How We Remember Four Days in April 1968
"I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years."
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an interview with Mike Wallace on CBS in 1966
In a city where less than an inch of snow can cripple public transit and force school closings, D.C. appeared committed to being open for business on Friday, April 5, 1968—the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis. Workers were expected on the job. D.C. public school principals had the option to issue an early dismissal.
But things quickly began to deteriorate. Parts of the city where mostly African Americans lived erupted in a cathartic civil disorder. Students, business owners, and District and federal workers had to foot it home when the buses stopped running. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed executive orders to deploy a militarized National Guard to the streets. Mayor Walter E. Washington ordered a 5:30 p.m. curfew and prohibited the sale of liquor, guns, and explosives.
After four days, calm and some order returned. Monday’s evening edition of the Washington Star reported eight deaths—most by smoke inhalation or in fires, two by police shooting, one by stabbing. Thirteen is the final death toll. More than 7,000 people were arrested. Damages were eventually estimated in the tens of millions in 1968 dollars.
In 2018 we’re still reaching for the words to describe four days in April of 1968. “Riot” and “Rebellion.” It’s one or the other, or they overlap, depending on one’s political sentiments and interpretations of loss and gain.
The four days had the feeling of a crescendo that had been years in the making.
In 1953, the Supreme Court desegregated D.C. restaurants in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc. In 1954, the Court desegregated schools nationwide in Brown v. Board of Education. That same year, bulldozers arrived to level a swath of Southwest residences and businesses by eminent domain for urban renewal. Thousands of residents, mostly black, were displaced.
King gave his now famous “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. The next year, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address, and D.C. residents cast their first ballots for a U.S. president, a result of the ratification of the 23rd Amendment in 1961.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Chairman Marion Barry arrived in D.C. in 1965 to start a local chapter. In the same year, Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem and a traffic stop incident sparked civil unrest in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Johnson appointed Washington mayor of D.C. in 1967. He was the first black mayor of a major American city, and accepted the appointment on condition of having complete authority over the police department. Johnson created and appointed a nine-person city council for D.C. that year. (Home Rule wouldn’t come for the District until 1973.)
In July of 1967, incidents and protests touched off civil unrest in Detroit, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Newark, and other cities. Johnson formed a National Advisory Board on Civil Disorders, the Kerner Commission, to deliver a report and recommendations in response to three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?
That October, 100,000 anti-Vietnam War demonstrators marched to the Pentagon. Polls revealed American support for the war had dropped below 50 percent. In January of the new year, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, a surprise attack on South Vietnamese. Though the North Vietnamese lost one of the bloodiest battles of the war, they gained a public relations win—American support for the war cratered.
March 25, 1968: Hundreds of Howard University students ended a four-day sit-in inside the administration building after round-the-clock negotiations. Their demands included the resignation of President James M. Nabrit Jr.; more Afro-American history and culture in the curriculum; and closer links with the D.C. community.
No single story encapsulates D.C. in 1968, and the four days in April that devastated hearts and minds and blighted several neighborhoods—14th Street/Columbia Heights, H Street NE, U Street NW, Shaw, and parts of Adams Morgan and Anacostia.
Out of those ashes grew, in D.C., a set of residents who committed themselves to serving the city for decades to come. They were ordinary people in extraordinary times managing ordinary lives, even when it seemed the rest of the world was coming apart.
In these oral histories, those who have been watching D.C. evolve for 50 years offer their sharp memories of King’s death and the period that followed. Riot or Rebellion? The witnesses have no difficulty finding the words to describe the four days in April 1968. It’s become part of their resurrection as stakeholders in the city.
1968: Age 26. Porter has been a D.C. police officer for four years. His original plan was to go to Howard University’s x-ray school after serving in the Coast Guard to work on the Alaska pipeline, but MPDC offered him a position. Having a new family, Porter took the job. It allowed him to buy a house with a yard in Suitland, Maryland. In 1968, Porter was assigned to the First Precinct (now MPD Headquarters on Judiciary Square), covering downtown, the Mall to K Street NW, and 2nd Street NE to 14th Street NW.
