PoP Reader, Reuben Jackson, Remembers April 4, 1968

“I remember April 4, 1968 as if it were this morning. I was kneeling in the makeshift on-deck circle in the alley behind my parent’s house in Northwest DC. It was opening day for what my friends and I dubbed the ABL- Alley Baseball League. It was a new year, a new spring. But some things hadn’t changed. Like Harold Talley’s fastball. It remained as mysterious as Mona Lisa’s smile.

Bat after bat made contact with the warm spring air. It was the bottom of the 7th, and my team-the 5th Street Maulers- were behind 3-1. But a rally was underway. Big Joe’s line drive eluded the second baseman’s glove for a double. The very powerful Greg Walker was in the batter’s box. The count was 3 balls, no strikes. I tried my best to strike an impassive, Willie Mays-like pose in the on-deck circle, but Diane Washington and her equally beautiful sister were standing to my immediate right. I thought my 12 year old heart would explode.

Just before Harold delivered the fateful pitch, my Mother threw open the backdoor and screamed to no one and everyone in particular, “They’ve shot Martin Luther King in Memphis!” Everything seemed to stop. Baseball. Spring itself. My selfish desires. My Mother remained on the back porch, staring. I placed my bat on the ground. Everyone-fans, players- gathered balls, gloves, jackets, and headed home.

When I got inside, I joined my parents in front of the TV. He rolled his eyes upon hearing that the FBI had conducted an internal investigation, and concluded that they were not involved in what was now an assassination. My Mother began crying.  There were reports of arson and looting in downtown DC, and in several cities across the country.

About an hour later, my Father and I stood on the roof of our house. Looking South, you could see thick, dark smoke through the still bare trees. 14th Street, 7th Street, H Street, Northeast- America itself, was on fire.

Sirens cried all night. My Mom did, too.”

36 Comment

  • I can’t imagine how ominous that must have been. 9/11 would have been the closest for me, but as devastating as that day was, I couldn’t literally see the city burning around me. Living just off Georgia Avenue, and seeing the sequelae of the riots (dilapidated buildings, storefront security grates…) I often get chills thinking about it. Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but I swear at times I can still feel the sadness, anger, and frustration that ensued.

  • “They” shot Martin Luther King….

    not let’s go steal some tvs and liquor!

    Makes sense…

  • now, that is…

    ….from our own, hardworking “brothers and sisters” who own their own businesses! That’ll teach “the man!”

  • Oh Guinness, Guinness… Best to you in the (as your put it) “multi-cultural” (70something percent white, according to Census figures) paradise of Oakton, Va.

  • Reuben,
    Thanks for sharing your story. I would love to hear more about that day and how it impacted the neighborhood.

  • Yeah, I’m sure that MLK wanted black neighborhoods to become centers for riots, looting, and total destruction.

  • Just heard Reuben read this on NPR this morning (during the local WAMU segment).

  • you’re right, anonymous…

    I’d much rather live in the “multi cultural” (70 percent black, 50% of which despise my presence) petworth, columbia heights area, where a full forty years after the assassination of MLK, the same result would happen if something similar happened today.

    God forbid, some maniac offs Obama, you KNOW that there would definitely be burning businesses and looting in MANY american cities.

  • The local NBC station had a story yesterday about 14th Street during the riots and now. They interviewed a lot of people who remembered the riots and have a lot of old video footage – very interesting. And sad how long it took (..or is taking) these business districts to recover.
    here is a link http://video.nbc4.com/player/?id=236569

  • Thanks Reuben, wonderfully told, as usual.

  • guinness-your racial anger makes obama’s former minister sound like
    beaver cleaver’s dad.

  • INMHIIYNTYAH and Guiness,

    I wish you both the best. It’s obvious that you missed the point of the post. It’s supposed to a remembrance/acknowledgement…not a time for judgement and sarcasm.

    Of course rioting is illogical, but when people act out of of anger, frustration, and hopelessness anything is possible. If you believe that the same thing could happen again (in which I happen to agree with you) then obviously changes still need to be made. How about starting with a little empathy? Then maybe both of you can eventually graduate to sense.

  • theres a time and a place for everything, and i think an open discussion about racial tensions past and present would be a great forum topic… but i think its disgusting that guinessphish would drop comments like that on a post that is supposed to unite us all for a second. i see this as an opportunity to remember the past and have hope for the future, not attack blacks based on the actions of a few thugs who would be thugs on any night of the week, given any event. god knows im un-pc as hell, but come on phish.

  • My advice: don’t feed the trolls. Reuben’s post desevers much, much better.

