The ready availability of jobs in the growing federal government attracted many to Washington in the 1960s, and middle class African-American neighborhoods prospered. While the black middle-class community prospered, the lower class was plagued by poor living conditions and fell deeper into poverty. Despite the end of legally mandated racial segregation, the historic neighborhoods of Shaw, the H Street Northeast corridor, and Columbia Heights, centered at the intersection of 14th and U Streets, Northwest, remained the centers of African-American commercial life in the city.
The anger exhibited in the Washington, D.C., 1968 riots was not solely about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. There were pre-existing poor living conditions for blacks in the city and the assassination of Martin Luther King was the straw that broke the camel's back pushing the city into chaos. Blacks were frustrated about unequal unemployment rates, segregated housing systems that had blacks in far worse housing communities, police officers that were targeting blacks and an education system that ignored black children.
One of the largest reasons Washington blacks found it hard to get out of ghetto neighborhoods or even to get out of all black neighborhoods was because of how harsh housing segregation was before 1968. Mostly all of the slums in the city were in the southern quarter of the city, and most of the inhabitants of these slums were black. The United States Commission on Civil Rights said in a government report on segregation in Washington, D.C., that housing was much harder to attain than for whites, and of the housing blacks could find within the city's border was in severely worse condition than the housing of their white counterparts. The same federal council also stated that it was HUD’s (Department of Housing and Urban Development) segregationist zoning plot for the city that was to blame for housing inequality. HUD also came under fire from a group called ACCESS (Action Coordinating Committee to End Segregation in Suburbs) when they protested HUD for giving federal money to buildings that restricted blacks from living in. ACCESS pointed out the hypocrisy of a black man, the head of HUD Robert C. Weaver, taking black taxpayer money and putting it towards segregated living spaces. While there were many blacks moving into what were only white rich neighborhoods, and much of the city was built by "grey blocks"- these blocks where whites and blacks lived side by side- huge swaths of the city were all black ghettos. Black's financial lives were unstable, without the proper knowledge of bank accounts and store credit policies, blacks fell into the hands of high credit loan sharks. All of this uncertainty in housing made it hard for black communities to flourish across multiple generations.
Due to Washington, D.C.'s education system being built along neighborhood lines much of the segregation found in housing spills over into education. Another key influence for the city's racial segregation is a form of white flight where after the integration of schools in 1954 white parents pulled their kids out of district schools in favor of private schooling for their children. Boiling points were reached in 1967 on the issue of educational inequity in the district when multiple town hall meetings in low income black neighborhood turned into screaming matches between frustrated black parents and government representatives. Inequity was so bad that although two thirds of D.C.'s population was black, 92% of public school children were black. Striking statistics such as one out of three ninth grade public school students ending up graduating gave way to rising frustration from the black majority towards the white government and only gave way to louder and louder cries for home rule. The federal government granted 5.5 million dollars under Title 1 of the American Secondary and Elementary Schools act but none of that money went to majority black schools.
With 80 percent of the police force being white and 67 percent of the city being black  tension between police and citizens rose along with tension between whites and blacks before 1968. The militarization of the police which started in the south in the sixties to put a buffer on civil rights protests left inner city blacks nationwide more scared of police than ever. In the years leading up to 1968 there were many incidents in which Washington's black community held protests and turned angry against white police officers. In 1965, the same time and place as Martin Luther King worked with white lawmakers to pass the civil rights act, two white Washington, D.C. police officers arrested a group of black boys with ages ranging from 12 to 16 for playing basketball in an alley. This prompted majority black crowds to gather around police stations around the city throwing rocks and in some cases firecrackers. These small disorderly protests would happen multiple times before the end of 1965. There were three programs put in place after a long string of controversial arrests of black people by white officers. Firstly, a police run Department of Community Relations, a citizen-run Advisory Council for every precinct, and a Complaint Review Board made up of citizens that would look over complaints thrown out by the police chief and see if the complaint warranted a look at a repeal by the mayor. In 1968, before the riots began, a popular black D.C. reverend said that black citizen and white cop relations had reached a "danger point".
