This is the fifth installment of a series (see the first installment here) summarizing the 1994 book Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood. This book has recently been republished as an ebook and a paper book. HBO has plans to use material from the book to make a movie about the life of Marion Barry.
Chapter 4: The Uprising
"Everyone thought Washington was riot-proof," said John Hechinger, first chair of the appointed city council. The black middle class was too big, and military muscle too close.
Martin Luther King was in Washington five days before his assassination. He addressed an overflow crowd in National Cathedral.
"...[I]f nothing is done between now and June to raise ghetto hope, I feel this summer will not only be as bad, but worse than last year," he said (Kindle location 1098).
The same evening President Lyndon Johnson said he would not seek the nomination to a second full term as President.
King was assassinated in the early afternoon of April 4. Word spread, people were stunned.
Activist Stokely Carmichael came out of the storefront offices of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC), two blocks north of the intersection of 14th and U Streets NW. He led a crowd south down 14th Street, demanding stores close to honor King. Cooler heads try to calm the situation.
Rioting broke out. People looted and set fires on a massive scale. By 10:30, Carmichael had fled the rioting for the night.
The police chief had gone to a Cherry Blossom Festival event, and the ranking officer in charge was at the Washington Hilton, where Vice-President Hubert Humphrey was making a speech. A decision was made not to call in the military that night, or the next day until 4pm.
Carmichael returned the next day, brandishing a gun before the press.
"Stay off the streets if you don't have a gun, because there's going to be shooting," he said.
After that, he mostly stayed out of sight.
Smoke rose over downtown. The federal government shut down in the mid-afternoon. There was an enormous traffic jam leaving the city, hampering police and fire. Stores on 14th and 7th Streets NW and H Street NE were looted and set ablaze. Rioters obstructed firefighters. "Most of the twelve people who were killed during the rioting died in burning stores." (l. 1272)
"The looters sacked stores at 14th and G Streets, two blocks from the White House, before police drove them out of the central business district (l. 1281).
Marion Barry "had become one of the primary conciliators during the uprising. The city's leaders, both white and black, thought that Barry was one of the few people who could appeal to the looters.... Compared to a crazed teenager with a Molotov cocktail, Barry was a moderate... (l. 1306).
Barry worked with Giant supermarkets to get food to people in the riot-torn areas. No Giant store had been set on fire. "Five Safeway stores, Giant's main rival, had been reduced to rubble" (l. 1322).
Mayor Walter Washington instituted at 5:30 pm to 6:30am curfew. Federal troops were stationed along main streets and insections, "but the alleys belonged to the arsonists" (l. 1343). Troops used tear gas but did not fired weapson. After a few days, the curfew was lifted and the troops went back to their barracks.
"In countless ways, the city of Washington never recovered from the uprising. People will always define the city's history as 'before the riots' and 'after the riots'. The greatest changes took place in the city's political arena. Power shifted to the black majority, and though Marion Barry was not a major playing during the uprising, he would be a primary beneficiary..." (l. 1355).
White southern congressmen asked repeatedly why the looters weren't shot. The Cherry Blossom Festival was cancelled. The city council held hearings in African-American neighborhoods and heard continued anger.
Carmichael returned and tried to take over the SNCC office on behalf of the Black Panthers. Workers from Barry's group, Pride Inc., and their allies defended the office. Carmichael soon left the US.
"Why do we go on patting each other on the back like a mutual admiration society when this thing isn't over yet? It's not just the 6,300 people who were arrested, but a whole lot of people in this town are angry and just waiting 'til the troops leave," Barry said (l. 1439).
He also said: "When the city rebuilds the riot corridors, if you don't let my black brothers control the process -- and I mean all the way to owning the property -- it might just get burned down again" (l. 1440).
Barry "was invited into the coalitions and committees that grew out of the efforts to heal the city's wounds" (l. 1444).
The last words in this chapter are: "Marion Barry started to take his place among the city's power brokers" (l. 1455).
In this chapter, the authors recommend (l. 1116) the following out-of-print book about the 1968 14th Street riots: Ten blocks from the White House: An anatomy of the Washington riots of 1968by Ben W. Gilbert and the staff of the Washington Post.
Cheater's Guide to Dream City continues next week
Further installments will appear on successive Fridays. All posts will be cross-posted on the ad-hoc "Cheater's Guide to Dream City" blog.
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This is a great book and well worth reading in its entirety.