2018: Age 76. Porter retired from the department as a lieutenant. He is now a hospice volunteer and lives in Upper Marlboro, Maryland with his wife. The Porters enjoy D.C.’s restaurants and cultural attractions. He misses the sense of community people had in the D.C. of his youth.
As I recall we never left our precinct. We stayed down there because it was pretty valuable real estate. They didn’t really want anything to happen downtown. There were store windows broken, and people down there stealing like they were everywhere else. But it wasn’t as bad as it was on H Street and up on 14th Street.
The majority of people who lived in D.C. were not out in the street burning, breaking into buildings, and stealing stuff. Most people were shocked and very concerned that Martin Luther King had been killed. I just think some people saw it as an opportunity to do things that they shouldn’t have been doing.
There was one day that I was coming to work during that period that they wouldn’t let me in the city. I was in MPDC uniform and I came to the checkpoint at Pennsylvania and Southern Avenue, and the National Guard turned me around and told me that I was not allowed in the city.
I called my precinct and told them I wasn’t coming to work today. They asked me if I was crazy (laughs). “Well why aren’t you?” “Because the National Guard won’t let me in,” I said. They said, “What do you mean? Are you in uniform?” “Yeah, I’m in uniform, but they won’t let me in.”
They had a police car from that precinct [come] over there, meet me at the National Guard checkpoint, and let me in the city. These guys didn’t know what they were doing, but still, you don’t want to get in a confrontation over nothing stupid.
After 1968, there was a real effort to recruit more African-Americans into the police department.
I actually worked in recruiting. We had a program that was out to try to increase the number of minorities in the police department. It was obvious that this was a chocolate city that had a vanilla police department, and they wanted to make some changes.
I remember Mr. [Calvin] Rolark and his wife, Wilhelmina Rolark, were very much involved in trying to get the word out to the community. We had two trailers, I believe. You could come in and take the exam to be a police officer, and go through the rest of the process.
Of course, the usual thing that people were saying: “You’re lowering standards.” That wasn’t true. It was the same test that they had been giving for years and years. It was a civil service exam. There wasn’t lowering of any standards or anything. As I said, either you passed or you didn’t. I think we were reasonably successful.
1968: Age 8. Fong is a student at Oyster Elementary School. He lives with his family in Adams Morgan but spends a lot of time in D.C.’s Chinatown. Fong’s father is a federal accountant for HUD and the Labor Department. His mother, a homemaker, works in her father’s Bing’s Chinese-American carryout restaurant at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW.
2018: Age 58. Fong is president of the Chinese Youth Club, founded in 1939 in D.C.’s Chinatown. This is an affiliation he’s had since his youth. Fong manages his family’s properties, including the property where his grandfather’s carryout restaurant was located. The Chinese New Year celebration is a very busy time for him, especially organizing CYC’s traditional Lion Dance performances to bring good luck in the new year. Fong lives with his wife and children in Bethesda, Maryland.
In 1968, my father had a house in Adams Morgan, a block and a half from my grandfather. My grandmother and grandfather lived above the restaurant.
We definitely witnessed riots. We primarily stayed at my father’s house. There was a Safeway on the other side of our alley, and there was a parking lot adjacent to the Safeway. There were National Guard trucks, and tents set up in that parking lot, and looters would run past into the alley.
I could still hear my mom yelling at us kids, “Get inside, get inside, and shut the door. Here comes some [tear] gas.” So we ran in and shut the doors.
My grandfather’s business was not touched. There was a big plate glass window, like many of the storefronts at the time. He had a good rapport with the neighborhood, and he was not white, and so, it’s a little tricky.
Race relations were not simply black and white, but how do blacks view Chinese? How do whites view Chinese? And so, blacks just saw my grandfather, and our family, as, “You know what? They’re not the oppressors. They’re not white.” And so they left my grandfather’s store untouched. Yet, all around him were bricks thrown into windows, and stores looted.
