Washington in Flames: The 1968 D.C. Riots

At the Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech in which he warned about an increase in violence in the country if no progress was made to improve living conditions and reduce unemployment of discrimination of African-Americans. Four days later on April 4, King was assassinated in Memphis. When the news spread to Washington D.C. (and Baltimore), those who lived near the intersections of 14th and U streets, the heart of the black community in DC, young black men gathered together near the Peoples Drug Store and began the D.C. Riots.

Ray Lustig/The Washington Star and Matthew Lewis/The Washington Post

These riots mainly involved black teenagers smashing windows, looting stores, throwing bottles, bricks, rocks, Molotov cocktails, and starting fires out of frustration and grief from King’s assassination and other injustices. On the night of April 4, when the riots began, Stokely Carmichael, a leader of a local black activist group, tried to control the scene and prevent further violence; he failed. These riots spread across the District like an earthquake expanding out from its epicenter over the next three days. By the end, more than 800 fires had been started, over 900 businesses were damaged, more than a dozen killed, and thousands were injured. Firefighters struggled to keep up with the increasing quantity of fires and policemen created barricades armed with guns and tear gas.

Ray Lustig/The Washington Star

However, the police were instructed not to shoot anybody. The rioters were not fazed by firefighters or the authorities. They would restart extinguished fires and throw rocks at police cars. During the riots, President Lyndon B. Johnson took an aerial tour of the city and viewed the omnipresent chaos. Robert Kennedy also toured the destruction. During the peak of the riots on April 5, 13,000 troops arrived in Washington, the most to occupy an American city since the Civil War. Once the riots ended, the Secret Service and FBI gathered 205 pages of police reports.


Total damage value was approximately $175 million, adjusted for inflation, and 7,600 adults and juveniles were arrested on riot-related charges. In addition to the 900 businesses destroyed, which included half of the city’s liquor stores, nearly 700 residences were also reduced to rubble. This narrative is the official memory. These numbers, statistics, dates, and times are objectively recorded history. The big picture is the collective memory; however, everyone who participated in or witnessed the riots is a source of vernacular and individual memory. One example is George Pelecanos who exposes a distortion in the memory, perhaps due to distanciation from 1968. He states in an interview, “One of the things that people don’t realize or that they misremember is that rioting is a lot of fun. It wasn’t all political. It was kids having fun. ‘Let’s go down there and get something. Let’s throw rocks through the windows and see what we can get.’”

Darrell C. Crain, Jr. Photograph Collection at DC Public Library

Why was this aspect forgotten? Perhaps because collective memory is instrumental and helps tell a narrative. The image of kids innocently and casually participating in the riots is incongruous with the thought of hundreds of outraged black people. Chinatown’s perspective has also been swept under the rug in an attempt to tidy up the narrative of the riots. Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington D.C is another source of memory. Virginia and Ben Ali were the founders and managers of the restaurant at the time and were some of the only people that kept their business open throughout the riots. This restaurant is now famous because of Obama’s frequent visits and fewer people remember its significance during the riots. This substitution of memory is an example of distanciation and partiality. There are fewer people in the community today who have memory of their role in the riots and therefore, the current claim to fame is, “Oh, that’s where Obama ate!”

Stephen Northup/The Washington Post

Another example of suppressed memory is those of the police and National Guard who were on duty during the riots. Pelecanos claims he has met National Guard members who were “incredibly scared” because of the barrage of bottles and rocks at their trucks. He also has heard police members who were “bitter because they couldn’t use their weapons.” Other officers were “thankful they couldn’t use their weapons because they would have killed somebody and they would not want to live with that.” These recollections are quite particular because they came from individual officers; however, they may also be quite universal considering many of the officers and soldiers had similar experiences over those 72 hours.


Additionally, the notion of scared policemen or soldiers who wish they killed Americans are unpleasant and unusual thoughts and have been repressed. Ben’s Chili Bowl owner Ali says that after the riots, “you’re seeing all these new people in the community…You had the new Afro, the big hairdo.” He claims that the D.C. riots were the beginning point of the Afro, an iconic shape that may classify as an invented tradition. Were the D.C. riots the true catalyst for the Afro? One could argue Frederick Douglass had an Afro.

Vic Casamento/The Washington Post

The memory of the D.C. riots, especially for those who witnessed and/or participated in it, is very vulnerable to distortion in one specific aspect. Many of these articles and interviews emphasize the quantity of destruction and the image of burning buildings that has been seared into their memories for 50 years. While the damage and violence was quite significant, many people may have forgotten that riots in Newark and Detroit from the previous year were even more violent. While 13 died from the riots in D.C., 27 died in Newark, 43 in Detroit.


“‘People Were Out of Control’: Remembering the 1968 Riots”, Denise Kersten Wills. April 1, 2008. Washingtonian. https://www.washingtonian.com/2008/04/01/people-were-out-of-control-remembering-the-1968-riots/

“Nation’s Capital Still Recovering from 1968 Riots”, Kathleen Koch. April 4, 1998. CNN. http://www.cnn.com/US/9804/04/mlk.dc.riots/

“The Four Days in 1968 that Reshaped D.C.”, March 27, 2018. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/local/dc-riots-1968/?utm_term=.8ac8da3301a0

2 thoughts on “Washington in Flames: The 1968 D.C. Riots”

  1. A really important aspect that was well-highlighted was the partiality of memory surrounding the DC Riots. You give good evidence not only for the objective fact that things were forgotten (like Pelecanos’s comment or the police’s perspective), but you suss out that those things were forgotten because they were in conflict with what became the official collective memory.

  2. I think this piece did a really good job at showing the severity of the D.C. Riots. Specifically, I think it did this by including statistics such as 800 fires, 900 business damaged, 205 pages of police reports, and much more. I think that by including all these facts you let the readers see the magnitude of the damage and let them imagine how many people it effected. I also really liked that you showed memory as usable. For example, you showed how people don’t like to remember that teenagers had fun during the riots because its not really usable for the point that the D.C. riots were trying to get across or what the memories of them are trying to get across. This makes me wonder how people feel about using memory like this? Do people think it just to use memory in order for a cause if that means using one part of memory but leaving out another? In addition, your post made me wonder why it was the D.C. riots that got so much attention if 43 people died in the Detroit riots? Was it because D.C. is more representative of our country and therefore a more usable form of memory?

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