FIRE: APRIL 4, 1968


Sam Smith

The issues the Capitol East Gazette covered in the 1960s and the causes it pressed ran the gamut. We campaigned for the then novel idea of packer sanitation trucks to replace the high sided open trash trucks. And we warned readers not put dog and cat dirt in their trash cans, quoting a trashman as saying, “How would you like to stand up in that truck in that stuff all day?’

We also quickly became a leading voice of the anti-freeway movement, and a precocious supporter of light rail and bikeways years before such phenomena became popular. My wife would later recall going to an anti-freeway meeting and being astounded that we thought we were actually going to stop a highway. In fact, we didn’t stop the one we were fighting; it sliced through Southeast Washington, dividing public housing from the rest of the community. The Gazette ran a photo two young boys looking wistfully up at “Southeast’s Berlin Wall.” But before it was all over, people like us all over DC had stopped hundreds of lane-miles that would have made the city look like an east-coast Los Angeles.

There was always something to save – such as the 200-old trees in Lincoln Park – and something to promote — such as a new swimming pool – and something to cover – such as activists Janie Boyd and Marguerite Kelly, who were taking on the local supermarket chains. They challenged quality disparities between outlets in different parts of town and campaigned for the open dating of meat. Meat at that time was dated with a code known only to supermarket employees. The Gazette took the bold position that “an understandable date on each package of meat would be of considerable value to the shopper,” noting that “we have shared with other consumers the experience of having meat go bad soon after it has been brought home and put in the refrigerator.”

The consumer activists also went comparison shopping, coming up with prices at inner city Safeways up to a third higher than those in a white section of town. Further they demonstrated that prices were hiked when welfare checks came out.

During congressional hearings, Rep. Henry Reuss double-checked the figures at lunch time, returning to the hearing room with bags of groceries that he placed on the podium. When a Safeway official blamed some of the price differences on human error, Reuss responded, “In an hour and half I found quite bit of human error.”

We also ran a feature on Jane Hardin who had opened a combination laundromat and legal services office on Pennsylvania Ave., where on the first day someone stuck a quilt into a washer, jamming up the pipes. And we wrote about community police officer Ike Fulwood who, as we drove past some grim public housing, remarked, “There’s trouble. They never ask the police their opinion when they build public housing.” Fulwood would eventually become the city’s chief of police.

But things were already well beyond the capacity of any one community to solve. America’s cities were starting to burn and you could feel the heat even in Capitol East. In September 1967, anti-poverty activist Lola Singletary convinced the white businessmen of H Street to form a organization dedicated to involvement in community problems The group, the Gazette reported, “intends to deal with such issues as employment, welfare, safety, health, housing, recreation and urban planning.”

In late 1967 I came up with the idea of pulling together the various leaders of Capitol East into an informal leadership council with the possibility of forming a major neighborhood coalition. Fourteen people attended a meeting on January 31: 7 white and 7 black.

Among our purposes:

To share our group differences so we can increase our knowledge of one another’s group positions, plans and needs.

To increase opportunities to share our group concerns so that we can better support one another’s group efforts.

To obtain full representation for our community in civic and governmental affairs.

To unite in common action where we have agreement.

Your participation in the Council does not commit your organization to any position or organizational arrangement.

In February 1968, I wrote in the Gazette:

As contrary as the thought is to our national self-image, it is entirely possible that we are giving up the struggle to solve the deepest problems of our cities. ~ National Guard troops are undergoing special training. Hotlines are being established. Armored trucks are being purchased. Police riot equipment is being beefed up. ~ Ramsey Clark, the Attorney General, was probably correct when he told a group of police chiefs and city officials recently that the nation’s power to deal with urban riots is increasing faster “than the underlying layers of frustration that cause them.”

On March 6, I wrote a prospective member

Although the Leadership Council has yet to establish a formal structure, the present trend appears to be in favor of a loose federation of leaders, relatively unstructured, and designed so we can act effectively when we have agreement but not get hung up when we don’t.

