April 5, 1968: One of my nine lives was used up that day
April 5, 1968 – the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. As a freshman college student in Washington, D.C., I will never forget that Friday.
The day before, I had made a date to visit my girlfriend who was a student at a Catholic women’s college on the other side of town. Unaware of the civil insurrection – aka riots – that were already underway in D.C.’s black neighborhoods, I took a cab to visit my friend one last time before she flew home for the two-week long Easter recess.
We spent an hour or so on the lawn outside of her dorm, but there was tension in the air as we spotted smoke from burning buildings looking to the west of her campus – the direction that I would have to travel to return to my own school two and a half miles away. As I said farewell to her and several of her classmates as they headed off to Washington National Airport in one of the last taxicabs running that day, I confronted the question of how I would get back to my dormitory which was on the other side of the part of the city that was erupting into a full-scale riot.
With the buses and cabs now no longer running, miraculously a fellow student of my school appeared, driving a VW bug, and offered me a ride. The next half hour, traversing ground zero of the growing riots, was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life.
We headed off west on the familiar route – and soon encountered the heart of the riots. Along 14th Street, which ran North-South for miles through the District, and which we had to traverse, mobs of African Americans, urged on by radical black power activist Stokeley Carmichael among others, were busy burning buildings and looting everything in sight. As two white boys trying to make it through in a tiny vehicle, we were sitting ducks.
Photograph looking west showing firefighters spraying water on shops in Washington, D.C. that were burned during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress Public Domain – No known restrictions on publication
At one point, heading west on Columbia Road, our path on the street was blocked by a fire department engine and its hoses, hopelessly trying to extinguish a fire in a block of burning buildings. My classmate driving the car – whom I had never met previously – skillfully maneuvered the VW onto the sidewalk in order to keep us moving.
The stench of smoke was in the air, as we rushed to evade the angry mobs in the streets, avoiding their stares and taunts and dodging the rocks hurled at us by the gangs of rioters. Finally, back in Northwest D.C., we drove through the gates and onto my university’s hilltop campus, safe and sound except for some damage to the vehicle. I felt like kissing the ground.
The fun was not quite over, however. Over the next four days, martial law was declared in the nation’s capital, with armed troops on the streets. Before MLK’s assassination, I had planned to stay on campus during the Easter break, even though the food service would be closed. No problem, I thought, as there were inexpensive dining and takeout options within walking distance. But in the days ahead, that would not be possible.
We were informed later on April 5th that if we set foot outside of the campus, we would be liable to be shot on sight. Literally. No joking. During the next days, the few of us students who were sequestered on campus were left to our own devices to scrounge whatever food we could find, mostly, as I recall, from coin-operated vending machines.
Eventually, when we were allowed out on the streets the following week, I was struck by the images of military troops, armed with fully automatic weapons, patrolling M. Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. It was a sight that I will never forget.
The irony never left me: Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who preached peace and reconciliation based on his deep Christian faith – and the response to his death was some of the worst rioting and violence in the nation’s history. I had encountered Rev. King on November 30, 1964, when he gave a speech in Stamford, Connecticut. As a high school student journalist, I attended the event and was welcomed to cover it. I placed my microphone and tape recorder on the podium from which he addressed the standing room only crowd and sat on the stage a few feet away from him operating my recorder. I shook his hand, took his photograph, and never forgot that night.
I have never forgotten that other day either, 3½ years later, when the hope that Rev. King represented seemed to be lost and our country began to embark on a half century long unnecessary division between the races.