On the evening of April 4, 1968, I was up on T Street with a group of anti-freeway protesters picketing the mayor's house, when word came of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. We went home as the police cars poured by filled with shotgun-armed and helmeted police.
The next morning things were quiet enough that we went about our business as usual. But I came home that afternoon from the office a few blocks away to find a slow stream of people walking down the street with liberated articles: hangers full of clothes, a naugahyde hassock, a television set. Somewhere in our neighborhood a woman walked off with a case of whiskey from a liquor store. When she got home she realized she didn't have any soda to go with it. She went back and was arrested as she tried to liberate her chaser.
There were only a few whites living in the block; but I felt little tension or hostility. I mainly noted the black smoke drifting down from H Street, four blocks away. Kathy was out back working in our foot-wide strip of garden, listening to reports of looting and arson on a portable radio as a black fog settled in. We decided to go up on the roof for a better look. H Street was burning. Others areas had gone first and the radio reported a lack of fire equipment to deal with the situation a few blocks to the north. I tried to count the fires but they congealed under the curtain of smoke.
We decided to pack just in case. For about ten minutes we gathered an instinctive selection of nostalgic items, favorite photos, the non-valuable but irreplaceable. Then we looked at what we had done and laughed. Like loyal children of our generation, we settled down in our smoky living room to watch on television what was happening to us.
At six-thirty the next morning, a white friend from around the corner rang our doorbell. He wasn't in trouble; he just wanted company on a tour of the area. We got into his car and drove to H, Seventh and 14th Streets. As I looked at the smoldering carcass of Washington and observed the troops marching down the street past storefronts that no longer had any windows, I thought, so this is what war is like. As we drove past a gutted store on 14th Street it suddenly reignited itself and flames leaped towards the pavement.
That day and for several days thereafter, we stuck to home. The trouble had flared again. We received anxious calls from friends and relatives in another parts of town and in other towns. We assured them we were all right; they seemed more upset about our physical safety than we were and I did not want t alarm them by speaking what was in my mind.
For a year and a half of running a neighborhood newspaper, I had observed, and tried to report, a part of the community seething with emotions much of the other part refused to recognize. Now it was worse than even I had thought and anger, frustration and helplessness washed up on my mind's shore.
I subconsciously prepared myself for it to get worse. In the middle of one of the riot nights, I awakened to a rumbling noise in the street and ran to the window expecting to see tanks rolling past our house. There were no tanks. In fact, the physical threat of the riots barely touched us.
H STREET THE MORNING AFTER
PHOTO BY SAM SMITH
The strange ambivalence of the riots -- the slashes of violence mixed indiscriminately with the sparkle of carnival, the sounds of racial war penetrating the tranquility of a white couple's home four blocks from disaster, our strangely ordinary experiences in an extraordinary situation -- made the disorder a crazy amalgam that took weeks to sort out. For months after, when sporadic violence hit stores in our neighborhood, I expected to find our newspaper office smashed and looted. It wasn't, despite the inviting glass storefront. I was inclined, with normal self delusion, to attributed this to having paid my dues. It was more likely that our second hand electric typewriters weren't worth the candle when there was a whole Safeway up the street and a cleaners right on the corner.
Some people seemed to think I had something to do with it all. One of my advertisers, the photo dealer Harry Lunn, told me late one night that if anyone firebombed his store he was going to come and personally burn my house down. He had been or was still with the CIA so I tended to take him seriously.
Len Kirsten, an advertiser and owner of the Emporium, was more blasĂ©. A lady walked into the store one day and, spotting the pile of Gazettes on the floor, said, "Isn't that a Communist paper?"
"Oh no," Len replied cheerfully. "The editor's a communist but the paper isn't."
THE EMPORIUM, OWNED BY LEN KIRSTEN (IN BLACK HAT)
On the other hand, Lee, of Helen & Lee's Chinese carryout was totally indifferent to politics. Lee and his wife ran a regular ad bragging that the carryout had been recommended by their four doctor sons. One of the items on the menu was a pork chop sandwich -- the chop still on a bone slapped between two pieces of Wonder Bread. After Helen died, the sign over the door was changed to read:Â & Lee's Carryout.
