Fifty years may seem a very long time ago, but when remembering an extraordinary occurence, it can feel like the blink of an eye. This story of events during the first week of April, 1968, is more personal than most of the posts here. It is history, but history that I happened to witness.
I was wrapping up my freshman year at the Catholic University of America when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4th. As we watched the news coverage in my dormitory I felt shock, a sense of loss, then anger. Dr. King’s non-violent fight for racial and economic justice meant a lot to me and helped shape my moral life. I also knew the pain I felt at his death was nowhere near the grief and anger felt by African Americans in the city and in the country as a whole.
It was a racially tense period, including in the Brookland neighborhood next to Catholic University. Riots in a number of cities during the summer of 1967 had set everyone on edge and nerves were raw. CUA and Brookland had grown up together beginning in the 1880s, but now the neighborhood was majority African American and the university sometimes seemed like an incongruous bastion of whiteness.
In 1967, basic ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) was still mandatory for freshman. I had no desire to go into the military or take ROTC classes, but there was one alternative, an adjunct group called the Brennan Rifles, a trick drill team. One could join them in lieu of regular ROTC, which is what I did. It seemed like more fun anyway, and it was. We would practice our intricately synchronized routines in the stadium or on the grassy lawn in front of Gibbons Hall. We did a fancy manual of arms and some pretty cool tricks, spinning and tossing the rifles around in unison. We marched in parades, acted as honor guard for various campus functions, and had a number of competitions throughout my freshman year.
The final big competition was scheduled for the morning of Friday, April 5th, 1968 at the DC Armory. When we heard about Dr. King’s assassination the night of April 4th, we assumed the competition would be cancelled, but after a few phone calls no one could confirm that and it still seemed to be on. So, on the morning of April 5th, the 17 of us, all dressed in our snappy paramilitary uniforms and spit-shined boots, with our 1903 Springfield rifles (without firing pins but with attached bayonets), hopped into a few cars and headed down to the Armory. It was still early but there were already people out, gathering on stoops and street corners. We heard on the radio that there had been some trouble overnight at 14th & U, but police now claimed to have things “under control.” The churches we passed all had their doors open and many people were going in to pray, others gathered out front, hugging and crying.
We got to the Armory parking lot, where a few of the other drill teams had gathered. The team from Howard University was there and they came over to us. They were by far the best team in our division, while we were at a substantially lower level. Still, they treated us respectfully. “There’s not going to be any competition today,” their commander said. “I think you need to go back to your campus right now.” It didn’t take much convincing and we quickly loaded back into our cars. The drive back was completely different from the drive down. The streets were now abuzz with people everywhere, spilling off the sidewalks. Along H Street NE we saw a number of people painting the words “Soul Brother” on shop windows and even a few homes. The anger in the air was palpable. We started to hear catcalls. A few rocks, maybe they were bricks, were tossed at us. A couple hit, but didn’t cause serious damage. We didn’t stop. We all realized the situation: 17 white boys, dressed in paramilitary outfits, carrying rifles with bayonets. If we had been stopped and gotten into any sort of confrontation, it could have been a disaster. We drove faster and even ran a few red lights. By the time we reached CUA, we were convinced there would be serious riots in the city and our commander let the school officials know that.
Relieved that we had made it back in one piece, we were changing and putting our equipment away when we got word that the school had decided to shut down five days early for Easter break, at noon the next day, Saturday. They wanted the Brennan Rifles to help guard the campus buildings overnight as a supplement to the campus police, who were mostly retirees from the Soldiers’ Home. One guy asked if we should bring our rifles. Even though they wouldn’t fire, he thought they might frighten rioters away. Our commander shot him a withering glare and said, “Absolutely not. Leave the rifles here. The last thing we want is a confrontation. Just watch the building and call on the walkie-talkies if you see anything unusual.”
I was about to lie down for a rest when someone ran into our dorm saying that people were getting up to the dome of the Shrine.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is adjacent to Catholic University’s campus and sits on one of the higher hills in Washington. No one is allowed on the outer rim of the dome under normal circumstances. We ran over and indeed, the door leading up was opened. Why that door, which was always locked, was suddenly unlocked with no guard around we never found out, and we didn’t ask. After scrambling across the interior of the roof and up a few ladders we got to the dome and climbed out. The view was indeed spectacular, but very disturbing. A panoramic vista of the city spread before us and I could see smoke rising from at least three different locations, with occasional licks of flame visible. The sound of sirens was everywhere. I figured I was seeing the H Street NE corridor, the 7th Street corridor, and Columbia Heights. Someone had brought a radio and for the next hour or so we listened to news spots as we watched the city smolder. We had just driven through H Street on our way back that morning, and now it was aflame. I had neglected to bring a camera in my haste to get up there, so just watched, letting the scene burn into my memory.
