Five days of race riots erupted in Washington, D.C. following the April 4, 1968 assassination of Civil Rights Movement-leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil unrest affected at least 110 U.S. cities; Washington, along with Chicago and Baltimore, was among the most affected.
Course of events
The ready availability of jobs in the growing federal government attracted many to Washington in the 1960s, and middle class African-American neighborhoods prospered. Despite the end of legally mandated racial segregation, the historic neighborhoods of Shaw, the H Street Northeast corridor, and Columbia Heights, centered at the intersection of 14th and U Streets Northwest, remained the centers of African-American commercial life in the city.
As word of King's murder in Memphis, Tennessee spread on the evening of Thursday, April 4, crowds began to gather at 14th and U. Stokely Carmichael, the Trinidad and Tobago-born activist and Howard University graduate, had parted with King in 1966, and had been removed as head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1967, but led members of the SNCC to stores in the neighborhood demanding that they close out of respect. Although polite at first, the crowd fell out of control and began breaking windows. By 11pm, widespread looting had begun, as well as in over 30 other cities.
Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington ordered the damage cleaned up immediately the next morning. However, anger was still evident when Carmichael addressed a rally at Howard warning of, and threatening violence on Friday morning and after the close of the rally, crowds walking down 7th Street NW came into violent confrontations with police, as well as in the H Street NE corridor. By midday, numerous buildings were on fire, with firefighters attacked with bottles and rocks and unable to respond to them.
Crowds of as many as 20,000 overwhelmed the District's 3,100-member police force, and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey dispatched some 13,600 federal troops, including 1,750 federalized D.C. National Guard troops to assist them. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol and Army troops from the 3rd Infantry guarded the White House. At one point, on April 5, rioting reached within two blocks of the White House before rioters retreated. The occupation of Washington was the largest of any American city since the Civil War. Mayor Washington imposed a curfew and banned the sale of alcohol and guns in the city. By the time the city was considered pacified on Sunday, April 8, twelve had been killed (mostly in burning homes), 1,097 injured, and over 6,100 arrested. Additionally, some 1,200 buildings had been burned, including over 900 stores. Damages reached $27 million. This can be estimated to be equivalent to over $156 million today.
Aftermath from the riots
The riots utterly devastated Washington's inner city economy. With the destruction or closing of businesses, thousands of jobs were lost, and insurance rates soared. Made uneasy by the violence, city residents of all races accelerated their departure for suburban areas, depressing property values. Crime in the burned out neighborhoods rose sharply, further discouraging investment.
On some blocks, only rubble remained for decades. Columbia Heights and the U Street corridor did not begin to recover economically until the opening of the U St/Cardozo and Columbia Heights Metro stations in 1991 and 1999, respectively, while the H Street NE corridor remained depressed for several years longer.
Walter Washington, who reportedly refused FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's suggestion to shoot the rioters, went on to become the city's first elected mayor and its first black mayor.