In the issue that appeared in late March, I wrote:

It seems like a lot of people, both the militants and the extremist moderates, are putting down Martin Luther King. I share some of the doubts that have been expressed as to whether his efforts this spring will make any difference. On the other hand, I wonder whether anything will. MLK does have one big factor in his favor. He is doing something. Congress isn’t. The White House isn’t. The District isn’t. The Urban League isn’t. Stokely isn’t. Possible or impossible, King’s show is the best we have in town this spring and it behooves all who would like to see some changes made to lend a hand.

That same month, the US Court of Appeals ordered the city to halt construction on four major sections of the city’s freeway system. For a change, it looked as if we might be winning.

o

H STREET BURNING AS SEEN FROM THE AUTHOR’S ROOF

On the evening of April 4, 1968, I was up on T Street with a group of anti-freeway protesters picketing the mayor’s house, when word came of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. We went home as the police cars poured by filled with shotgun-armed and helmeted police.

The next morning things were quiet enough that we went about our business as usual. But I came home that afternoon from the office to find a slow stream of people walking down the street with liberated articles: hangers full of clothes, a naugahyde hassock, a television set. Somewhere in our neighborhood a woman walked off with a case of whiskey from a liquor store. When she got home she realized she didn’t have any soda to go with it. She went back and was arrested as she tried to liberate her chaser.

There were only a few whites living in the block; but I felt little tension or hostility. I mainly noted the black smoke drifting down from H Street, four blocks away. Kathy was out back working in our foot-wide strip of garden, listening to reports of looting and arson on a portable radio as a black fog settled in. We decided to go up on the roof for a better look. H Street was burning. Others areas had gone first and the radio reported a lack of fire equipment to deal with the situation a few blocks to the north. I tried to count the fires but they congealed under the curtain of smoke.

We decided to pack just in case. For about ten minutes we gathered an instinctive selection of nostalgic items, favorite photos, the non-valuable but irreplaceable. Then we looked at what we had done and laughed. Like loyal children of our generation, we settled down in our smoky living room to watch on television what was happening to us.



DC FIRE DEPARTMENT PHOTOS

At six-thirty the next morning, a white friend from around the corner rang our doorbell. He wasn’t in trouble; he just wanted company on a tour of the area. We got into his car and drove to H, Seventh and 14th Streets. As I looked at the smoldering carcass of Washington and observed the troops marching down the street past storefronts that no longer had any windows, I thought, so this is what war is like. As we drove past a gutted store on 14th Street it suddenly reignited itself and flames leaped towards the pavement.

That day and for several days thereafter, we stuck to home. The trouble had flared again. We received anxious calls from friends and relatives in another parts of town and in other towns. We assured them we were all right; they seemed more upset about our physical safety than we were and I did not want t alarm them by speaking what was in my mind.

For a year and a half of running a neighborhood newspaper, I had observed, and tried to report, a part of the community seething with emotions much of the other part refused to recognize. Now it was worse than even I had thought and anger, frustration, and helplessness washed up on my mind’s shore.

I subconsciously prepared myself for it to get worse. In the middle of one of the riot nights, I awakened to a rumbling noise in the street and ran to the window expecting to see tanks rolling past our house. There were no tanks. In fact, the physical threat of the riots barely touched us.


H STREET THE MORNING AFTER
PHOTO BY SAM SMITH

The strange ambivalence of the riots — the slashes of violence mixed indiscriminately with the sparkle of carnival, the sounds of racial war penetrating the tranquility of a white couple’s home four blocks from disaster, our strangely ordinary experiences in an extraordinary situation — made the disorder a crazy amalgam that took weeks to sort out. For months after, when sporadic violence hit stores in our neighborhood, I expected to find our newspaper office smashed and looted. It wasn’t, despite the inviting glass storefront. I was inclined, with normal self delusion, to attributed this to having paid my dues. It was more likely that our second hand electric typewriters weren’t worth the candle when there was a whole Safeway up the street and a cleaners right on the corner.

Some people seemed to think I had something to do with it all. One of my advertisers, the photo dealer Harry Lunn, told me late one night that if anyone firebombed his store he was going to come and personally burn my house down. He had been or was still with the CIA so I tended to take him seriously.

