Holy Week: Covenant

Part 7: A settlement in ashes

On an off-white background, the words "Part 7" are in blue; below that and larger is the word "Covenant" in red. Behind that, in black lettering, is the word "covenant" repeating in the shape of the outline of a stone tablet. The top of the arch is at the top of the page.

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Stokely Carmichael: For us, the real funeral for Dr. King, the funeral pyre, was the burning of the fires of the cities—the teeming anger of the people. And I remember, while driving from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta, I saw smoke for the entire trip in the car. They were, everywhere, putting Dr. King to rest, giving his proper burial. When I arrived in Atlanta for the funeral, for all practical purposes, it was anticlimactic. I’d already seen the funeral from Washington to Atlanta.

***

Vann R. Newkirk II: Tuesday, April 9, 1968.

Five days after King was killed, Stokely Carmichael looked on as he was laid to rest. The services were held at the church King pastored with his father, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta. A crowd of people swelled outside the church as far as the eye could see—over 100,000 people, one of the largest funerals for a private citizen in American history. They were all dressed up in their Sunday finest: kids in patent-leather shoes and vests, white ribbons in the girls’ hair. Dignitaries pulled up in black cars and snaked through the crowd. There’s George Romney, Bobby Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Mahalia Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Thurgood Marshall. The vice president, Hubert Humphrey, showed up. It seemed like all the leaders in America were there, except President Johnson.

Joseph Califano: There’s a whole history of that. I mean, Nixon’s people calling and saying, you know, you could take Nixon and Bobby Kennedy together with you and Humphrey and take them all down. And it would show that the country is together.

Newkirk: Johnson’s top domestic adviser, Joe Califano, his right-hand man, says that plan didn’t work out for the president. Johnson had been on the outs with King and the SCLC before the assassination, and he heard (through the FBI’s COINTELPRO sources) that King’s people were planning to snub him.

Califano: Johnson didn’t want to do it. First of all, he had the Secret Service going crazy about the possibility that he would do it. But secondly, he just didn’t think anything would come of it. It wouldn’t help, and it could hurt him, so he sent Humphrey.

Newkirk: President Johnson and his staff watched the funeral the same way millions of Americans did: on TV.

Ralph David Abernathy: I am the resurrection and the life, saith the lord.

Newkirk: Watching the news footage, inside the church, as big as it is, it looks packed. Coretta Scott King is wearing a black veil. She and her children file in. She’s being held steady by her brother-in-law, Reverend A. D. King, but he doesn’t look too steady himself. Standing in the pulpit is Ralph David Abernathy.

Ralph David Abernathy: … in one of the darkest hours in the history of all mankind.

Juandalynn Abernathy: My father actually eulogized him. It was very difficult—very, very difficult.

Ralph David Abernathy: … a 20th-century prophet

Newkirk: Juandalynn Abernathy was sitting in the pews with her sister and her mother. She and all the other kids were dressed in white. She was devastated. Her Uncle Martin was gone. And she was watching her father try to hold up an unimaginable burden.

Juandalynn Abernathy: But to see Daddy have to—his tears, you know—it was just, oh, for us … oh, it was horrible.

Ralph David Abernathy: Lift his voice and cry out to the pharaoh to let my people go.

Newkirk: After verses and hymns and eulogies, King’s pallbearers loaded his casket onto a cart. As Jesus had entered Jerusalem on a donkey, in peace, King toured his city one last time, drawn by mules. The procession went downtown, then to Morehouse College, his alma mater. Thousands of people followed on foot the whole four miles. At the college, his close mentor, former Morehouse president Benjamin Elijah Mays, delivered another eulogy.

Benjamin Elijah Mays: Make no mistake, the American people are, in part, responsible for Martin Luther King’s death. The assassin heard enough condemnation of King and Negroes to feel that he had public support.

Newkirk: From Ebenezer through the last tour of Atlanta, the ceremony lasted seven and a half hours. Outside Atlanta, lots of people tuned in to the whole thing. They listened on car radios. Families gathered on couches. People set up TVs outside in the projects.

In Brentwood, in northeast D.C., Taquiena Boston captured the event in her diary.

Taquiena Boston: For the first time, I cried because of the loss of Reverend King. When I think of him, I realize how wrong I was. All I’ve ever wanted is glory for myself.

Newkirk: She said it was time for the country to make a change. She was 13. In the Cardozo neighborhood in D.C., Theophus Brooks and his family watched too.

Theophus Brooks: We had a black-and-white TV. Everybody sit around it, quiet. Nobody—Oh, you think this?—No. Ain’t no discussion. Just quiet.

My mother and father didn’t discuss it. It would just be quiet, and we’d look at it. And the more we look at it, the more we realize this is terrible. You know, this is terrible. It’s terrible.

Newkirk: John Burl Smith, down in Memphis, had just finished working as a marshal in the silent march to commemorate King, and felt like he had kept his promise.

Newkirk: Did you watch King’s funeral?

John Burl Smith: No, I didn’t. I had an image of him that I don’t think anybody else had. I know what he went through and said during his last hours of life. That was my reasoning and justification.

Ralph David Abernathy: No crypt, no vault, no stone can hold his greatness, but we commit his body to the ground.

Newkirk: The funeral lasted until the evening. Even that night, National Guardsmen and Army troops still patrolled several cities and enforced curfews. But it was five days after King’s assassination. The riots were becoming old news. Some Americans were even ready to move past  all the coverage about uprisings. After all, the Oscars were coming on TV later that week. But there was still one last struggle taking place: a struggle to make meaning of this thing, of the freedom movement and King’s life and what came after. Black America and white America were battling to define and claim whatever might be called the “soul of the nation.” Or maybe they were realizing that soul had departed.

