Colbert I. King is a native Washingtonian and a Washington Post columnist.
“At 5:30 p.m., on or near 7th Street NW: ‘Firemen are being attacked with sticks, stones and crow bars.’ At 6:35 p.m.: ‘Rioting continued out of control in many parts of the city.’ At 7:00 p.m. Good Hope Road SE: ‘Heavy looting . . . General disorder . . . Police are voicing concern over lack of troops. They have lost control.’ At 8:40 p.m. in Northeast: ‘Three separate negro [sic] sections burning for one solid mile.’ At 9:07 p.m. in Northwest: ‘Much of 14th street is burned out.’ At 10:25 p.m. in Northwest: ‘Extensive fire sweeping south on Georgia Avenue’ (upper 7th Street NW became Georgia Avenue at Florida Avenue). At 10:28 p.m. in Northwest: General Haines reported, ‘Most of 14th Street is gone.’ At 10:50 p.m. on H Street NE: Haines disclosed, ‘Many stores gutted by fire and some buildings have toppled into the streets.’ ”
The above are excerpts from timeline reports compiled by the Military District of Washington, Task Force Washington, the District of Columbia’s Office of Civil Defense and the White House Situation Room on the mini-disasters still popping up on the streets of D.C. on the evening of April 5, 1968, the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in the neck as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis at 7:05 p.m.
He died at 8:05 p.m., and black America erupted.
J. Samuel Walker’s “Most of 14th Street Is Gone” details the ticktock of events that occurred during the D.C. riots of 1968 — a two-day paroxysm of rage, destruction, exploitation and curfews following the assassination of King, the closest personage to Moses that African Americans had ever known.
Walker painstakingly retraces the steps and missteps of those days that sent our nation’s capital up in flames 50 years ago.
All of Walker’s accounts of the violent eruptions are secondhand; he arrived in the Washington area a year and a half after the riots. And by his own admission, Walker paid little attention to the signs of destruction in the city’s burned-out areas that greeted him upon his arrival or during his subsequent trips into the city from his home in the suburbs.
It was only when he decided that the riots would be a good book subject that he began the research that resulted in this 135-page story.
However, Walker’s depiction of the disorder that played out on the streets and in suites of government from the White House to city hall occupies more than 30 pages. Much of that information already has been reported and is readily available. Walker’s treatment of the riots is sandwiched between opening chapters that recite the city’s growth and development and the relegation of black residents to second-class status from the 1800s to the 1960s, and a nearly 40-page wrap-up of the riot’s aftermath and the District’s long road to recovery. Again, ground already trod in other journalistic and literary accounts of post-riots D.C.
Even with that, Walker sometimes doesn’t get it right. The mistakes aren’t fatal, but they are noticeable to anyone with more than cursory knowledge of the District.
“The Brown decision made integration of the District’s schools imperative,” Walker writes. The Brown v. Board of Education decision did no such thing. It was based on a violation of the 14th Amendment that was applicable to the states. The District, overseen by the federal government, posed a 14th Amendment problem.
The Supreme Court decision desegregating D.C. public schools was Bolling v. Sharpe , and it was based on the Fifth Amendment. Not fatal, but annoying.
Walker’s portrayal of the reaction of parents to D.C. school desegregation was also bracing, because it was limited to the reaction of whites. “Some white parents,” he wrote, “were dismayed to find that their children were assigned to schools largely attended by black students,” and they were greatly troubled by the discovery that the education received by black students didn’t “measure up to that of whites in the same grades.” He attributes white flight from the District, which accelerated after the school desegregation decision, to the devalued education white students received.
He quoted one white parent who complained that “the influx of colored children slowed down the pace of the whole school curriculum.” Nowhere does Walker mention the conditions that led black parents to seek admission for their children to white schools that were off-limits. For example, some black schools were so overcrowded that they had multi-shifts, while some well-equipped white schools were half-empty.
Neither did Walker write about the reaction of some white students across the District who walked out of their schools after the Bolling decision was announced.
Walker does usefully calculate the damage done by the disorders: $27 million in property damage; 1,352 private businesses damaged or destroyed, resulting in a loss of about 4,900 jobs in the city; 300 buildings razed; a net loss of 403 housing units in buildings that were demolished or heavenly damaged, including 354 apartments, 37 rooming houses and 12 single-family homes. The riots left 2,115 people displaced.
The city’s economy took a big hit, largely because of the effect of the lawlessness on the tourist industry. The tradition of school trips to Washington ended. Tours were abandoned, and downtown D.C. during dinner hour was a wasteland. To the question “Could an outbreak of rioting begin again?”: The easy answer is “Not like this.” No one wants to face similar self-destructive outcomes.
But a key question Walker raises at the outset of the book — “What lessons were learned?” — goes unanswered. Oh, the nation is better equipped to respond to explosive disorders — the machines, equipment, manpower and tear gas are in ready supply. Nowadays, shows of strength can be put on display in a matter of minutes. But some of the economic, social and political conditions that prevailed in the 1960s in D.C. and other urban areas, which Walker does capture in stark detail, are still with us 50 years later.
Neighborhoods of the poor remain more heavily black, and now brown. Resident displacement, brought on by urban renewal projects — once denounced as “Negro removal” — in the 1950s and ’60s, now takes place under the rubric of gentrification. Different name, same results: dislodged, dissatisfied and alienated families.
The D.C. public school system that produced white and black students with disparate academic achievement gaps five decades ago is still at it. Inadequate housing that plagued the District before the 1968 riots is nearly as inadequate today. Police misconduct, a mainstay in 20th-century America, is still as abusive and brutal as ever in many urban areas of the country.
Fifty years ago, as “Most of 14th Street Is Gone” reminds us, this city and much of the nation experienced the consequences of polarization, ignored grievances and racial divisions. Looking back 50 years from now, will we be any better?
By J. Samuel Walker
Oxford. 185 pp. $24.95