The school was shutting down fast, but we were able to grab something to eat before going to guard the campus buildings. One of our group ran out to see if he could get a case of beer to help while away the hours, but the local liquor stores were already closed due to the curfew that had been imposed by the city. My friend Jim O’Brien and I were assigned to the roof of Maloney Hall, the chemistry building, which sits on Michigan Avenue by the bridge over the railroad tracks. We spent most of the night just talking and watching the streets. It turned out to be a quiet night in the neighborhood, but I do have a vivid memory of looking out at the Michigan Avenue bridge when a convoy of Army trucks rumbled over on their way downtown. Eventually there would be some 13,000 troops in the city, supplementing the DC police. It was surreal, like a scene from a bad ’50s sci-fi movie, a peek at a dystopian future. But the fact that Brookland had remained quiet gave me some hope.
Even if some people at CUA thought Brookland might explode, the residents there seemed confident it would not. The neighborhood mostly stayed buttoned up, people watching events unfold on television. Patsy Evans lived on Kearny near 15th St, and was a senior at George Washington University at the time.
“I took the bus home that day, as usual, and had to walk home from Rhode Island Ave down 15th St. to Kearny St. Around Hamlin or Irving St, there were some small children — I’d guess they were only about 8 or 9 years old — who yelled at me and chased me down the hill; I quickly flew home. Because I’m very fair, I guess they thought I was white. Afterwards, I realized how frightened I was by the angry encounter and was struck by how volatile the entire situation was for everyone. Once I was home, like most of Washington, I was glued in horror to the TV, watching 14th St NW burning.
For the following days, friends and family were calling and checking on each others’ safety. My boyfriend, a Brookland native and a grad student at CU at the time, was an amateur photographer and went out despite the curfew to take photos on the second day of Manhattan Auto burning and the destruction all around the shopping districts like 7th St and H St NE. I was struck by the selective burning in some parts of the riot areas, where some businesses — both white and black owned — were spared because of their fair practices and general community respect. The shocking curfews underscored how dangerous our world felt. The event colored everyone’s world view and hovered over our lives for months, and racial turmoil continued.”
John Feeley, now ANC 5B05 commissioner, was just a youngster in April of 1968, but does remember those days:
“I recall being picked up from school by my mother with my younger brother and walking through the deserted streets in the middle of the day. I was twelve. I attended the C.U. Campus School which was at the end of Tenth Street at Varnum Street. In those days, it was mostly woods through that area behind the Sisters’ College and all was very quiet. I don’t remember seeing anyone on our way toward Turkey Thicket. I remember my mother, who was a nurse at Children’s when it was on 14th Street, was quite shook up and anxious to go home. She had seen the rioting on 14th. That night, I remember hearing yelling and saw some black kids running through yards on Shepherd Street. One white neighbor was yelling at them.
The next day my parents heard that there had been one store broken into on Twelfth Street and that a priest from St. Anthony’s had talked people out of looting or breaking more windows. I think it was Fr. Adam Kostick, who had come to St. Anthony’s in that year. My father and mother were not particularly upset and offered no objection when I went up to Upshur Street to hang out with my Campus School classmates. For some bizarre reason, I dressed all in white that day, and when I got to Upshur Street, one of my classmates praised me for showing racial pride, which was the farthest thing from my mind. I think it was all I had that was clean. Another slightly older teenager had a baseball bat and was saying that he was ready if anybody came through his street breaking stuff. But no one did. We talked about going downtown to see how much was burnt. But we didn’t. We would have had to walk, I guess. We just talked for awhile and once again everything was eerily quiet. No cars. No buses. Only our own thin voices echoing through the empty, silent neighborhood.”
Epilogue: Twenty-five years later, I was a senior producer at National Public Radio, running a program called Weekend Edition Sunday, a 2-hour newsmagazine. That year, April 4th fell on a Sunday, and I suggested we take a small crew to Memphis and record a documentary to be broadcast on the anniversary of the assassination. One of our recording stops was at the National Civil Rights Museum, which encompasses the original Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot and killed. I had written an introduction to the show for our host to read, and we got permission to record it standing on the balcony outside room 306, the room where King had stayed. We all felt the weight of history as our host, Liane Hansen, stood on the spot where Dr. King died and tried to get through the copy without tears. For me, I couldn’t help but remember that day a quarter century earlier, when I watched Washington burn and prayed that my country would survive.
The Washington Post put together an impressive web presentation on the 1968 riots that is well worth a look: Four Days in 1968
If other Brooklanders have memories of those days, I would love to hear about them in the comments section below.