We were slow in seeking refuge from the 1968 riots. A lot of families got out of town a lot faster. It took my dad five years. We joke about that but, I think, my father and my mom wanted us to feel safe at school. There was turmoil in the city schools. I mean, when I went to Gordon Junior High School there were policemen patrolling the halls with German shepherds.
Did your family every talk about Dr. King, or did you talk about him in school?
He was in the news. He was on the TV all the time, and our family talked about Dr. King. We talked about him in school. He was the voice of the protest. He was the leader. He was the symbol, but I would say that whole force, and realizations of how important Dr. Martin Luther King was, and is, and continues to be has grown in the 50 years since his assassination. I believe the story’s much better told, more impactfully told than it was when we were young children in 1968 and ’69.
1968: Age 20. Long lives with her uncle in Greenleaf Gardens in Southwest. She’s a clerk for Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), having completed clerk and typist job training. Reverend Dr. Leon Sullivan, a colleague of King’s, founded OIC in Philadelphia in 1964. D.C.’s OIC opened in 1966.
2018: Age 70. Long is retired from her job as office manager for Councilmember Jack Evans. She still performs constituency services for D.C. residents on a volunteer basis. Long is a widow and lives in the city.
I was sitting in a chair at home when they said he had been assassinated. For whatever reason I felt like I needed to be out among the people because I know people were protesting. People were rioting. I don’t think I necessarily wanted to go where they were rioting. But I did go where they were protesting.
Was it a riot or a rebellion?
At the time, I guess you could say a rebellion because I remember standing in front on the opposite side of Kopy Kat (on H Street), and they had National Guard on one side of the street. It might have been four or five of them. But you had about 15, 20 people on the opposite side of the street. I recall the guy and the mentality that he had. It was like, “Why are you all standing here? If you want to go into the store, you outnumber them, so let’s go into the store.” He was right. They didn’t do anything.
Did King’s work make a difference in your life?
One of the reasons they were able to hire some of the people that they did at OIC was because of some of the demonstrations that went on. Dr. Sullivan was part of those demonstrations. That’s how OIC was pretty much established.
Housing opened up. Job training opened up. I witnessed a change in the city council in terms of blacks in various positions. Marion Barry made sure certain things happened for seniors. All of a sudden they were able to apply for public and assisted housing.
I’ve known people who didn’t know what work was who were able to receive certain forms and types of training. I’ve seen people that started off maybe a file clerk ended up being a director. I’ve seen people that I worked with that were clerks who are now councilmembers.
When I went to work for the mayor, when I went to work for Jack [Evans], you were supposed to have a degree to do constituent services. I didn’t have a degree. When I went to work for OIC, that was a part of the qualifications. I out-placed most of the ones that were there with a degree and stayed longer than any of them.
1968: Age 14. Richard Brooks is a student at Stuart Junior High School on E Street NE. His father started off working with the post office and went on to work at the Bethesda Naval Hospital as a pharmacist. His mother is a hair stylist and homemaker.
2018: Age 64. He’s changed his name to Anwar Saleem, and is Executive Director of H Street Main Street. He lives in Shaw.
I was in band practice, and Miss Pettigrew came across the loudspeaker and said that Dr. King had been murdered, and there was a disturbance, and we were to go straight home. I went straight home. My mother was kind of strict on us about community activities and doing the right thing.
When you start floating around, as a young child, you wanna seek, find, search, discover, and we did just that. We start seeing things that we hadn’t seen before. Brothers were looting, and other activities that were taking place. Somehow I end up at 7th and H Street with some friends, and a buddy of mine, Vernon Marlow, was in the store, Morton’s, when that store started to burn. I remember him getting trapped in that store, and he never came out.
Was it a riot or a rebellion?
A little of both. I think it was more rebellion to a certain degree.
