I. What do you think of when you think of the history of Washington, DC?
Digital tools help us tell that story in many ways: accessible digitized primary sources in
archives; digitized secondary sources available via YouTube, Google Books and Google
Scholar—the public web and the deep web. How does the public web help us tell the
Here we are looking at topics for your research. Topics are broad fields of interest. Later,
you’ll do a research question. That will be specific and will post a research problem or
II. TELL THE STORY
III. Watch videos
IV. Go to Google Search
V Give them a search topic: Riots in Washington DC
Was this the only race riot?
When was the earliest one?
What information is available on the public web
What search terms did you use?
What’s the value of these items—They have to be pieced together…
In April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis,
It was a shot heard round the world—and it reverberated in Washington, DC.
Tens, even hundreds, of thousands of tourists come to Washington every year. What do
you think they see? Mostly monuments, museums, the places of our national
But there is, and always has been, another Washington. Like most cities, Washington
has been a center of diversity, but some of that diversity is unique to Washington as a
place created out of other territories, as a city with a small immigrant population, and as
a city with essentially no industry. Instead of laborers, workers, factories, the business
of Washington is the federal government. That has created a city of service industries
and of the professionals and service workers who keep them running. As a result,
immigrants have not come to the city—until recently—in large numbers. The city grew on
a black-white paradigm rooted in its early years as a city first, of slaves, then as a haven
for freemen, then as a center of African American education and culture.
The assassination of Martin Luther King shook the city.
In 1968, 67 percent of the people living in the city were African American. We had an
African American mayor—although much of his authority was taken over by Congress.
92 percent of the students in the public school system were African American. 75,000
African Americans worked in the Federal government. It sounds pretty good on the
But, in fact, Washingtonians had no vote at all, and Congress appointed the mayor. One
in every four families lived below the poverty level, and most of those who worked for the
federal government were mid-level or below in the Civil Service system. African
Americans still weren’t allowed in local unions, which meant they weren’t eligible for a
major source of employment—the construction industry. Only Mississippi had a higher
infant mortality rate than the District of Columbia. The city ranked seventh in the country
in numbers of narcotics addicts. The crime rate was astronomical.
Major riots had occurred in Washington since it was founded. In 1835, a major race riot
occurred after a false rumor that a slave had attacked his female owner. There were
others, but skip to 1919 when a four-day race riot occurred—again because of rumors
that an African American had accosted a white woman. But this time, the African
American community organized and fought back when people realized the police would
not protect them. Finally, President Wilson mobilized 2,000 troops, closed public places
like movie theaters and bars. A heavy rain, too, helped quell the riot.
There had been unrest inside the city, among its residents, throughout the 1960s too.
So, in 1967, President Johnson appointed Walter Washington, an African-American, a
public housing executive, a graduate of Howard University and a long-time resident of
DC, as the mayor. Additionally, Congress gave the vote to DC residents to elect its own
school board in 1968.
It didn’t help that four out of five policemen were white in a city in which two out of three
citizens were black. Or that the chief of police was white. Or that the police
administration essentially answered to a very conservative Congressional committee.
But there’s another factor about the District of Columbia. Whose city is it? The 1960s
were a time of great civic activism, of demonstrations against the War in Vietnam, of civil
rights demonstrations around the country, of student demonstrations—people wanted
change. Washington was—and is—the nation’s capital, the nation’s city, and a place
where citizens come from all over to influence and protest and say their piece.
As the nation’s capital, Washington, DC, has been the go-to place for demonstrations
ever since 1894 when Coxey’s Army marched on Washington DC to lobby for jobs. They
were suffering from the economic crisis of the Panic of 1893. Jump to 1934 and the
Bonus Army—citizens marching on Washington to petition for benefits. Jump the te
1960s and we see the growth of demonstrations to change government policies—
particularly on Vietnam, poverty, and civil rights.
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King—whose 1963 march for jobs and freedom on the
national mall saw the great “I Have a Dream Speech,” planned another March on
Washington. This time, however, was conceived as an encampment and the goal was to
instigate government action to alleviate poverty and joblessness.
City merchants worried at the possibility of violence. The military developed a riotcontrol plan for Washington. Martin Luther King spoke at the National Cathedral,
explaining that the march was not planned to destroy Washington, but to raise hope for
the poor. Four days later, he was shot.
Problems began at 14th and U Streets. At that time, 14th and U was considered
Washington’s Harlem in some ways—but most cities have places like it—it was a messy
neighborhood, a center for drugs and prostitution. It was also the center of active black
leadership groups like the SCLC, SNCC, and NAACP. In City outsiders demonstrated on
the National Mall. African Americans who lived in the city, gathered at 14th and U. 1968,
When news of King’s death came over the radio, news spread up and down the streets.
Crowds huddled over transistor radios listening to the news and hearing a speech from
President Johnson mourning King and asking for peace.
Stokely Carmichael, head of SNCC had offices there and often moved to calm
neighborhood incidents. This time, he led groups of people from the neighborhood,
going up and down the streets asking shopowners to close out of respect. And they did.
Many of the 300 shops on 14th Street—clothing sores, moviehouses, bars, rooming
houses—a mixed up commercial street began to close.
But the mob in the streets grew. Trouble started at the People’s Drug Store (today, that
would be a CVS). Someone broke a window. The crowd grew ugly. Anger at the white
man grew and the damage to stores in the neighborhood began. Carmichael spoke
against violence to the crowd, but they were too many and too angry. Violence grew.
Anti-white anger changed to looting and burning.
Five hundred police filled the neighborhood by midnight—less than four hours after the
riots began. Tear gas filled the air. After six hours, more than 200 stores had broken
windows. 150 of them had been looted. Seven fires spread rapidly. 150 adults and 50
kids were arrested. 30 were injured, including 5 policemen and 1 fireman. That was
Thursday night was calm. Friday brought change.
Here it becomes evident that there are two Washingtons. Downtown, plans continued for
the Cherry Blossom Festival. A film crew kept on working near the Mall.
On Friday, the riots spread. The city ignited with riots consuming 14th Street NW, U
Street NW, H Street NE, 7th Street NW, downtown areas, and parts of what is now
Historic Anacostia. The National Guard was called up by President Johnson to control
the city and enforce the curfew. Browning .50 caliber machine guns were mounted on
the steps of the US Capitol.
More than 1,200 fires burned during the four days of rioting resulting in estimated
damages of more than $13 million according to the DC Redevelopment Land Agency
What does the 1968 riot tell us about Washington, DC. What historical questions does it
What is the event?
Who is involved in the event? What roles do they play? What is their point of view?
What clues does this event give you about the history of Washington, DC.
What topics do you think you could explore in DC history?