was proud of my department,” Maurice J. Cullinane, a D.C. police lieutenant in 1968, said recently. Referring to his fellow officers, Cullinane, now 85, who later became police chief, said, “They were not going to kill somebody to save a window from getting broken or to save a liquor store.”

But McMillan, a 70-year-old son of Jim Crow-era South Carolina, was annoyed at what he considered “leniency” toward brazen lawbreakers.

Before the civil rights era, even in day-to-day police work, authorities in the United States tended to tolerate the use of deadly force more readily than they do now. By 1968, however, public safety officials across the country had learned a lesson from riot-related bloodshed earlier in the decade, much of it caused by police and military gunfire that often felled innocent bystanders and incited crowds to greater havoc.

In scores of civil disturbances following King’s death, authorities displayed newfound caution about using firearms. And nowhere was this restraint more noticeable than in Washington, which endured the worst rioting in America after the assassination.

The smoke had barely cleared from the violence — heavily concentrated near downtown, on commercial blocks of 14th and Seventh streets NW and H Street NE — when numerous merchants, most of them white, complained to Congress that little had been done to stop throngs of African Americans from ransacking stores and torching buildings.

Gaveling his House committee to order, Johnny Mac wanted answers.

Allegations of leniency

In the hearing room that morning, May 15, McMillan said, “Each one of these property owners states that a policeman was stationed outside their doors, and they asked them to help, and they weren’t permitted to touch the looters or the people setting fires.”

The allegation wasn’t true: Police had made about 8,000 arrests during the mayhem, which began shortly after King was slain on Thursday, April 4, and continued through the weekend. Still, compared with the brute-force tactics used by police and soldiers in prior civil disturbances elsewhere in the country, the law-enforcement response to Washington’s rioting had been tame.

For example, in August 1965 in the Watts section of Los Angeles, 34 civilians had perished; 26 had died in Newark in July 1967; and 43 had been killed the same July in Detroit. Anti-riot forces were to blame for most of the casualties. By contrast, in the District in 1968, two people were fatally shot by police (one of them accidentally, according to an inquest) while most of the 11 other deaths occurred in fires.

Melvin V. Scott, now 83, who had been a D.C. police officer for 11 years at the time of the disturbance, said recently that police and soldiers were told to form a line on 15th Street NW to stop rioters from moving west into predominantly white residential areas.

“We saw the fires,” recalled Scott, who is black. “Our orders were . . . let them burn, let them loot, let them do anything they want, as long as they don’t go over here.”

On Capitol Hill, though, back in that era when Black Lives Didn’t Matter so much, some old-school law-and-order men on the District Committee, especially the white Southerners, were angry that drastic, even lethal measures hadn’t been taken to protect commercial property in Washington.

At the hearing, they demanded to know why D.C. police and Army, Marine Corps and National Guard troops hadn’t cracked more skulls on the streets, a transcript shows. Why had the city’s white public safety director, the progressive-minded Patrick V. Murphy, been so cautious, allowing deadly force only if a life was clearly in danger? Why had soldiers been ordered not to fire or even load their rifles unless a military officer was present and gave permission?

“Do you think that all that was done was all that . . . should have been done during the recent troublesome riots and burning?” Rep. Thomas G. Abernethy Sr. (D-Miss.) asked Murphy, who was new to his job that year.

A former Brooklyn beat cop, Murphy had gained national prominence as a police executive in several cities who advocated strong community relations over heavy-handed enforcement as a way to curb crime — a familiar strategy today, but not then.

“Some mistakes were made,” he told the congressman, “but I am generally satisfied . . . ”

Abernethy cut him off. “You are satisfied? . . . So you are satisfied with the horror left in this city and the loss of all the merchandise that was carried off, and the destruction?”

“No, sir,” Murphy replied. Like others who testified, he seemed to choose his words carefully, perhaps to sidestep an all-out argument.

“I am terribly dissatisfied with the destruction,” he said.