As a kid, I was still vibrant, mischievous. At the same time I was aware and willing to learn what was going on. We didn’t have a lot of African-American police officers. Maybe one who was a school officer. Most of them were Italian, and a lot of them were mean as hell. They always found a way to inflict pain on you if they could back then.
You have store owners of the time who didn’t treat you as fair as you should have been treated. H Street businesses were predominantly Jewish and European. African-Americans had some of those jobs, still not many. And if you got mistreated … I think African-Americans went after those businesses first, not looking at the repercussion of what can happen once everything died down. You can be without retail stores, food stores, and everything else. I think it was misdirected.
I know for a fact that some of the store owners burned their own stores. It was a chance for them to get out. I didn’t understand the whole scenario about insurance. They called it “white lightening”—white store owners burning their own stores, and collecting that insurance.
If anything good came out of H Street, it was that for the first time, African-Americans had a chance to open their own business, and send their kids to college, and to buy their homes. That gave a sense of pride. That gave a sense of wanting to do more. We did just that until the drug epidemic.
I spent so much time on H Street looking at things and all the rest. Somehow, as I grew, I’ve always felt that I was going to be involved in the revitalization of H Street.
1968: Age 44. Larry Rosen, a World War II veteran, lives in Silver Spring, Maryland and owns Smith’s Pharmacy at 14th and Clifton streets NW. Martin “Doc” Jones is the pharmacist, and Raymond Flowers manages the soda fountain before getting a new job with Montgomery County Schools. Both Robinson and Flowers are African-American and live near the pharmacy, which was destroyed in the days after King’s death.
2018: Age 94. The site of Smith’s Pharmacy is part of a Cultural Tourism DC Heritage Trail. Rosen anticipates the annual calls from around the globe for his story about the 1968 riots. He’s meticulously written out the tale on his blog, larryrosen.org. On April 4, 2014, Rosen kicks off his post with “HERE WE GO AGAIN.” He’s now focused on documenting stories of D.C.’s Old Southwest neighborhood where he grew up, before urban renewal, in a home once occupied by the father of entertainer Al Jolson. Rosen’s father worked in the back of a poultry store as a shochet, slaughtering chickens in the kosher tradition. He was also a mohel, performing circumcisions for $10. Rosen is a member of the Ohev Sholom synagogue that merged with Talmud Torah, an Old Southwest congregation. He currently lives in Rockville, Maryland.
My older brother Phil was like a father image. Phil attended George Washington University and became a pharmacist. When I went to high school, he says, “You take typing. You never know when it’ll happen.”
Somebody told me that they were hiring typists. He said, “Are you interested in going to Virginia?” I said “Well, if I have to.” He says, “They’re building a building called the Pentagon, the largest office building in the world and we need people to type.”
I go work there, and then the war breaks out in ’41. I left [Southwest] in ’43 to get in the army, went to Camp Walters. The man is amazed that I can type. I learned how to type a military letter. I learned how to type and maintain a service record. My mother was still living in Southwest then. She did not move ’til 1944 when my father died. I got a furlough to go to my father’s funeral.
I’m discharged August 4th, 1946. Talked to my brother. He wants me to become a pharmacist and go to work. I’m in GW. I didn’t get excited about chemistry. I took a course in radio broadcasting. My brother’s got three drugstores, 9th and U, 7th and S, Georgia and Kenyon. My brother says, “I know the guy at District Wholesale. They’re selling drug stores.”
I go there. I get hired, and again the typing helped. We’re calling the drugstores every day and I log the name of the drugs. They call me “Doc.” I hear there’s a drugstore for sale. The area was black and white. The ice cream people will lend you money. I’m able to buy the drugstore with money my brother lends. I take over money that this man [the owner] owed. District Wholesale, where I worked nine years, gives me merchandise on credit.
We actually have a luncheonette that sells chicken. We do a hundred dollars a day on the fountain when sandwiches were a dime. You could get breakfast for 69 cents.
I’m hiring, and I’m doing well.
What were you doing on April 4, 1968?
