Even after the deadly riots in Detroit and Newark, and smaller disturbances in dozens of other American cities during the “long, hot summer of 1967,” many Washingtonians thought that kind of trouble couldn’t happen here. And the local news media reflected that complacency.
There had been relatively little exploration of what life was really like in Washington’s lower-income black communities after what were reported to be isolated instances of unrest, including confrontations between black residents and the police.
In one of the most troubling occurrences, spectators at the 1962 Thanksgiving Day “Turkey Bowl” began fighting at the end of the championship football game between Eastern High, an all-black public school team, and the nearly all-white team from the private school St. John’s College High. Eventually the fight would spill from D.C. Stadium, which was renamed RFK Stadium in 1969, into the surrounding neighborhood and injure several hundred people.
In 1967, amid rumors of coming trouble in some parts of the city, shop windows were smashed and stores looted along H Street NE in a quickly contained disturbance after a rock concert at the old Washington Coliseum.
Meanwhile, much of The Washington Post’s local reporting was focused on efforts to reform the governance of a city of an estimated 850,000 people — two-thirds of them African Americans (“Negroes” in the media language of the time) — who had no voice in their local government or law enforcement.
President Lyndon Johnson, with the grudging acquiescence of Congress, replaced the federally controlled three-commissioner District government in late 1967 with a presidentially appointed black mayor, Walter E. Washington, and an appointed black-majority city council. The Johnson administration also installed police reformer Patrick V. Murphy as director of public safety for Washington, with the mandate of improving relations between the predominantly white police force and the black community.
Ben W. Gilbert, then The Post’s deputy managing editor, who had long overseen the newspaper’s local news coverage, was a close friend of Mayor Washington’s and an active advocate of the fledgling home rule experiment. He was also involved in behind-the-scenes efforts by local leaders and federal officials to avoid the riots that so many other racially divided cities had experienced during the 1960s. As a result, Gilbert sometimes played down stories in The Post about clashes between police and black residents that he feared could lead to more serious trouble.
Before the change in the city’s government, then-Post reporter Robert G. Kaiser wrote a story in April 1967 about a secret meeting of the three D.C. commissioners to investigate the late-night arrest of a young leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Marion Barry. Police had stopped Barry after midnight for jaywalking and then arrested him after an exchange of words. The commissioners and community leaders were concerned about reports that angry African Americans were gathering at the SNCC offices on 14th Street NW and threatening to riot in protest. After Barry was released, he met with and calmed down his supporters.
Gilbert opposed putting Kaiser’s exclusive story on The Post’s front page. But he was overruled by Ben Bradlee, then The Post’s relatively new executive editor. “Everyone in the newsroom knew about it,” recalled Kaiser, who later became The Post’s managing editor. It marked a turning point in the newspaper’s handling of such coverage.
In November 1967, Kaiser and fellow local reporter Carl Bernstein wrote a front-page story about Mayor Washington, in his first full day on the job, working with aides to “cool” an angry crowd of 300 Pride Inc. workers and followers who were marching to the White House in protest of a threat to Pride’s federal funding. Barry, with others, had started Pride with a Labor Department grant for job training for unemployed young black people in Washington. The mayor instructed police to be sympathetic with the marchers, and then he met with them and Barry at a local junior high school.
At the same time, federal and District officials were privately working on a contingency plan — called “Cabin Guard” — for how local police and federal troops could respond to major rioting in Washington with less loss of life and property than there had been in other cities. They were particularly concerned about the Poor People’s Campaign march and encampment that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. planned for Washington in the summer of 1968.
The Cabin Guard plan identified elite military units well-trained in riot-control techniques that could be moved quickly onto the streets of the capital. They were racially integrated and had black soldiers in key command positions. The military’s nearby 3rd Infantry Regiment at Fort Myer and the 91st Engineer Battalion at Fort Belvoir had protected the Pentagon during massive demonstrations against the Vietnam War in October 1967. The 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., had been commended for its restraint while deployed in Detroit during the deadly 1967 riots there, in contrast to the Michigan National Guard. The 503rd Military Police Battalion at Fort Bragg had been deployed during the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962, and for the Selma, Ala., march and demonstrations in 1965. In February and March of 1967, officers of each of the designated military units toured the police precincts in Washington where they would be deployed if it became necessary.
