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On April 5, 1968, civil disorder that had started the night before after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s assassination in Memphis turned into a full-scale riot in the District, prompting a federal response to protect the government and restore order on the streets.
The night before, local African American organizers—including activist Stokley Carmichael—had begun ordering stores to close out of respect for King’s death.
Among the few stores that didn’t close was Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street NW—mostly because Carmichael wanted to use it as a headquarters. As owners Ben and Virginia Ali told Washingtonian in 2008:
We put a sign in the window that said soul brother. We were not the only ones who did that. It was supposed to identify an African-American business. Some of them were saved, but some were burned. We were the only place that remained open during the curfew. Stokely Carmichael told me, “You are going to stay open. We need a place to meet to see what we can do to quell the violence. City officials and police officers will be coming here.” I said, “There’s a curfew. How are my employees going to get through?” Next thing I know, we’ve got passes for the employees.
A march to protest King’s murder turned into a mob, and by 9:30 p.m. store windows were being broken, and items looted.
Even so, D.C.’s police chief at the time, John Layton, believed the situation was under control. While riot units had been deployed by 11 p.m., Layton dismissed them by 3 a.m. the morning of April 5, thinking the disturbances were over.
They weren’t. Mid-morning that day, Carmichael spoke at the Gaston Neal New School for Afro-American Thought, located at 14th and T streets NW. His words at the press conference were anything but calming. As recorded by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood in their book Dream City:
“When white America killed Dr. King last night,” [Carmichael] told the reporters, “she declared war on us. There will be no crying and there will be no funeral… The kind of man that killed Dr. King last night made it a whole lot easier for a whole lot of black people today. There no longer needs to be intellectual discussion. Black people know that they have to get guns. White America will live to cry since she killed Dr. King last night.”
Carmichael ended his speech by waving a gun over his head and shouting: “Stay off the streets if you don’t have a gun, because there’s going to be shooting.”
Just after noon, smoke from burning buildings was visible from federal office buildings downtown. The U.S. government effectively shut down by mid-afternoon, as fleeing workers caused what’s remembered as one of D.C.’s worst traffic jams.
By 3 p.m. rioters had completely overwhelmed D.C. police, who had been ordered to engage only with tear gas, not live ammunition, on orders from D.C. Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington. With stores being ransacked at 14th and G streets NW, just two blocks from the White House, President Lyndon Johnson ordered “Operation: Cabin Guard” into action. Troops marched across the Memorial Bridge from Arlington at 4:40 p.m. Troops erected machine gun emplacements around major buildings, including the White House, and began using tear gas to enforce a 5:30 p.m. curfew.
Nightfall saw a gradual end to the riots, and over 10,000 troops were patrolling a city where major commercial corridors were devastated.
One business that did escape the burnings, however, was the Giant supermarket chain. Joseph Danzansky, Giant’s chairman, had been active in working with emerging African American community organizations (including Pride, led by activist Marion Barry.) Danzansky had allowed Pride’s landscaping business, run by teenagers, to store their equipment at Giant stores. During the riot, Pride’s leadership repaid the favor by dispatching workers to guard Giant stores. While five Safeway locations lay in ruins by April 6, not one Giant had been touched by the violence.
Photo courtesy Library of Congress