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After April 4: The 1968 Rebellions and the Unfinished Work of Civil Rights in DC

© 2023 Kyla Sommers. This excerpt originally appeared in When the Smoke Cleared: The 1968 Rebellions and the Unfinished Battle for Civil Rights in the Nation’s Capital, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, ignited centuries of grief and anger at American racism. An incalculable number of Black Americans took to the streets to protest this injustice in more than one hundred cities across the United States. The rebellions in Washington, DC, were the largest in the country. The capital endured $33 million in property damage ($238 million adjusted for inflation) and fifteen thousand federal troops occupied the District. Enraged crowds started more than one thousand fires. But what happened after the city stopped burning?

As the activist and future DC mayor Marion Barry declared at a DC City Council hearing in May 1968, the rebellions “created a vacuum and an opportunity.” Something would have to be done to reconstruct portions of DC, but it remained to be determined what would be rebuilt and whose interests would be served in the process. Would DC seize the chance to rectify the structural inequalities that motivated the uprisings?

Thousands of Washingtonians ambitiously grasped this “opportunity” to rebuild the capital as a more just society that would protect and foster Black political and economic power. The majority-Black city’s populace aided their communities during the uprisings and responded with resiliency and determination in the aftermath. DC’s government, community groups, and citizens loosely agreed on a reconstruction process they believed would alleviate the social injustices that were the root causes of unrest.

The rebellions challenged the same powerful institutions that generations of moderate and militant Black activists had previously picketed, boycotted, and sued. Most often, people attacked the most accessible representations of white people’s power over Black communities: white-owned and/or -operated stores, commuter highways, and “occupying” police forces. Black Washingtonians had confronted these manifestations of white political power as they demanded freedom, economic opportunities, good education, accountable policing, voting rights, and political power for over a century. Even though the tactics used by protesters were different, the rebellions predominantly targeted the same groups that Black people had long pressured to change.

After the uprisings, Black Washingtonians and parts of the DC government emphasized the idea that the rebellions were the result of legitimate anger at systemic racism and the government’s failure to address it. Building on this understanding of the upheaval, DC leaders adopted an ambitious plan to resolve many of these long-standing inequities. The effort to rebuild DC seized upon the idea that the people who were most affected by government initiatives should have some control in how those programs were administered.

Three elements of the city’s plan demonstrate how Black Washingtonians used the concept of citizen participation to demand economic and political power. First, after the uprisings the DC City Council held public hearings to listen to the community to determine how it should respond to the rebellions. A group of Washingtonians coordinated with each other to present a clear, compelling narrative of the problems that Black people faced in the capital and the reforms they desired. These solutions included policies that explicitly benefited and even favored Black residents as a way to compensate for the historical discrimination African Americans in DC had endured. The DC City Council adopted most of these suggestions into its blueprint for responding to the rebellions.

Second, Black Washingtonians lobbied for a role in police oversight. Harassment by police officers was one of the biggest issues facing Black people in DC. After police officers killed two Black men in the summer of 1968, Black people protested and demanded action from the city. After a government commission studied the issue, the DC City Council passed legislation that limited when a police officer could fire a gun and created civilian review boards to grant Black community members a guiding role in police hiring and discipline.

Finally, DC incorporated citizen participation into its rebuilding plans for Shaw, a 90 percent Black neighborhood that had been the center of Black Washington since the end of the Civil War. More than 50 percent of Shaw residents were surveyed to ask how they wanted their community to be rebuilt. The ensuing plans eschewed private development and instead tasked nonprofit groups with building new housing in partnership with the DC government. Black businesses and workers would design and build the residences as well as public amenities like libraries and schools.

This response to the rebellions was very different from the reactions of white and conservative Americans, who considered the events after King’s assassination to be an apolitical crime spree that demonstrated the need for stronger police forces. Washington suburbanites had complained about DC crime for more than a decade. Some had demanded more police even when crime rates were low. Politicians had stoked these fears and used DC crime as a platform to oppose civil rights and encourage larger, more powerful police departments. But after the uprisings, the concern over crime in the capital reached new heights. Some suburban residents refused to even enter the District, and others called for the military to permanently occupy the capital to control crime.

The fears and demands of white suburban Americans greatly affected American politics in the aftermath of April 1968. While President Johnson had previously emphasized large government programs to combat poverty and racial injustice in response to urban upheaval, the president now foregrounded anticrime policies like the Safe Streets Act that ballooned police department budgets and permitted more electronic surveillance. Richard Nixon made crime in DC a core issue in his 1968 presidential campaign. Once elected, Nixon used DC to experiment with different anticrime measures including mandatory minimum sentences and “no-knock” warrants. As other local and state governments modeled these measures, they disproportionately harmed Black Americans and other people of color.

Richard Nixon’s agenda also limited DC’s efforts to rebuild. He destroyed the government programs that made DC’s reconstruction plan possible, slashed funding for urban housing projects, and discouraged citizen participation programs. Development companies were allowed to bid on rebuilding projects, shutting out local nonprofits.

Nonetheless, the plans and efforts of a majority-Black city to rebuild and reform itself deserve consideration, especially as Americans continue to grapple with the crises of racial inequality and police brutality. From the June 2020 protests for racial justice to the insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, recent events have demonstrated that the histories of protest, policing, racial inequality, and self-governance in Washington, DC, are timely and consequential. The 1968 uprisings in DC and the 2020 protests in DC that followed the murder of George Floyd were not comparable in terms of scale—fewer than five hundred people were arrested in connection to the DC protests in 2020, while more than six thousand were arrested in 1968. Still, this history of the 1968 uprisings in the capital helps to explain our current tumultuous moment and offers historical insights on how previous generations have responded to the ongoing crisis of systemic racism.


© 2023 Kyla Sommers. This excerpt originally appeared in When the Smoke Cleared: The 1968 Rebellions and the Unfinished Battle for Civil Rights in the Nation’s Capital, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.