In the first hours after King’s death was announced on Thursday night, April 4, 1968, and rioting began in Washington, the D.C. police and city officials were disorganized and ineffective in their initial response. The military units were put on alert. By Friday afternoon, daylight looting and setting of fires spread rapidly along 14th and Seventh streets NW and H Street NE. Deputy Attorney General Warren Christopher and the designated “Task Force Washington” commander, Gen. Ralph E. Haines Jr., toured the city and recommended that President Johnson sign an order for what became a 12-day military occupation of the city by 13,600 federal and D.C. National Guard troops.
A joint Task Force Washington command post was set up at D.C. police headquarters, where former undersecretary of defense Cyrus Vance worked as a federally paid consultant to Mayor Washington to help coordinate strategy, based on Vance’s similar role in Detroit in 1967. Vance brought with him a book he had prepared of lessons learned from his Detroit experience. They included decisions to make liberal use of tear gas and mass arrests to subdue rioters, while sharply restricting the use of guns by police and the military. Curfews — which were imposed for six consecutive nights in Washington — were to be strictly and fairly enforced. All soldiers were given written orders on wallet-size cards emphasizing courtesy and restraint in the use of force.
Despite the extensive looting, destruction and dramatic fires that consumed what became known as the city’s “riot corridors,” there were only 13 deaths , eight of them in fires. Most of the 1,190 injuries were not serious; many were from smoke or tear gas inhalation. An estimated 20,000 people were involved in the riots, and 1,000 fires were set. More than 7,600 men, women and children were arrested. There was almost no shooting.
About 100 Washington Post reporters, columnists, photographers and editors, including 14 black staff members, were mobilized to cover the rioting. Gilbert had prepared detailed instructions for everyone who went out into the streets, which included:
“A hand moving quickly into a pocket to pull out a [press] pass may be misunderstood. Thus we have designed our own pass, which can be hung around the neck for easy identification . . .
“Our fleet model photographic cars without any ornamentation look like official cars and can be targets. They are now being repainted two-tone and ‘unstandardized’ in other ways . . .
“We are seeking the broadest possible perspective in our reporting of racial unrest and find that interracial teams are especially valuable in riot situations.”
Post reporters and photographers roamed the city, staying in touch with the newsroom from radio-equipped cars. Reporters radioed in reports of what they saw, while photographers returned periodically to drop off their film. During the first week after the death of King, The Post published 170,000 words of articles and more than 180 photographs of the three days of riots and their aftermath.
As a reporter on the local news staff, I spent some time on the street but more at the command center and the news conferences, covering the coordination of the local and federal response. It became clear to me that Christopher, Vance and Haines played key roles, although Washington, Murphy and D.C. Police Chief John B. Layton were included in major decisions. In effect, the federal government was managing the crisis in the federal city.
Weeks after the military occupation ended, I went to several of the troops’ bases to interview some of them. Capt. Leroy Rhode, commander of the 3rd Infantry’s D Company at Fort Myer, who led the first troops into Washington at 4:40 p.m. on April 5, had been a rifle platoon leader in the first Army unit sent into combat in Vietnam three years earlier. He recalled thinking, as his men set up a command center at the Capitol, “There I was, 26 years old, and with a hell of a responsibility, especially since those were fellow Americans we might have to face out on the streets.”
Drawing on our own research and the reporting and photography that had filled the newspaper for weeks, Gilbert, another reporter, Jesse W. Lewis Jr., and I later that year produced a Washington Post book, “Ten Blocks From the White House: Anatomy of the Washington Riots of 1968.” Writing in August 1968, Gilbert summarized at the book’s end:
“The city’s five-month attempt at a dialogue — in the schools, in public meetings on rebuilding burned-out streets, in angry statements from black activists about the police — has brought out some of the problems and alienation that lay behind the rioting.
“But, in August, the question remained whether the nation’s capital would be able to do an effective job of coping with the conditions that caused the riots.”
While there were no more riots after 1968, that question hung over the city during a white and black middle-class migration to the suburbs, the ups and downs of evolving home rule, a siege of crack cocaine and violent crime, a federal takeover of the District’s finances, and eventual downtown redevelopment and gentrification of the former riot corridor neighborhoods in a city now half black and half white.
Leonard Downie Jr. is the Weil Family Professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and a former executive editor of The Washington Post.