“Did you hear the news? Dr. King got killed.” I said, “What are you talking about? I knew him, he’s great.” I’m living now in Silver Spring. And “Oh yeah,” he tells me, “There’s a riot.” I turn the TV on. There’s a riot. I called the druggist. I called Raymond [Flowers] who’s my trusted employee, a black fella with whom I’m friendly, and I get ahold of him. He says, “Yeah, man, they’re looting your store.”
I call the police. “They’re rioting. Can you help me?” I’m excited.
“Well, sir, they’re rioting all over 14th, but we’ll do the best we can.”
I didn’t sleep all night. I go down Friday morning. The whole goddamned store—excuse me for cursing—is burned up, everything. I can’t get a hold of the insurance man. I don’t know what to do. I called Raymond, he says, “Doc, you’re gone.”
1968: Age 20. Norris Dodson is in the second semester of his freshman year at Antioch College in Ohio. His grandfathers own businesses in D.C. due to discrimination in hiring and licensing in their professions. Norris Augusta Dodson Sr., a chemist, invented and produced an embalming fluid for use by black funeral businesses. John R. Pinckett Sr. owned a real estate agency that employed many of D.C.’s black brokers. Pinckett’s son-in-law (Dodson’s father) is running the family-owned business in 1968.
2018: Age 70. Norris Dodson continued in the real estate business as co-owner of Dodson Realty, Inc. for 10 years until he sold his business to Long & Foster, Inc. He remains a real estate agent and manager. He regrets he can’t employ the number of real estate professionals his father employed, about 40, but is thinking about starting it up again with the original name John R. Pinckett, Inc. Dodson and his wife, also a Realtor, live in D.C.
It was from my parents that I learned about the unrest in D.C. They softened it for me because they didn’t want me to be unable to think clearly while in school.
After looking at newspapers, I found out how difficult it was for many of my friends, relatives, and family businesses that were living and operating out of the Shaw area. At that time, we had two family business. To hear about how the riot took place, the vandalism, and the looting, and the turning of the viable community into a blighted, boarded up community was just devastating to me.
I didn’t see it firsthand until spring vacation. You could almost still smell the smoke, looking at the cinders. I walked some of the neighborhoods with my father. Neighborhoods I once knew very well, I hardly knew at all. There were people who needed to change their patterns because of it. I didn’t realize that there could be a riot in the nation’s capital that could be so devastating, and destructive, not only to real estate, and environment, but to people’s lives.
We were very active in the areas that had large African-American populations, and the firm developed a reputation that was so sterling that—this is a great irony—we had non-minority firms referring business to us in areas where they chose not to go. It would never happen today.
The percentage of housing and business properties owned by African-Americans is depleting significantly and rapidly. The new owners too frequently—although some of them are very liberal-minded—don’t even consider African-Americans when it comes to selling a house. They will come to us if we have properties on the market because there’s a shortage and they have to come to us.
Discrimination might not even be the right word to use, but these are people that assume that you gotta look like them and go to the country club with them, and live in the neighborhood in order to know the neighborhood well enough to get the best buyer.
I had a young fellow call me. He’s a wonderful entrepreneur and representative of a lot of young people I’ve worked with. He told me that I was a great mentor for him. He told me that I referred him to four different people. Each helped him advance. He said it was attributable to me. My payday might not be over the settlement table sometimes, but that was the kind of payday that I really, really respect. Both my grandfathers did the same thing, and my aunts and uncles did the same thing.
1968: Age 20. Nightingale is a sophomore political science major at The George Washington University. She works in a D.C. print shop to finance her college education and volunteers to pass out flyers for Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential run.
2018: Age 70. Nightingale is a fellow at the Urban Institute, which was founded in 1968, after serving as chief evaluation officer for the Department of Labor in the Obama administration. She’s been affiliated with the Urban Institute for 44 years, starting with a part-time job in the library while she was a student at GW. Nightingale and her husband live in Arlington, Virginia.