The two killings by D.C. police occurred April 5, on the second night of rioting, in poor neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

A suspect was being held at gunpoint in front of a looted store when a 15-year-old African American boy ran out of the shop, authorities said. They said he was mortally wounded when he brushed against an officer’s cocked revolver, causing it to go off. Elsewhere, a black man, 20, also running from a looted store, was shot in the back after he brandished a shiny object “menacingly,” according to the officer who pulled the trigger. The object turned out to be a possible shard of glass.

All told, 11 of the dead in Washington were African Americans and two were white, including a 28-year-old electrical worker who was stabbed.

Next to burned-out Morton’s department store on H Street, one of the dead, a boy of 15, lay unnoticed in a smoke-damaged warehouse that never reopened.

Not until 1971 would his bones be discovered.

Businesses decimated

Late on Saturday, April 6, with 13,600 troops and most of the city’s overwhelmingly white, 3,000-member police force deployed against rioters, Murphy and other municipal officials gathered for a news briefing.

Once-thriving commercial boulevards were in ruins. Dozens of businesses large and small — Flood’s Shoe Repair, Columbia Carry Out; liquor stores, pawnshops and laundromats; an F.W. Woolworth, a Peoples Drug — stood blackened by flames. Overlapping hoses from convoys of firetrucks snaked along blocks of 14th, Seventh and H streets. Maxis Mens Wear had been torched; Your Home-Town Newspapers had been ransacked.

African American owners spray-painted “SOUL” on their windows — at Arrow TV, at Ace Sewing Center — and those places had been spared.

“We heard some complaints from merchants that their stores are not being properly protected,” a reporter said, according to a transcript of the news conference. This question became a media refrain: “They feel the police were ordered to take too delicate a position and were treating the people who were making the disturbance with kid gloves. What is your answer to that charge?”

Murphy, referring to the area in Northwest D.C. where looting and fires had first broken out, said, “I take personal responsibility for the decision . . . to withdraw some officers from 14th Street and U because I felt they were personally endangered and might find it necessary to use firearms to protect themselves.”

If not everyone in Congress fully appreciated the perils of police and military gunfire in the cauldron of a riot, Murphy, who died in 2011, and others in Washington did. Among them were President Lyndon B. Johnson and former deputy defense secretary Cyrus R. Vance (a future secretary of state), who had been Johnson’s eyes and ears in Detroit during the 1967 mayhem and performed a similar role in D.C. in 1968.

Five weeks before the King assassination, the president’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, had issued a book-length report on the plague of 1960s urban riots in impoverished black neighborhoods across the country. While the Kerner Report focused mainly on racial discrimination, economic hopelessness and other social ills, it also warned against the undisciplined use of deadly force by authorities.

To illustrate the point, it offered a litany of horror stories.

Despite “many” people who were mistakenly killed or wounded in Los Angeles in 1965, the report said, the official tally of law-enforcement gunfire in Newark two years later was 13,326 rounds of ammunition. Among the casualties: One bullet in Newark killed an innocent elderly man and another left a small girl partially deaf and blind.

An especially tragic incident occurred in Detroit in 1967 when a man standing at a window lit a cigarette. A National Guardsman mistook the light for a sniper’s muzzle flash and opened fire with a tank-mounted machine gun.

“As slugs ripped through the window and walls of the apartment, they nearly severed the arm of 21-year-old Valerie Hood,” the report said. “Her 4-year-old niece, Tanya Blanding, toppled dead, a .50-caliber bullet hole in her chest.”

Anticipating unrest

By the time the commission published its findings in early 1968, the Johnson administration already was taking steps to lessen the potential for bloodshed in future disturbances. The Pentagon had beefed up riot-control training for military personnel, emphasizing firearms restraint. Meanwhile, Murphy, who was working in the Justice Department in 1967, helped conduct similar training for police executives in big cities.

Jerry V. Wilson, then a top deputy to D.C. police Chief John B. Layton, attended one of the seminars with several District colleagues. “When we got back, I wrote up a pretty good riot plan for Layton,” Wilson, now 90, recalled recently.

“We brought in all the commanders of the precincts and we talked to them about the things we’d learned, in case we had a riot,” he said. Although the plan dealt mainly with crisis logistics, it also addressed the issue of lethal force, specifically “whether we were going to shoot people who were doing nothing but looting.”