  • ahem… ‘deserves’

  • washingtonian just put an article where the owner of ben’s chili bowl remembers the riots along U street:


  • Thanks for sharing Reuben. Very well said…

  • Thank you for sharing Reuben. As a relative newcomer to the area, it is one thing to read about the “facts” of what happened during that time period, but it is more moving, to me at least, to hear stories like yours, that put it into real life perspective.

  • so, this isn’t an appropriate time to discuss the illogical actions of people based on the event that caused it?

  • Thank you Rueben for sharing such a beautifully chronicled event.

  • Thank you Rueben.

    I was a very small child in Western NY State at the time. My city burned too, and I was too young to understand it. I just knew how sad and scared everybody was.

    When I moved to DC in 1983, I was stunned to see that the city was still scarred by that night. It seemed so long ago. Now it only seems like yesterday. I stood at the corner of 14th and U this morning. Behold, all things are made new.

    I know we’ve made progress since – this morning I, a white woman, was standing at 14th and U with a black man that I’m working with having a professional discussion. Progress has been made. But I hope that we continue to make progress and that at some point, please God, some point soon, we can look back and say that we have finally buried the hate and the fear and division and that we really are all one human race.

  • Reuben, that was such a touching piece. Thanks for sharing.

  • It’s OK to consider both the assasination of Dr. King and that the 1968 riots that followed as senseless acts of violence and brutality.

  • I was a young kid at the time but remember King’s assassination, many people’s reactions and the riots afterwards. I especially remember this because civil rights was an important cause for my parents, soemthing they talked about as a family. Let me share some of them. I grew up in a close-in suburb of DC. My parents were liberals and were different than a lot of white people of the time and raised us not to be prejudiced (which was what racism was called back then). Many of you readers, especially whites, don’t know how it was years ago, the separation, the way some white people thought and acted.
    Though some other white people used the n-word, we never did and were told that it was hateful and disparaging to African Americans (my parents said Negroes). One white girl I remember said she didn’t like Martin Luther King because he wanted to make black people come and live near us. I still remember how her parents must have told her stuff like that, as if having neighbors of a different race was such a terrible thing.
    Another girl I knew used to go a certain pool but stopped going. When I asked her why her parents didn’t take her there anymore, she said it was because they didn’t want her using a pool which black people use. I guess segregation of public facilities became law, became enacted, and this white family didn’t like it.
    Days after the King assassination, which was shocking in its violence against a national leader, the riots continued downtown. We lived not too far from the DC line. I remember some white boys in my school saying how their fathers and uncles had guns just in case the “coloreds” tried to cross into their neighborhoods.
    Whole areas of DC were burned, including parts of 7th STreet NW, H Street NE, and of course nearby 14th Street.

  • GuinnessPhish has a point. Black people have disgraced the memory of MLK, Booker T. Washington and Malcolm X. Every MLK street in America is a trash strewn mess with crime, liquor stores, and blight. Every X street is the same. We [Black people] did this. You can’t blame the white man. You would think that if there would be one nice street in the black community, it would be MLK. Yet, in Landover, MD, they have a gang named the MLK GOONS. How sad after all these years. Below is an report written in 1965 by P. Moynihan, three years before MLK was killed.

    There are two reasons. First, the racist virus in the American blood stream still afflicts us: Negroes will encounter serious personal prejudice for at least another generation. Second, three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment have taken their toll on the Negro people. The harsh fact is that as a group, at the present time, in terms of ability to win out in the competitions of American life, they are not equal to most of those groups with which they will be competing. Individually, Negro Americans reach the highest peaks of achievement. But collectively, in the spectrum of American ethnic and religious and regional groups, where some get plenty and some get none, where some send eighty percent of their children to college and others pull them out of school at the 8th grade, Negroes are among the weakest. The most difficult fact for white Americans to understand is that in these terms the circumstances of the Negro American community in recent years has probably been getting worse, not better. Indices of dollars of income, standards of living, and years of education deceive. The gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening. The fundamental problem, in which this is most clearly the case, is that of family structure. The evidence — not final, but powerfully persuasive — is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling. A middle class group has managed to save itself, but for vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated city working class the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but disintegrated. There are indications that the situation may have been arrested in the past few years, but the general post war trend is unmistakable. So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.

  • Although Guiness may have a point (no matter how poorly expressed) perhaps that should be a whole other blog. This is about Reuben’s experience in the midst of it. It’s about understanding the impact it had on individuals. It’s about taking the time to LISTEN to what the average person felt at the time. It’s not about jumping at the chance to take pot shots at a community at large. It’s not about passing judgment.

  • Reuben

    Thank you so much for sharing your personal story of that day. Martin Luther King affected so many of us. I am grateful he was here for the time we had him and that many of us are still affected by his mission and message. Because of him a young country girl from southern Missouri learned about respect and peace. The response to his death that day, in my mind, is that of soul rending grief – we all express that in different ways.