I was a student at George Washington University, in my second year of school. I know the dorm room that I was in because I drive by it every day, and on the fifth floor on the corner of 19th and F, and that’s where I was on the day that Dr. King was assassinated, and it was ... traumatic for all of us, and confusing, and scary.
We did get notice that we should leave if we can. [GW] had escorts escorting groups to the airports, to the buses to leave. Some stayed, but I think most did leave. I stayed a couple of days because I couldn’t figure out how to get home. I didn’t have money. My family didn’t have money. But I did eventually go home for a while.
I didn’t feel like my life was in danger. I wasn’t afraid. I was just confused and sad, and we didn’t really know what to do.
I remember at the end of 1968 and thinking “Wow! This was an unbelievable year. Nothing will ever be like this.” The assassinations really defined the year, both Dr. King and Robert Kennedy. It was the beginning of the anti-war movement, the Poor People’s March and the tents on the Mall. The universities in D.C., in general, were not the radical hotbeds like Berkeley and Columbia, but by the end of the year, we were almost there, and the next year we certainly were as active and radical as the leading universities had been.
I remember seeing Marion Barry in the neighborhoods when I was young, and the work of the Urban League, Sasha Bruce House, and the youth movements. Those were examples of the rising social awareness in the cities about both poverty and race.
My father was an Irish-Catholic Democrat. My mother was a Greek-American WAC (Women’s Army Corps) veteran. Fifteen years later, my mother said to me, “You were right about the [Vietnam] war. ” Because she was an Eisenhower Republican, we had this generation gap. We didn’t always talk about race, we didn’t talk about the war very much because when we did, it was so clear that we weren’t on the same wavelength.
1968: Age 20. Holmes’ parents, Bessie and Saxton Yates Howard, bought their Columbia Heights home in 1957. Holmes’ father died in 1960. In 1968, Jacqueline is a newlywed and the first African-American to work in the medical administration offices of the Veterans Administration. Eventually Holmes and her husband move to Silver Spring, but cracks begin to appear in the marriage and Holmes returns to her parents’ home in Columbia Heights. She raises her son there.
2018: Age 70. Holmes retired a GS-14 pay grade from the Veterans Administration in December 2017 after serving for 50 years. Holmes received numerous honors from the VA. She’s an active and lifelong member of Asbury United Methodist Church, and a first soprano in Asbury’s Wesleyan Choir. She was crocheting an afghan for her church’s bereavement ministry before our interview. The house Holmes’ parents bought in 1957 has been passed down to her and she lives there today.
I graduated from Strayer [University] one week, and went down to the VA and applied the next week. [The lady in personnel] said, “Jackie, do us proud.” And I’m like, “OK,” but I couldn’t think of what she was talking about at that time until I got up on the 8th floor, and the only people of color were the two men that delivered the mail.
What were you doing on April 5, 1968?
I called mama. I called her from work before I left to let her know that I was trying to get home. She picked me up. And we came back home, and we were just devastated.
I could see the smoke from 14th Street. In those days we had the Tivoli Theatre, the Savoy Theater, we had G.C. Murphy’s down there. You’ve got people of color that had businesses down there and, when you throw that flame, it doesn’t decide where it’s going to go. It’s gonna burn whatever’s in its path. You’re hurting everybody.
When I finally did go down 14th Street, I could not believe it. I mean, just shells. I wondered then if we were ever going to recover. The Tivoli Theatre survived, but it’s now like a little carry out eatery down there on the corner. It’s not really a theater the way it used to be.
Was it a riot or a rebellion?
I think it was just anger, a need to just vent, and destroy, and I mean, you know, sometimes you get mad, and you slam something down. And whoever threw the first firebomb, or whatever, it just went ballistic after that. Totally out of control. You had nowhere to go to get your groceries. I used to walk to the Safeway and get groceries. I was scared to go down 14th Street because you didn’t know when you might get attacked or mugged. It stayed boarded up for months, years.
