Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed fifty years ago today by an assasin’s bullet to the neck as King stood on his Memphis hotel room balcony. J. Samuel Walker recounts the impact of King’s assassination in Washington in the days the followed:
A crowd began to gather at the corner of 14th and U Streets in Northwest Washington when the news that King had been shot became public. The areas around the east-west corridor of U Street and the north-south corridor of 14th Street had deteriorated since the 1920s and 1930s, but this was still the premier commercial center of black Washington. For about 20 blocks north of U Street, the 14th Street corridor and its offshoots hosted some 300 businesses, plus bars, theaters, and nightclubs.
The 14th and U neighborhood was also the center of black activism in the city; the local offices of black leadership groups were clustered there. In addition to the local SNCC headquarters, the Washington offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were located in the immediate area. People gravitated toward the intersection when they learned that King had been shot. At the same time, police and civil defense intelligence units moved in to observe the scene. They found that, at first, the “mood of the group was … one of shock and dismay rather than of anger.”
The mood of the crowd became increasingly bitter after the announcement that King had died. Some individuals gathered around a transistor radio to listen to President Johnson’s speech. His appeal for calm was not greeted favorably; one person shouted that King’s death would “mean one thousand Detroits.” …
But the calls for calm and reason soon proved to be futile. At 9:25 p.m., the first acts of vandalism and looting occurred. A window at the Peoples Drug Store that had closed at Carmichael’s request was smashed. At about the same time, a 15-year-old boy broke the glass of the front door of the Republic Theatre just down the street. A window of a Safeway market at 14th and Chapin Streets, five blocks north of U, was shattered and people immediately entered and began looting. One block south of the Safeway, a woman used her body to pummel the window of a television and appliance store until it broke. Carmichael and other SNCC workers tried to stop would-be looters, but their efforts could save the store’s inventory for only a limited time. …
As the attacks on the police and firefighters, most of whom were white, indicated, the participants in the riot demonstrated ample measures of racial hostility. The disorders on 14th Street were not a race riot in the sense that they produced a series of direct, violent confrontations between blacks and whites. This had occurred at other times in Washington, most notably in a fierce clash between races in 1919 that resulted in thirty deaths and countless injuries. But if the outburst on the night of King’s death was not a race riot, it clearly brought to the surface black resentment toward white society. “This is it, baby. The shit is going to hit the fan now,” yelled one rioter shortly after the breaking of store windows and looting began. At this juncture, Stokely Carmichael tried once again to cool passion, but the turmoil quickly gained momentum.
Bonnie Perry, who was 13 at the time of the riot and an attentive witness to what went on, later told an interviewer that some residents participated “because they just wanted to loot.” She suggested, however, that those people were exceptions. “Most people did it because they were angry and were frustrated with the country. Frustrated and angry that Martin Luther King had been assassinated and frustrated that there was nothing,” she recalled. “It was like there was no hope for the future.”
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput reflects today on the anniversary of MLK’s assassination:
We too easily reduce the memory of our nation’s great and good persons to a liturgy of public pieties. These pieties lose force as the years go by. Not so with the legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Generations have grown up since his 1968 assassination that can never fully grasp the measure of his achievements or the scope of the positive changes to society he helped bring about, because they have no experience of the America in which he lived out his ministry.
He was a man of civility, nonviolence, intelligence, and respect for his opponents; but also a man with a tireless zeal for justice, inspired and directed by his Christian faith.
America was made better by his life. …
I’m on Amtrak on the way to Washington as I write this, where I’ll be spending the rest of the week at Catholic Uniersity’s fiftieth anniversary Humanae Vitae symposium, commemorating Pope Paul VI’s affirmation of Christian moral teaching on sex, marriage, and human life. While I’m in Washington I’m planning to visit the MLK Memorial on the National Mall for the first time. Figures like Lincoln and MLK come along only rarely and at apparently necessary historical moments. I’m grateful to be living in a time when there are still so many alive with living memory of MLK’s teaching and witness.