They told us to stay in the dorms that Thursday night, so we hit the streets as soon as the hall monitors closed their doors. We slipped off the Howard University campus and headed down Georgia Avenue/Seventh Street, toward the smoke and flames and unceasing sirens that started soon after news hit that Martin Luther King had been killed in Memphis.
A gaggle of fearless freshmen, we were oblivious to the dangers of burning buildings, fleeing looters and what sounded like gunfire. All the traffic in the world seemed to be headed north, getting out of downtown at law-breaking speed. We ducked into side streets or over to Eighth Street at the sight of cops, but they seemed to be mostly watching as the rampage heated up.
D.C. had its riot at last. For years, Negroes in the capital had watched as Watts, Detroit, Newark — even Rochester, New York — exploded in racial outrage. And though it shared the frustrations expressed in cities elsewhere, black Washington had held calm, either because its second-class citizens were intimidated by proximity to such concentrated power, or because they were too comfortable in the middle-class advantages of federal jobs.
All the way down 7th Street that night, we witnessed a righteous chaos. It was grief and lifelong frustration released in a burning, destructive fury. We saw poor people tearing up their own neighborhoods; targeting stores, but mindless of apartments above them; breaking windows and burning shops along the commercial strip long known its for exploitative merchandising. Jewelers, haberdashers and merchants of cheap furniture routinely sold at high prices to captive shoppers, often charged ruinous credit rates.
We would later learn that similar, even worse, outbursts were going on along 14th Street Northwest, H Street Northeast and along F Street downtown. Pushing past the venerable, but eventually burned-out O Street Market and rundown low-rise apartments, we heard children cry in terror and saw old people watching from darkened windows.
Women called on the Lord and young people ran in and out of stores taking advantage of the open-air shopping. Streets and sidewalks were covered in broken glass—sheets and shards of plate glass store windows, bottles, car windshields.
It was a lark to us, but this outbreak was deadly serious. Twelve people died, some of them caught in burning homes, more than a thousand were injured and 6,000 were arrested. Millions of dollars were lost in property damage.
In one harrowing and unforgettable sight, we saw several youngsters smash through the bottom of a gold-lettered window in a fancy downtown men's store near Ninth and F. As they scrambled in, a scrawny straggler followed, just as the top portion of the broken window began to slide down, like a guillotine, directly toward his head. His leap to safety inside was one of the closest escapes of certain death I ever witnessed.
We were mostly voyeurs, that historic April night, out to see the revolution for ourselves—up close, picking up a few crumbs left by looters. I rescued a copy of Otis Redding's last LP from the floor of Waxie Maxie's record store — where shelves had been stripped and the floors left carpeted with album covers — still in mourning the sweet soul singer from Macon, Georgia killed in a plane crash the previous December. It remains a prized souvenir.
At Seventh and F Streets, near today's Verizon Center, the shattered display windows in Hecht's department store had been cleaned out, the golf clubs, men's resort wear and leather luggage gone. But I salvaged a decorative leather covered flask, also a treasure to this day.
Late that night, we made our way back to campus by alleys and side streets, stopping in a dark empty liquor store to liberate a half gallon of cheap White Roses wine. We mixed it with soda pop that night in the lounge of Wheatley Hall and toasted what we'd seen.
The chaos would go on for days, even after open truckloads of green-clad National Guardsmen had begun to patrol the city. When the violence subsided on Sunday the streets were being patrolled by thousands of federal troops dispatched by LBJ. The whole city looked, smelled and felt like a huge hangover the morning after.
The reign of anarchy was only surprising to those who had not been paying attention. The furor had been building for some time. It was a heady time to be on the hill at Howard. Afros had been sprouting with increasing frequency on previously processed heads by the time student activists ushered a Howard administrator off the stage at Cramton Auditorium, disrupting his lecture on Greek classical art and seizing the microphone to declare him and his ilk irrelevant to the black struggle.
Student activists took over the administration building demanding that the foremost Negro college be made a black university and even those of us who merely shuttled cokes and chips to protesters sleeping on the floor of the "A Building" shared the sense of empowerment when the university yielded to many of the student demands for curriculum and philosophical changes.
Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown had both been on campus that spring, spurring on the militants. Some of us thrilled to the daring speeches of these two leading firebrands of the time.
No one I knew had gone over to the National Cathedral the Sunday before, March 31, 1968 to hear King give one of his most memorable anti-war speeches, but many of us watched closely on our little black-and-white dorm room TVs that same night when LBJ, damaged by the war in Vietnam, pulled out of the presidential race.
He was the guy sending our brothers and cousins and boyfriends to Vietnam; King we associated with the nonviolent philosophy of fading relevance to our generation. My Wheatley Hall room walls that year bore the angry, life-sized portraits of a menacing, two-gunned Huey P. Newton on his rattan throne, Malcolm X in his famous finger-pointing pose, and my literary hero, the magnificently indignant James Baldwin.
Something happened that night to set the city apart from most other American cities. D.C. became a black city that night, for better and for worse. No one wants to say that black people had to destroy D.C. to claim it, but that is what happened.
Black people had always been an indispensable fact of life in the city, from Benjamin Banneker's 18th century surveying of the future capital, to the Negro maids and mistresses who provided domestic comfort for congressmen, tucked away in alleys and courtyards behind the stately rowhouses of Capitol Hill.
But in the hours and days after King was killed, the seeds were planted (violently) for black political ascendancy far beyond the conciliatory administration of Mayor Walter Washington. A decent and quietly effective leader appointed the year before by Lyndon Johnson, he tried valiantly that April 4th to keep D.C. peaceful, but to us, in our brashness, he represented the past, the old, too-patient, subservient Negro past.
Decades would pass. The city would endure growing pains of corruption, mismanagement and failed governments, before gentrification began to erase the last marks of that Thursday night and the days that followed. Only in the new century would power and prestige and money come back to claim the city. But for a while D.C. seemed to become, with a vengeance, what a character in Gore Vidal's novel 1876, called it: "Africa," an acknowlegement of the presence and influence of black people had in the life of the city even as a largely servant class.
Springtime in Washington has always struck me as about as close to rapture as we are likely ever to experience here below. But Nature seemed to be trying to fix the wounded city that April, putting on a show of such aching beauty that it seemed a deliberate antidote to the hurt that hung in the air.
Soon Bobby Kennedy, the next best hope for many, would be felled, too. He, who had so eloquently linked the loss of King to that of his slain brother, showed up that spring, campaigning on the back of a pickup truck amid the blackened buildings at 14th Street and Park Road.
A few weeks later, waiting out his death watch became unbearable in the first heat wave of that D.C. summer. I sought relief in the longest movie playing that day, taking three D.C. Transit buses across town to see the newly released Gone With the Wind in a McArthur Boulevard theater. When I came out at dusk the news inevitable—and familiar: RFK, too, was gone.
Already late, I finally had to get on home and start my summer job. That summer I worked patrolling the grounds in a place that seemed pretty sane that summer, our local mental hospital.
Alice Bonner teaches journalism at University of Maryland.