In June 1967, the national unemployment rate for whites was 4%; the rate for non-white Americans was 8.4%. This national statistic is quite low compared to the non-white unemployment rate in Washington being in the thirties for most of the sixties. Washington, D.C., along with other cities such as Detroit and St. Louis, all had high black unemployment rates while there white unemployment rates all stayed near the national average of four percent. The numbers were even worse for young working blacks between the ages of 16-22, leaving many young blacks out of school and out of work and frustrated at a system of white supremacy that treated them unequally.
As word of King's assassination in Memphis, Tennessee spread on the evening of Thursday, April 4, crowds began to gather at 14th and U. Stokely Carmichael, the Trinidad and Tobago-born activist and Howard University graduate, had parted with King in 1966, and had been removed as head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1967, but led members of the SNCC to stores in the neighborhood demanding that they close out of respect. Although polite at first, the crowd fell out of control and began breaking windows. By 11 p.m., widespread looting had begun, as well as in over 30 other cities.
Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington ordered the damage cleaned up immediately the next morning. However, anger was still evident when Carmichael addressed a rally at Howard warning of violence on Friday morning and after the close of the rally, rioters walking down 7th Street, NW, came into violent confrontations with the DC Metropolitan Police Department, as well as in the H Street, NE, corridor. Around midday, numerous buildings were on fire, with firefighters attacked with bottles and rocks and unable to respond to them. By 1 p.m., the riot was in full effect. Police unsuccessfully attempted to control the crowds using tear gas.
On Friday, April 5, the White House dispatched some 13,600 federal troops, including 1,750 federalized D.C. National Guard troops to assist the overwhelmed District police force. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol and Army troops from the 3rd Infantry guarded the White House. At one point, on April 5, rioting reached within two blocks of the White House before rioters retreated. The occupation of Washington was the largest of any American city since the Civil War.
After the announcement of MLK’s death Lyndon B. Johnson in a radio address asked all citizens to not resort to blind violence. He held a meeting at the White House the following morning with black civil rights leaders and government officials. He made a statement saying to “deny violence its victory,” and he said that all citizens must come together to keep King’s dream alive. That day, he declared the Sunday of that week to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day of mourning. In addition, he ordered that all the American flags across federal and District buildings, grounds, and naval vessels, and at diplomatic and military vessels overseas be flown at half staff. He also made the final decision to bring in the national guard so that order would once again rule in the city. On April 11, 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act), which prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or gender. While a bill had been in question for some time, Johnson sped up the process following the assassination of Dr. King. The Act helped desegregate D.C., thus reducing the large black populations living in ghettos separated from wealthier whites living in more suburban areas of the city.
Stokely Carmichael was in support of the riots, leading a black strike in which he and a crowd of people went store to store asking them to close early out of respect for Dr. King. This was also the crowd that eventually started the riots. Stokely Carmichael was quoted by The Evening Star as saying "I think white America made its biggest mistake when they killed Dr. King last night... He was the one man in our race who was trying to preach mercy and forgiveness for what the white man has done." He said "Execution of this retaliation will not be in the courts but in the streets,...We're going to die on our feet-we’re tired of living on our stomachs." He encouraged blacks to arm themselves, saying the killing of King "made it a lot easier for a lot of Negroes-they know it's time to get guns now,...go home and get you a gun and then come back because I got me a gun." During a Havana broadcast, he told blacks to stay away from their jobs to protest the slaying and "make the white racist Americans understand that Negroes have the necessary force to set right the outrages which have been made against Negroes in the United States."
Walter Fauntroy, City Council Vice Chairman and the leader of SCLC (Southern Council Leadership Conference), played a key role in the rebuilding of D.C. after the 1968 riots. When the riots first broke out, Fauntroy expressed his connection with Dr. King, stating that “There is no one in the city whose heart is more crushed and broken than (his)” after King’s assassination. He challenged people to "Handle your grief the way Dr. King would have wanted it," and those who acted otherwise "do dishonor to the life and mission of Dr. King." Following the riots, Fauntroy proposed a program that would allow property owners the right to build bigger and more profitable buildings as long as the spend money on community projects such as housing, apartment renovations or retail centers. If someone wanted to go forward with a commercial project, they would need to first make a firm commitment to undertake a local project in a D.C. neighborhood. As part of their returning to the community, participants would be required to return 50% of the cash value of the bonuses they received through the program. Fauntroy estimated an increase of $500 million in revenue for the city government.