Another favorite advertiser was Harry Spack, owner of Spack's Chicken on the Hill, which had a storefront windows filled with an 1883 Swiss music box, an airplane propeller, opera glasses, statuettes and drug store jewelry. There are Arabic sabers hanging over the restroom doors and travel posters on the wall. Also "the world's smallest bar" -- a few shelves filled with miniature liquor bottles.
"Now someday this place is going to have class," Spack told our reporter, Greg Lawrence. "You know -- cosmopolitan, relaxing, with fine music from the past. For instance," he said as he reached for an object under the counter, "this vase from Europe has been dyed by its creators in pigeon blood. Now I ask you, what other cafe on Capitol Hill features decorations dyed in pigeon blood?"
LOCAL PUB - WHICH FEATURED SINGER ROBERTA FLACK - TAKING PRECAUTIONS FOLLOWING THE RIOTS
SAM SMITH PHOTO
The riot did more than $3 million worth of property damage. In the vicinity of H Street and some 124 commercial establishments and 52 homes were damaged. Another 21 businesses were damaged on or near 8th street. I wrote:
The destruction did not end with the quelling of the riot and the removal of federal troops who had guarded the area after being called in by city officials. Sporadic arson occurred, primarily along H Street, doing hundreds of thousand of dollars additional damage. . . Reaction varied from the intense anger of many white merchants at the failure of police to shoot looters to the feeling on the part of some community leaders that a new opportunity had been created to correct old economic and social wrongs.
During the riots, the black mayor, Walter Washington, had been called to the office of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, where he was told to start shooting looters. Washington refused, saying that "you can replace material goods, but you can't replace human beings." Hoover then said, "Well, this conversation is over." Replied Washington, "That's all right, I was leaving anyway."
One white businessman, Milton Hoffman of Art Young's clothing store, which had been burned in the riot, proposed a one percent of gross sales contribution by businesses to be used for community projects. Black businesses posted large "soul brother" signs on windows and walls. Private social agencies and anti-poverty centers were left alone. A laundry near the US Marine Barracks received special attention; guards with fixed bayonets protected the troop's clothing inside. The riots had created their own rules.
PHOTO BY SAM SMITH
At the time of the riot early 25% of the labor force in Capitol East was either unemployed, earning less than $3000 a year or employed only part-time. Over half of all adults living in the east part of the neighborhood had eight years or less schooling. Over a quarter of the housing units in this same area were listed by the census as dilapidated or deteriorating.
Not long after the riots it was Easter and three local ministers, Tom Torosian, Jesse Anderson and Ralph Dwan held a sunrise service on 8th Street, refusing what Camus called the sin of despair.
SAM SMITH PHOTO
The riots weren't the end of it. Even where there was a building to come back to, business on H Street wouldn't really return for decades. A real estate dealer's home was fire bombed as was a local settlement house. White and black friends no longer saw each other. And one day, in the dingy basement offices of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael said that we whites were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement. Black nationalism had arrived and people like me were out.
The dream of a functioning bi-racial community was in pieces. H Street, with its jagged free standing walls and piles of rubble, looked like photos from a World War II retrospective. For me, hope had lost its virginity. There was no work for a white editor in a black neighborhood anymore. If I was to talk to anyone now, they would have look a lot more like me.
To be sure, a bi-racial slate of reform Democrats was elected in early May as convention delegates and central committee members. The slate included both Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy supporters, united in a desire to defeat the locally popular Hubert Humphrey. I won one of McCarthy's slots on the party central committee. McCarthy had stated that he wanted no part of a coalition but some of his supporters, including myself, disagreed and so worked out a deal. A few days before the riot, the anti-war Democrats for Peace and Progress held a neighborhood convention in Capitol East. Five persons -- a community organizer, a minister , a physicist, a school lunch clerk, and myself -- were nominated. To my surprise, the Kennedy organization accepted us as well as other McCarthyites from around the city.