Len Kirsten, an advertiser and owner of the Emporium, was more blasĂ©. A lady walked into the store one day and, spotting the pile of Gazettes on the floor, said, “Isn’t that a Communist paper?”

“Oh no,” Len replied cheerfully. “The editor’s a communist but the paper isn’t.”


THE EMPORIUM, OWNED BY LEN KIRSTEN (IN BLACK HAT)

On the other hand, Lee, of Helen & Lee’s Chinese carryout was totally indifferent to politics. Lee and his wife ran a regular ad bragging that the carryout had been recommended by their four doctor sons. One of the items on the menu was a pork chop sandwich — the chop still on a bone slapped between two pieces of Wonder Bread. After Helen died, the sign over the door was changed to read: & Lee’s Carryout.

Another favorite advertiser was Harry Spack, owner of. Spack’s Chicken on the Hill, which had a storefront windows filled with an 1883 Swiss music box, an airplane propeller, opera glasses, statuettes and drug store jewelry. There are Arabic sabers hanging over the restroom doors and travel posters on the wall. Also “the world’s smallest bar” — a few shelves filled with miniature liquor bottles.

“Now someday this place is going to have class,” Spack told our reporter, Greg Lawrence. “You know — cosmopolitan, relaxing, with fine music from the past. For instance,” he said as he reached for an object under the counter, “this vase from Europe has been dyed by its creators in pigeon blood. Now I ask you, what other cafe on Capitol Hill features decorations dyed in pigeon blood?”

LOCAL PUB – WHICH FEATURED A SINGER NAMED ROBERTA FLACK – TAKING PRECAUTIONS FOLLOWING THE RIOTS

The riot did more than $3 million worth of property damage. In the vicinity of H Street and some 124 commercial establishments and 52 homes were damaged. Another 21 businesses were damaged on or near 8th street. I wrote:

The destruction did not end with the quelling of the riot and the removal of federal troops who had guarded the area after being called in by city officials Sporadic arson occurred, primarily along H Street, doing hundreds of thousand of dollars additional damage. . . Reaction varied from the intense anger of many white merchants at the failure of police to shoot looters to the feeling on the part of some community leaders that a new opportunity had been created to correct old economic and social wrongs

During the riots, Mayor Walter Washington had been called to the office of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, where he was told to start shooting looters. Washington refused, saying that “you can replace material goods, but you can’t replace human beings.” Hoover then said, “Well, this conversation is over.” Replied Washington, “That’s all right, I was leaving anyway.”

One white businessman, Milton Hoffman of Art Young’s clothing store, which had been burned in the riot, proposed a one percent of gross sales contribution by businesses to be used for community projects. Black businesses posted large “soul brother” signs on windows and walls. Private social agencies and anti-poverty centers were left alone. A laundry near the US Marine Barracks received special attention; guards with fixed bayonets protected the troop’s clothing inside. The riots had created their own rules.


PHOTO BY SAM SMITH

At the time of the riot early 25% of the labor force in Capitol East was either unemployed, earning less than $3000 a year or employed only part-time. Over half of all adults living in the east part of the neighborhood had eight years or less schooling. Over a quarter of the housing units in this same area were listed by the census as dilapidated or deteriorating.

Not long after the riots it was Easter and three local ministers, Tom Torosian, Jesse Anderson and Ralph Dwan held a sunrise service on 8th Street, refusing what Camus called the sin of despair.

The riots weren’t the end of it. Even where there was a building to come back to, business on H Street wouldn’t really return for decades. A real estate dealer’s home was fire bombed as was a local settlement house. White and black friends no longer saw each other. And one day, in the dingy basement offices of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael said that we whites were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement. Black nationalism had arrived and people like me were out.

The dream of a functioning bi-racial community was in pieces. H Street, with its jagged free standing walls and piles of rubble, looked like photos from a World War II retrospective. For me, hope had lost its virginity. There was no work for a white editor in a black neighborhood anymore. If I was to talk to anyone now, they would have look a lot more like me.