Walter Washington made nightly appearances during the riots, and these appearances were credited by many in the city with helping dampen the violence during the time. In addition, he refused Federal commands to shoot at rioters.
The SNCC worked in collaboration with Stokely Carmichael to organize the parade in honor Martin Luther King’s death. Many of the members attempted to keep the crowd at bay to prevent looting and damage. But the rowdy crowd, filled with enthusiasm, could not be calmed and gained in momentum as well as in size, as they continued down U Street, looting various stores and causing mayhem. Due to Carmichael’s absence from the organization, membership declined and the group was eventually disbanded in 1970. By then, the radical ideas that SNCC had once presented to the African-American community were well accepted.
Before the riots, Layton emphasized that if there ever was a riot in Washington, they would use a large amount of policemen with no guns, rather than fewer policemen with guns. During the riots, Layton put those words into action. Rather than acting immediately to the reports of rioting, looting, and window-breakings with a smaller force, he played the waiting game until a large enough force could be brought together. They then used tear gas instead of bullets to disrupt the rioting.
Former Deputy Secretary of Defense and special Pentagon representative in D.C. 1968 Riots. Mayor Washington acted with Vance’s guidance during Thursday night, the first hours of rioting. He also acted as the Pentagon’s special representative from Friday night and on. He was called upon by Mayor Washington on Friday afternoon to coordinate the National Guard, the Army, and the police. He was the leading force in a shift in the military emphasis which focused on the overwhelming use of men, the use of tear gas, and an early, strictly enforced curfew.
The National Guard was called in after it was realized that police alone would not be enough to quell the rioters. Imposed a strict curfew, worked riot control, patrolled the streets, guarded looted stores, and provided aid to those who were misplaced by the rioting. The National Guard continued to remain after the rioting had officially ceased to protect against a second riot and further damage.
Shortly after the news of Dr King’s death the disturbances began. At exactly 9:30 p.m. a window in the People’s Drug Store at 14th and U St., NW, had been broken. An hour and half later window-smashing and looting spread throughout the area. Looting occurred generally in areas with less or no police protection.The local police department could not handle the disturbance one officer said, “This situation is out of control, we need help it's too much for us to handle.” (Washington Daily News, 5 April 1968) The Civil disturbance unit was later activated, by the time order was restored about 3:00 a.m., 200 stores had their windows broken, 150 had been looted, most swept empty. Liquor stores were hardest hit.
The ongoing riot during 1968 helped arsonists set buildings ablaze. The District of Columbia fire department reported a total of 1,180 fires between March 30 and April 14 of 1968. On 702 S St., NW, a doctor who had been in practice for 42 years lost his office, his licence, awards, and equipment, to a fire outbreak in that area due to the riots.
The property loss caused by the riot was extensive. One thousand, one hundred and ninety-nine buildings, including 283 housing units and 1590 commercial establishments, were badly damaged or destroyed. Estimates of losses to at least partially insured properties in the concentrated area of looting and destruction were fixed at $25 million. Insurance covered only 29 percent of the total loss suffered by these businesses. As a result of the riot damage, an estimated 2,900 insurance policies were cancelled and 500 businesses suffered inflated insurance rates. The board of trade estimated a loss of $40 million in tourist trade during the months of April and May due to the riots.
By the time the city was considered pacified on Sunday, April 8, twelve had been killed (mostly in burning homes), 1,097 injured, and over 6,100 arrested.
The riots utterly devastated Washington's inner city economy. With the destruction or closing of businesses, thousands of jobs were lost, and insurance rates soared. Made uneasy by the violence, city residents of all races accelerated their departure for suburban areas, depressing property values. Crime in the burned out neighborhoods rose sharply, further discouraging investment.
On some blocks, only rubble remained for decades. Columbia Heights and the U Street corridor did not begin to recover economically until the opening of the U Street and Columbia Heights Metro stations in 1991 and 1999, respectively, while the H Street, NE, corridor remained depressed for several years longer.
Walter Washington, who reportedly refused FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's suggestion to shoot the rioters, went on to become the city's first elected mayor and its first black mayor.