It was an unprecedented relinquishment of political power to mere party members and it produced an unusual slate that included community organizers and college professors, mothers on welfare and lawyers, black militants and a white philanthropist. Possibly no slate in America has ever been so varied.
The slate also included Sophie Reuther, wife of Victor Reuther. A former union organizer, she had once jumped out of a second story window to escape armed KKKers who had been set upon the union at the urging of management. Recalled Victor later, "She went underground and it took me three days to find her." It was not a singular incident. On Sophie's 25th birthday, her party had been interrupted by two gun-wielding company thugs who forced their way in and began pistol-whipping Walter Reuther, her brother-in-law.
On election day I stood outside my precinct distributing sample ballots. The Humphrey people were there too, but our main competition came from a man who accosted as many voters as he could and read them a two-page polemic against the police department for having stolen his watch three years earlier.
Inside my wife served as a Kennedy poll watcher in what was DC's second election after a century of a full colonialism. Early in the morning the precinct election official had hung some political posters to decorate the drab voting area. Kathy indicated that the posters were nice but illegal. She also met a lady whose name she could not find on the voter list and who told her, "Oh, you won't find me. I'm just here from Philadelphia visiting my aunt and I thought I'd come by." Kathy thanked her and suggested that her vote might better be cast in Philadelphia.
Late in the afternoon, I moved to a corner with my card file of known favorable voters who had yet to cast a ballot, dispatching a small squadron of volunteer kids to remind them. We won and the next day, the Evening Star offered this editorial comment on the new Democratic Central Committee:
They are likely to me more militant, more aggressive and more insistent on direct participation in local affairs. What this bodes for the community remains to be seen.
With such unbridled enthusiasm from the establishment, we were off to a good start.
Then, one month later, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, completing the hat trick of evil begun four years earlier with the killing of his brother, followed by the slaying of Martin Luther King. While the other deaths may have been more tragic to more people, in one respect RFK's was the most profound, for it appeared to shut the door on hope. What had been with his brother a grim anomaly had turned into a grisly habit. I wrote about it on June 7, 1968, two days after Kennedy was shot. He had died a day later:
Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, one of his associates is said to have told another: "The time will come when we shall laugh again; but we shall never be young again."
The comment, I suppose, was about those closest to the dead president, but it also contained a truth for the country. As I sat before a television set the last few days, attempting to sort the emotions marching through my mind, the thought that kept coming back was how weary, how old, we had all become. The inertia of age had settled upon the nation in the years following John Kennedy's death it seemed, and now we were stoically acting out one more scene in an unrelieved tragedy. . .
Tomorrow I shall go down to see the funeral cortege arrive at Union Station. I shall go not just out of sorrow and respect, but also to try to find some small sign that we collectively - without waiting for someone else to do it for us - are willing and able to have a dream, or seek a newer world.
Then, perhaps, we can become young again.
Later in June I wrote:
To a large extent, a community such as Capitol East is limited in its ability to respond with justice and adequacy to the current situation. Even if we had the will to change, we would remain hostage to the larger inertia of the nation and the city.
In September I wrote:
The Republicans have nominated Richard Nixon for president. The Democrats have nominated Hubert Humphrey for president. The reading scores of Capitol East schools are lower than ever. Some 9th Precinct patrolmen don't want to ride in integrated scout cars. Some white DC fireman don't want to use the same breathing apparatus as black firemen. Congress has passed, and the President has signed a bill ordering the District to complete a freeway program overwhelmingly opposed by the people of the city. DC Transit wants another fare hike and the transit commission says there's nothing it can do about it. . . We could write an editorial on each of these items, but they'd all be pretty much the same. From the mundane to the cosmic, it's been a busy month. We think we'll just wait until October and hope things get better.
About six months later, I folded the Capitol East Gazette into the DC Gazette, a publication more like the many underground papers sprouting throughout America. I wrote:
We have decided to suspend publication of the Capitol East Gazette. Our reason for this change is that we have been unable to develop either the advertising base or the paid circulation within Capitol East to support a separate community paper. . .
Later I would explain it by saying that it seemed like too many of my readers wanted to burn down too many of my advertisers, but it wasn't really funny. And it still hurts.