  • Nice story Reuben. It’s good to get some perspective. As to the discussions of actions by residents here 40 years after the event – I would say let the past be the past. Lets focus on the here and now. I think there is enough to discuss!

  • I guess some of the aforementioned comments were to be expected, and yes, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion-but it doesn’t mean I’m not rattled by a couple of the more virulently hateful posts.
    Still, I wish to thank Reuben for a most thoughtful essay.

  • I remember going on class fieldtrips where the buses would travel north on 14th st and seeing street after street of burnt-out buildings. Most of that was really gone by 1979. I remember some really stupid goody two shoes girl asking the teacher when the fire happened, when everyone who was 8 or 9 or 10 damn well KNEW when the fire happened and KNEW that you didn’t ask anyone, particularly a hippy in 1976, why the buildings were burnt down. That’s my main memory, that pregnant pause as everyone fidgeted in our seats and the teacher asked the girl if she REALLY didn’t know why all the buildings were burnt out and if her parents ever talked to her about the riots.

    Guiness is a jackass, no question, unable to see past their navel they truly can’t fathom that TIMES HAVE CHANGED and that currently riots are really bad, but back then the culture was so wildly different that African-American people, even in DC, literally were told to sit down and shut up so many times every day and they had virtually no outlet for anything (imagine three all-white TV news teams on at 11pm with one reporter on each channel covering a “Negro” story each day. And even then it wasn’t news, it was just something about poverty. If you weren’t a criminal or in sports you weren’t on TV. Imagine all-white top 40 radio like WPGC. I’ve got tapes of DC pop radio in the 60s and there is not soul on the tapes. One has the Beatles followed by Frank Sinatra. Is that how you imagine rock and roll radio? That’s how it was in real life.

    My mother and her friends always told the story that after the 1963 MLK speech that no taxi would take them back to Connecticut Avenue until they took all the buttons off their coats and put head scarves on, because EVERYONE IN DC HATED BLACK PEOPLE. And a white person who went to the I Have a Dream speech was not getting a ride home.

    My father’s secretary used to do this- when she was invited to lunch, she would have to wear an African scarf and speak French when walking into a restaurant otherwise the DC lunch counters would NOT SERVE AN INTERRACIAL OFFICE GROUP! And my father didn’t move here until 1963, well into the 60s.

    Now, Stoakely Carmichel, the guy who started the riots, he wasn’t a nice man. He was an outsider who burnt down someone else’s city. But that doesn’t mean that 40 years later we can dismiss

    Watch a movie called Revolution ’67 about the Newark riots of 1967 to get a really good understanding of what life was actually like under Jim Crow fascism. It’s so different from today it’s scarcely to be believed!

  • I also remember asking hippies in 1972, 72, 73 about the Glen Echo riots, a 1966 riot where African-American kids threw rocks at houses around Glen Echo when the amusement park forced all the black guests to leave during a hot summer fight. That was also really bad news. The park never survived integration because no one would pay to go on a ferris wheel with non-whites!!! It really happened!

  • Here’s what inquiring minds want to know: did WAMU pick up Reuben’s piece after reading it on PoP?

    ’cause that would be so cool.

  • “I guess some of the aforementioned comments were to be expected, and yes, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion-but it doesn’t mean I’m not rattled by a couple of the more virulently hateful posts.”

    Hey, welcome to my life, Anon 7:14 p.m. Every time I visit this board, I’m rattled by some of the racist statements. At first I thought, am I the only black reader? Could it be true that my neighbors are hiding some of these feelings under the surface? It made me absolutely depressed to visit here and see how many perfectly reasonable posts would eventually devolve into racial stereotyping.

    And then I realized that racism by white people was the least of my worries; black people are more than willing to talk about all those OTHER animalistic black people (who are, of course, not them.) Black people are saying some of the worst things about their fellow humans — but of course, it’s “okay” for black people to say these things, because they’re black too.


    Maybe all the posts have had the unintendend, but appropriate, effect: it allows us to reflect, on this day, how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.

    Anyway: Reuben, beautiful post. Thank you.

  • I heard Reuben tell this story this afternoon on WAMU – hearing the story (vs reading it) is an added dimension. You can listen thru WAMU’s web site.

    Reuben, thank you for sharing your story.

  • I had no idea Reuben was such a celebrity. I was impressed to hear his name in the media this week. I appreciate the fact that this is actually a diverse blog! I also will try to ignore the ignorant comments instead of responding to them. Maybe that will shut them down.

  • Thanks for the kind words, everyone…

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