April 1968

Sam Smith – On the evening of April 4, 1968, this 30 year old was up on T Street with a group of anti-freeway protesters picketing the DC 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 cops.

The next morning things were quiet enough that we went about our business as usual. But I came home that afternoon from the office a few blocks away 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 had 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. Other 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.

H STREET BURNING AS SEEN FROM THE AUTHOR’S ROOF FOUR BLOCKS AWAY

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 then settled down in our smoky living room to watch on television what was happening to us.

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.

DC FIRE DEPARTMENT PHOTOS

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 to 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.

DC PUBLIC LIBRARY

H STREET THE MORNING AFTER
SAM SMITH PHOTO

The strange ambivalence — the slashes of violence mixed indiscriminately with the sparkle of carnival, the televised 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 attribute 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 supermarket 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 blasé. A lady walked into the gift shop 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 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..

During the riots, the black 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.”

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.

SAM SMITH PHOTO

At Mr. Henry’s – where a young Roberta Flack was the featured singer and who would go on to win two Grammies – the windows were boarded over and a sign was scrawled that read: “Soul brothers & sisters work here. Don’t put us out of work.”

MR HENRY’S, WHERE ROBETA FLACK WAS SINGING

At the time of the riot nearly 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 held a sunrise service on riot struck 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 for which I had been handling the media, Stokely Carmichael arrived and said that we whites were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement. 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.

SAM SMITH PHOTO

Four decades later, I was in the block where my office had been and there standing on the corner was a National Guardsman with a rifle in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other. It took me a moment to recall the last time that I had seen a National Guardsman with a rifle on that corner. And then I remembered.

But this day it was different. Because eight blocks away, at the nation’s Capitol, Barack Obama was about to be inaugurated.

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