I still like seeing my friends, but it’s not the same. I’ve got good neighbors. I’m friends with everybody in the three-story condo next door. The house doesn’t feel the same because it’s just me, and losing my cat the day before I retired—Pollux laid right here and died in my arms. But the bench outside, it’s covered over because there’s a cat that sleeps under that bench, and his name is Phil.
1968: Age 19. Siegel is a transfer undergraduate student at The George Washington University. She participates in anti-war demonstrations.
1968: Age 24. Tabor is working at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in D.C. He’s also active in the California Grape Boycott against Giant and Safeway. He protests the Vietnam War as a government employee.
2018: For years, Tabor, now 75, and Siegel, 69, were in each other’s orbit at rallies, marches, and community organizing events before they connected and married. Siegel has been an activist for fair and affordable housing, having created D.C.’s first limited equity cooperative in 1978. Tabor has been active in civil rights and peace movements and school-food activism by pushing for farm-to-cafeteria legislation. Tabor and Siegel own the Licking Creek Bend Farm in Pennsylvania, and they sell produce at D.C. farmers markets in Adams Morgan and in communities that have limited access to fresh food. They are preparing the farm for its 46th season. They live in Takoma Park, Maryland.
Tabor: I had never thought there would be riots in Washington ever. [D.C.] just seemed like a very placid community. I’d been part of so many demonstrations, I didn’t feel people were angry enough.
For me, it was rebellion. No question. I had just seen all the injustice of the segregated housing, the swimming pools. I remember once we had a swim-in. I think it was with Georgetown. As soon as we went in—a black and white group—people jumped out of the pool, and left as if God knows what was happening.
I remember the 7th Street merchants, embarrassed that they were Jewish, because I was Jewish. It was a remnant of the old Jewish community. In their minds, they weren’t doing anything wrong. Jews themselves were discriminated against. They were barred from a lot of professions, so teaching and real estate were the big professions. To me, their attitudes were ranging from some that might have been racist, but also some that were just trying to be good people. I saw the whole range. It was only one department store, Morton’s, that hired people of color as workers. All those other stores wouldn’t, just as the banks wouldn’t hire anybody. That was just too blatant. I felt that this was a positive thing that the anger got expressed openly.
Siegel: I think I didn’t understand the looting as relating to the death of an icon.
We started the Soap Factory in Adams Morgan. The Community Soap Factory it was called. It was in a warehouse. And I can’t remember the name of the owner. He was an appliance owner who had a store that had been trashed, and he rented us his warehouse because he had nothing left.
That was sort of the beginning of a lot of the cooperative movement with all kinds of cooperatives from lending institutions to grocery stores. Something developed in people that said, “We need to have more control of basic things in our lives.”
Tabor: Right out of the ashes, the phoenix was rising of communitarianism, and cooperation, and an attempt to go back to the roots—food systems, growing our own food, communes—and that all came out of that period.
A year later, we did a Freedom Seder in Channing Phillips’ church, Lincoln Temple. We had close to a thousand people come and celebrate together. I was involved in a Jewish group of activists, some of whom had worked in the South. Some of them had been in CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), SNCC. A friend of ours at the Institute for Policy Studies, Arthur Waskow, wrote a Freedom Hagaddah.
Siegel: One of the themes of a seder is “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.”
Tabor: “All who are in need, let them come, and celebrate the Passover. The years we were slaves, next year we shall be free.” The concept of Passover fit right into it.
1968: Age 24. An alumna of Radcliffe College, Myers is a second-year medical student at Georgetown University. She’s married to Robert “Bob” Myers, a foreign service professional. They have one son. Bob is assigned to Vietnam and Myers decides to take a year off from medical school to join him not in Vietnam but in Bangkok, Thailand. When they return to D.C. in ’68, the Myers purchase a home in Glover Park for a “scandalously high price of $34,000.”