To be sure, a bi-racial slate of reform Democrats was elected in early May as convention delegates and central committee members. The slate included both Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy supporters, united in a desire to defeat the locally popular Hubert Humphrey. I won one of McCarthy’s slots on the party central committee. McCarthy had stated that he wanted no part of a coalition but some of his supporters, including myself, disagreed and so worked out a deal. On March 31, the anti-war Democrats for Peace and Progress held a neighborhood convention in Capitol East. Five persons — a community organizer, a minister , a physicist, a school lunch clerk, and myself — were nominated. To my surprise, the Kennedy organization accepted us as well as other McCarthyites from around the city.

It was an unprecedented relinquishment of political power to mere party members and it produced an unusual slate that included community organizers and college professors, mothers on welfare and lawyers, black militants and a white philanthropist. Possibly no slate in America has ever been so varied.

For example, the slate included Sophie Reuther, wife of Victor Reuther. A former union organizer, she had once jumped out of a second story window to escape armed KKKers who had been set upon the union at the urging of management. Recalled Victor later, “She went underground and it took me three days to find her.” It was not a singular incident. On her 25th birthday, the party had been interrupted by two gun-wielding company thugs who forced their way in and began pistol-whipping Walter Reuther, her brother-in-law.

Our campaign was short, lasting about month and for some of us election day began to close rapidly before we had any notion of what we were supposed to be doing. Typical of our appearances was a “debate on Vietnam” before a group of 12 persons. Since my opponent was also opposed to the war, our confrontation was rather turgid. We were preceded by a couple of 14th Precinct cops who promised to get an abandoned car towed away and to take action on other matters less cosmic than withdrawal from Southeast Asia. I was glad the policemen were not running for office. Still we knew we had support. A poll taken by a community group found that 44% already favored an end to the war’s escalation and to the bombing of North Vietnam.

On election day I stood outside my precinct distributing sample ballots. The Humphrey people were there too, but our main competition came from a man who accosted as many voters as he could and read them a two-page polemic against the police department for having stolen his watch three years earlier.

We won and the next day, the Evening Star offered this editorial comment on the new Democratic Central Committee:

They are likely to be more militant, more aggressive and more insistent on direct participation in local affairs. What this bodes for the community remains to be seen.

With such unbridled enthusiasm from the establishment, we were off to a good start. One month later, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. On June 7, I wrote:

The nation had watched John Kennedy die and had not changed. It had watched Martin Luther King die and had not changed. And it had watched Robert Kennedy die. . . .The central point of these tragedies was not their proximate cause but rather that we, as a nation, had assigned so much of the burden of hope, progress, decency and faith to so few men.

Tomorrow I shall go down to see the funeral cortege arrive at Union Station. I shall go not just out of sorrow and respect, but also to try to find some small sign that we collectively — without waiting for someone else to do it for us — are willing and able to have a dream, or seek a newer world. Then, perhaps, we can become young again.

In June I wrote:

To a large extent, a community such as Capitol East is limited in its ability to respond with justice and adequacy to the current situation. Even if we had the will to change, we would remain hostage to the larger inertia of the nation and the city.

In September I wrote:

The Republicans have nominated Richard Nixon for president. The Democrats have nominated Hubert Humphrey for president. The reading scores of Capitol East schools are lower than ever. Some 9th Precinct patrolmen don’t want to ride in integrated scout cars. Some white DC fireman don’t want to use the same breathing apparatus as black firemen. Congress has passed, and the President has signed a bill ordering the District to complete a freeway program overwhelmingly opposed by the people of the city. DC Transit wants another fare hike and the transit commission says there’s nothing it can do about it. . . We could write an editorial on each of these items, but they’d all be pretty much the same. From the mundane to the cosmic, it’s been a busy month. We think we’ll just wait until October and hope things get better.

About six months later, I folded the Capitol East Gazette into the DC Gazette, a publication more like the many underground papers sprouting throughout America.

Later I would explain it by saying that it seemed like too many of my readers wanted to burn down too many of my advertisers, but it wasn’t really funny. And it still hurts.

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One thought on “FIRE: APRIL 4, 1968

  1. Blacks have invariably defeated their own self-interest through embracing the totally counterproductive "black nationalism" line. They didn't learn then, and they haven't learned now.

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