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How The 1968 Riots Shaped Shaw

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A soldier standing guard in a Washington, D.C., street with the ruins of buildings that were destroyed during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Warren Leffler/Library of Congress
A soldier standing guard in a Washington, D.C., street with the ruins of buildings that were destroyed during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

For a few days in 1968, Shaw looked like a war zone. It was the first weekend of April, and the nation's capital was burning, with more than 1000 fires across the city over the course of a few days. Those fires would leave scars that are still healing today.

It was early afternoon on April 4, 1968, when Steve Souder walked into the D.C. fire department's command center. It was his first day, transferred to a new job. His new boss told him he'd be operating the radio that night.

"He said, 'Okay, what you do is you push this button and you talk. And then you stop pushing the button and you let the people in the field talk,'" Souder says.

Around 7 p.m. that evening, they had the TV on when the news came in from Memphis. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated on a motel balcony.

The busy communication center suddenly went silent.

"After the shock wore off a little bit, there was kind of an apprehension in the air of the communication center," remembers Souder. "We quite frankly didn't know what that might unleash."

Dr. King's death shakes a nation

About a mile from the fire station, Sandra Butler Truesdale was at home when she heard the news. She says she remembers screaming and screaming and screaming.

"Dr. King was almost 'the savior' to a lot of people," Butler Truesdale says. "So when they took him away, they took away our hero."

The corner of 14th and U Street NW, then the heart of D.C.'s black community, was already bustling on the unseasonably warm April evening. But as the news spread, the mood turned from shock and grief to anger.

A few hours later, Souder got the first report of a fire at 14th and U Sts.

"We received the report of a dumpster fire. And we dispatched a single-engine company — small fire," he says. "We knew we were on the brink of something. We didn't know how big it would be, how bad it would get, how long it would last."

Najiy Shabazz was 16 years old at the time, watching TV at his girlfriend's house.

"The fact that Martin Luther King got killed — a major civil rights leader — shot past me," he remembers. "And I'm not really thinking, history or know you, my culture, nothing like that. Then they showed footage of what was going on in D.C."

Grief redirected into anger

On 14th Street, black power leader Stokely Carmichael was working the crowd's grief and anger into rage. He and others went door to door demanding shop owners close out of respect for King. Windows started breaking and things got out of control.

"People were going into stores and taking clothes, and TVs, and I wanted to be a part of that," says Shabazz. "I wanted to get something too. It was free. It was really stealing, but I wanted to be a part of it."

He got in the car and headed toward the action.

Anwar Saleem was 13 in 1968. He and his friends headed directly to U Street that day.

"We were able to get a couple of shirts and other things," Saleem says. "If my mother knew I was looting she would have killed me."

He was one of the some 20,000 people who would take part in the riots. He says it only took a few people to start the looting.

"You see so much devastation going on — will I be able to eat tomorrow? Either I can get food now, or I may not get no food at all," Saleem says. "If I'm going to get some clothes, I might as well get some clothes now."

By the end of that first night, looters had destroyed 150 businesses along 14th Street.

Another day of riots, fires

The next day, President Lyndon Johnson took to the airwaves. He urged calm, and called on Congress to pass new civil rights legislation.

"If we are to have the America we mean to have, all men of all races, all regions, all religions must stand their ground to deny violence its victory," Johnson said.

Black leaders called for peace toom, including Walter Fauntroy, the city's future delegate to Congress, and future mayor Marion Barry. But it didn't work.

By midday the city was ablaze again, as riots and fires spread from 14th Street to 9th and 7th Streets in Shaw, and to H Street Northeast.

Steve Souder was back in the command center, after less than two hours sleep.

"The radio traffic was absolutely non-stop," recalls Souder. He was on the radio all weekend, with just two channels to communicate with hundreds of fire fighters.

The fire department called in all off-duty staff, and got help from as far away as Pennsylvania. They were fighting hundreds of fires burning at once.

Gary Boyd was assigned to Engine Four, at the station on R and 9th Street, Northwest.

"We'd have a fire at one address, so we'd pull past it so we'd get the hose lines off the back, and by the time we finished fighting that fire, we'd come out and the house next door where the engine was would be on fire and it'd be blistering the paint off," Boyd says.

"Never saw anything like that in my life," says firefighter Ray Tanner, who was assigned to Engine Six on North Capitol Street. "All you could see was fire, rolling out of every window you saw. And we're pumping water into it, just like spitting into the ocean."

By evening on Friday, the District was occupied by more than 13,000 federal troops. They barricaded streets and fired tear gas to disperse the crowds.

Along with the Army troops came one Private Mangum, with a tape recorder and microphone. He recorded the sounds of the burning city and interviewed residents and workers. He didn't get their names, but he did record their frustrations.

"People can't hardly make a living," says one man. "Giving them just enough to pay the rent with, giving them nothing to get their clothes with and food and stuff like that."

"Hell I been through it," says another man. "I'm 64 years old. The way people are treated around here, colored people around here, it ain't right."

A neighborhood rising from the ashes

Rebuilding Shaw and H Street was not a matter of months. Half the property on the commercial section of 14th Street had been destroyed. Almost 700 businesses had been destroyed, and at least half vowed not to return to the District. Some 5,000 jobs were permanently lost.

When Steve Souder finally emerged from the fire department command center on Monday, it was a different city.

"You'd look to the left and you'd look to the right and you'd see buildings that survived, but in between, you'd see block after block of vacant buildings or no buildings at all. Just space. And you could not help but wonder, will this ever, ever come back?"

The riots weren't the primary cause of the white flight and black flight that drained the city's middle class, but they did speed up the process. D.C.'s population peaked in 1953, and plateaued during the 50's and 60's. But after the riots people left in droves. Ten, twenty, forty thousand people each year, until 1999, when the city had lost close to one third of its population.

Blair Ruble, who wrote a book on the history of U Street, says the riots had a devastating impact in the short term, with so many businesses burnt out, it was hard to buy basics like food and clothing.

"I think what was unanticipated at the time, was that wealthier people, both white and black would want to live in the city," Ruble says.

He says that for decades, the neighborhood was rebuilt block by block largely through the hard work of churches and community groups.

"The irony is that they were planning for ways to connect the residents to jobs, and instead what happened is they created an excellent micro-environment for gentrification," Ruble says. "They did connect the neighborhood to jobs. They were just jobs for new arrivals."

Now, 45 years later, those riot corridors are some of the hottest property in the city.

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the rate of depopulation in the District prior to the riots in the 1950s and 1960s.

[Music: "Riot" by Miles Davis from The Best of the Miles Davis Quartet 1965-1968]

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