2018: Age 74. Robert Myers died in 2005. After practicing family and general internal medicine, Margery Myers retired from the Veterans Hospital in D.C. She has three sons. The eldest lives in their Glover Park house, another is president of a hockey team in Massachusetts, and the youngest, Chris Meyers Asch, co-authored Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital with George Derek Musgrove. She is passionate about healthcare access and nutrition, and lives in Chevy Chase.
I was actually part of the SNCC up in Cambridge. In ’63 was our big luncheon. I was there, and marched on Washington in ’63. Of course, we were so impressed, and just so energized by his [King’s] rhetoric. Obviously history made that speech [“I Have a Dream”] more famous, as time went by. The whole thing was something that I was a part of, and always thought was extraordinary, and very positive.
Can you describe where you were on the day the news about Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination was reported?
They had just gone through the Tet Offensive and that was a very, very trying time because we didn’t get any communication between Bangkok and Saigon for almost a week during that time. All we heard was there was a lot of fighting, and it was really quite frightening. We didn’t know what was going on, and the Communists had definitely won the upper hand at that point.
[Bob] was able to get out, and we went to the beach, had a little vacation, and it was after that that we heard. The news came of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and then, you know, the burning.
When I came back [to D.C.] I was a third-year medical student, which meant that I had worked in various hospitals. I worked at the VA, and my first tour was in neurology, and neurosurgery, and then, I worked in pediatric surgery. Most of our patients were African-American, and that was just the way it was.
I was always grateful for having had, some contact at All Souls [Unitarian Church] growing up, with people like Sylvia Drew and friends in Sunday School, because I didn’t have black friends in my neighborhood. I did at college, and I always felt much more comfortable than some of the kids who just never really had any contact with anybody other than white folks.
1968: Age 17. Miller has a job at the Bookazine wholesale bookstore in Greenwich Village. He graduates from Christopher Columbus, a predominantly Jewish and Italian high school in the North Bronx. When Miller arrives for his freshman orientation at Howard University in the fall of ’68, he has his copy of Black Power by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton with him. He keeps his Paul Simon and Joan Baez records under wraps while his classmates introduce him to Motown, The Intruders, and the Delfonics.
2018: Age 67. Miller is a self-described “literary activist,” memoirist, and Mayor’s Art Awards recipient. He hosts On the Margin, a weekly radio program on WPFW, and The Scholars on UDC TV. City Point Press published a book of his poems, If God Invented Baseball, this year. He lives in D.C.
I do have a clear remembrance of Robert Kennedy because I was very much caught up in Kennedy running for president. I remember hearing on the radio that he was shot and telling my mother and father. And immediately, my mother was talking about, “Oh, that family’s been through too much.” So, I remember that. I don’t remember where I was at King’s assassination.
I do remember, probably ’67 that I did see King for the first time. I went to this big rally against the war that was out near the UN. I always remember that very clear because it was the only time I saw King from a distance. But when I turned around, I actually bumped into Paul Simon. I was a Simon & Garfunkel passionate fan, and to bump into Paul Simon was the highlight of my day.
I remember when John Kennedy was assassinated. I do remember clearly when Malcolm X was assassinated. Keep in mind my family, being from the West Indies primarily, we were not involved in the civil rights.
What was it like coming to D.C.?
At that time if you were a Howard student coming to campus after the King assassination and after the Howard student protest, you were instructed as a student to get your nation building skills and take the skills back to the community.
Cook Hall, which was the dorm I was in, was kind of the more radical dorm out of all the dorms on campus. Because this was after the riots, there were a lot of people who were coming to college for the first time. How can we solve the problem of riots and the ghetto? We need to open up some channels, so some people have college opportunities. When I look back, much of my education at Howard came outside the classroom. It had a lot to do with who I met in the dorms. That’s where I think I got my education.
Hear memories of 1968 from some of these subjects at The LINE Hotel on Thursday, April 5 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Written by Michon Boston
Black and White Photography by Darrow Montgomery
Color Photography Darrell C. Crain, Jr. Photograph Collection, Courtesy DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division