Wilson, the highest-ranking 1968 D.C. police official still living, was head of citywide field operations during the unrest. “I had put in the plan that we don’t shoot looters if that’s all they’re doing. ... I mean, how the hell could you? If you’d ever seen one of these lootings, it’s Momma, Daddy, the three kids, all carrying stuff away. I said, ‘Who the hell are you going to shoot?’ Anyway, nobody argued with it.”

The plan was in place by December 1967, when Murphy became the city’s first public safety director, and he embraced it, especially the prohibition on hair-trigger gunfire. In cooperation with D.C. officials, the military drafted a plan for deploying during a riot in Washington that also stressed minimal use of firearms.

Not every local official in America agreed with the approach.

When Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley learned his police superintendent had ordered restraint, he angrily rebuked him, telling police to “shoot to kill any arsonists” and “shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores.” The unrest in Chicago and other cities was less severe than Washington’s. In Miami, Police Chief Walter E. Headley credited the post-assassination calm in his city to a “get tough” warning he had been issuing in “the Negro district” for months.

“This is war,” Headley had declared in late 1967. “We haven’t had any serious problems with civil uprisings and looting because I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Yet in D.C. during the rioting, soldiers toted M14 rifles with empty magazines (their ammo was in belt pouches) and were given written orders by the military brass on how to conduct themselves, including: “I will NOT LOAD OR FIRE my weapon EXCEPT WHEN AUTHORIZED by an OFFICER IN PERSON” or “WHEN REQUIRED TO SAVE MY LIFE.” They carried the instructions on cards in their pockets.

Unwritten racism

The unrest occurred at a pivotal time in the city’s history.

The District had become majority black in 1957. And by 1968, with the African American population nudging 70 percent, a strong movement was afoot for municipal self-government. Congress did not approve home rule until 1973, allowing for an elected mayor and D.C. council. But a year before the rioting, Johnson, a home-rule supporter, achieved incremental success, narrowly pushing through a bill that gave the city a presidentially appointed mayor and nine-person council.

Johnson chose a black mayor, Walter E. Washington, and the mayor — at the behest of the White House — plucked the reform-minded Murphy from Justice to be public safety director.

The president’s decision didn’t sit well with the chairman of the House District Committee. In their 1994 book, “Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.,” journalists Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood wrote that when Mayor Washington submitted his first proposed budget to Capitol Hill, in 1967, “McMillan thanked him by delivering a truckload of watermelons” to city hall.

A lot of unwritten racist rules were still being enforced by Congress.

Wilson, who is white, said one such edict in effect in 1968 was that the police force was not to be more than 15 percent black, despite the city’s vast demographic shift. African Americans in uniform were assigned almost exclusively to black areas of the District and rarely rode in patrol cars with white partners.

The result was a department notorious for racial brutality. As police chief starting in 1969, Wilson would launch a major diversifying effort. By 2015, slightly more than half of D.C.’s 3,755 police officers were black in a city that is 49 percent African American.

Looking back, Wilson said, the fatal shooting of the young man with the shiny object “probably wasn’t justified,” although investigators at the time ruled that it was. Overall, he said, the department’s handling of the rioting left him “proud” and “very gratified,” regardless of the criticism from politicians and merchants.

He remembered standing with Patrick Murphy one night during the chaos.

“A reporter came up and asked us if we were shooting looters, and I told him, ‘No, we’re not doing that,’ ” Wilson recalled. A half-century later, a small smile crossed his face. “Afterward, Pat grabbed me. He said, ‘Don’t go around saying that!’ He said, ‘These damn businessmen will sue us!’ ”

On the Hill, in the District Committee hearing room six weeks after the rioting, Johnny Mac and his conservative colleagues, who still controlled key aspects of the city’s affairs, were symbols of an old and threatened power structure, while Murphy, seated before them, was a sign of profound change underway in the nation’s capital.

Lives are more precious than loot, was the gist of his testimony.

“Well, your position is a rather soft one, isn’t it?” said Rep. Abernethy.

The answer was firm.

“No, sir.”