Covid-19′s Disruptions Echo the Disturbances That Followed MLK’s AssassinationRoundup
tags: 1960s, Washington DC, riots, Martin Luther King Jr, coronavirus
Kyla Sommers holds a Ph.D. in American history from the George Washington University. Her dissertation, entitled "I Believe in the City," examines the Black Freedom Struggle and the 1968 civil disturbances in Washington, D.C.
Washington was in a state of emergency. Its schools were closed, the cherished Cherry Blossom Festival was canceled and baseball’s Opening Day was postponed. Hospitals were chaotic and ambulance paramedics overwhelmed. Panicked shoppers flooded grocery stores to stock up on food while thousands lost their jobs and wondered where they would get their next meal. As night fell, the mayor ordered Washingtonians to stay home. “An eerie atmosphere dominated the well-lit broad streets of downtown Washington, with its modern office buildings, in a silence broken only by the frequent wails of police, fire, and ambulance sirens,” reported Howard University’s The Hilltop.
More than 50 years later, this description is eerily applicable to the District and many places across the world. This weekend marks the 52nd anniversary of the April 4, 1968, assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the nationwide civil disturbances that followed. King’s assassination ignited centuries of grief and anger at racial inequality, and some expressed these emotions by looting and burning businesses. Compared to simultaneous uprisings in over 100 American cities, the District’s disorder resulted in the most property damage, arrests and federal troop involvement.
To quell the chaos in the District, Mayor Walter E. Washington declared a state of emergency and imposed a citywide curfew. President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered over 15,000 federal troops into the District to restore order. The disorder harmed 1,352 businesses, displaced nearly 5,000 people from their jobs and left 2,000 people homeless.
Despite the major differences between a global pandemic and civil disorder sparked by assassination, then and now the city’s residents faced terrible uncertainty about how they could obtain food to eat and reliable information to help them understand what was going on. To serve these needs during the 1968 crisis, many Washingtonians united and an ad hoc organization of community groups and citizens provided vital services to the city’s people. They later envisioned the city’s rebuilding and pushed for structural reform. Remembering the ways Washingtonians cooperatively tackled these problems can provide hope and inspiration today as we face the daunting challenges of the novel coronavirus.