***

Newkirk: Part 7: “Covenant.”

***

Newkirk: Later that night …

Broadcaster: Live and direct from Atlanta, Georgia

Newkirk: Public radio stations in Atlanta, New York, and Boston started a simultaneous broadcast of a call-in show.

Broadcaster: and New York City, with listener participation by telephone from around the nation. You’re listening to the first national “Dial in for Nonviolence.”

Newkirk: “Dial in for Nonviolence.” It started up after the funeral as a place where normal people could just vent, or even chat with some movement leaders—all spontaneously, on the fly.

Broadcaster: All you need to do is place a collect call to area code 212, calling number 749-3311 from anywhere in the United States.

Host: How do you do, miss? We’d like to hear what you have to say.

Female caller: Dr. Martin Luther King was a wonderful person. I am against violence, but it’s hard to live without it when there is prejudice around you in employment and etcetera.

Male caller: I would like to voice an opinion, if I may.

Host: Surely.

Male caller: This country is at a point of grave crisis, which will, I believe and regret, be resolved through violence.

Host: Well, my friend, you see, if there isn’t an alternative to violence—and in this case a kind of genocide—then I think that we’re a very unimaginative people. Dr. King offered us one possible way.

Male caller: Precisely. But he’s been offering this solution for almost 15 years, and …

Host: Well—

Male caller: … the accomplishments are minimal compared to the time that he’s been, you know, the literal time that he’s been operating.

Host: Well, well …

Newkirk: There was an anxiety underlying all the talk. Everyone was just trying to figure out what to do, how to live in a world that was changing under their feet. They discussed what policy might best continue King’s work.

Broadcaster: If everything in the Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders report was acted on, we would come so near to accomplishing all of the goals that Martin Luther King worked and died for—that so many other people worked and died for and sacrificed for. It’s all laid out in very simple form.

Newkirk: But by the time of the radio show, the path that the Kerner Commission recommended was basically closed. The day after the assassination, President Johnson had promised civil-rights leaders that he would press Congress for a major bill to transform Black America. By the time of the funeral, the White House had quietly dropped any such promise. But there was a civil-rights bill that addressed housing discrimination that was already on the Hill. It had already been drafted and considered in the Senate but stalled in the House without a vote scheduled. The White House decided maybe they could use the momentum after the assassination to get it through. It would be a big deal. But for lots of people, it wouldn’t be big enough.

Broadcaster: Now, this bill deals with the problem of open housing primarily, and this is an area in which there is undoubtedly a great deal of resistance. And so if you’ve got a new law and a mandate from Congress, it seems that you can get a little more action.

Broadcaster 2: The House Rules Committee has got it out for a vote tomorrow.

Broadcaster 3: But the people of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, their comments are that it was just tokenism.

Broadcaster 2: Well it’s tokenism for us but …

Newkirk: The call-ins lasted for hours into the night. It all seemed like part of the process of grief after the funeral, like a nightcap or a long talk with friends after the repast.

***

Newkirk: That same night, the White House was up late too. President Johnson had directed Joe Califano and his staff to focus on getting fair housing done.

Califano: I urged him to put out an executive order and he said no. He said it’ll be repealed by the next president. It’s too unpopular. We’ve got to get it passed.

Newkirk: After the White House watched the funeral, they called and checked in with members of Congress, hoping to see who would vote for what. They monitored TV and radio reports of the riots that were continuing in several cities. They also kept up with reports of retaliation by white citizens.

Reporter: White Night Riders cruised through Jacksonville last night in the midst of fire bombings and rock throwing and gunned down an 18-year-old Negro youth as he sat on his bicycle. The youth was dead on arrival at Baptist Hospital with a bullet wound in his head.

Newkirk: The reports were significant. They were evidence that white backlash to the riots was solidifying, and that public opinion was largely moving against Black uprisings, and any civil-rights policy. When it came to housing, white people who otherwise supported voting rights and civil rights could become hostile, quickly. And now, with many of them being told to arm themselves to ward off Black rioters, the situation was even worse.

Califano: The public sentiment in the context of the majority of the American people was certainly not to have fair housing.

Newkirk: People had been trying to end discrimination in housing for years. King had tried to force Johnson to pass fair housing by staging demonstrations in segregated neighborhoods in Chicago in 1966. People wore swastikas to march against him, and threw rocks and bricks. He said it was even worse than being sprayed by water hoses or attacked by dogs in the Deep South. The backlash in Chicago had been so bad that some White House staff thought housing might be a dead letter.

Califano: If we could have picked our choice, we would not have urged King to go to Chicago. We would have tried to get the bill passed and then go somewhere.

Newkirk: In ’66, a housing bill did make it to Congress, but it was killed in the Senate. Another bill stalled in ’67, and then again in early 1968. But then, just a month before the assassination, Johnson had a breakthrough. In the Senate, Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader from Illinois, had always opposed the plan. But Dirksen was dying from cancer.

Larry Levinson: Johnson called him and said, “Look, you helped me before on voting. I really need your help on housing.”

Newkirk: According to Larry Levinson, Johnson’s deputy counsel, the president thought there was a play there.

Levinson: “And I know you’re not feeling too well. And if you want to go to Walter Reed for a day or two to take some rest and get some medical attention, I’ll make sure that happens, but I really need to get your help on this.”

Newkirk: Dirksen had been hesitant. Some of Dirksen’s constituents were the same white suburbanites who had run King out of town in Illinois for wanting fair housing. But Johnson worked out a compromise.

Califano: He knew people in Congress, knew their strengths and weaknesses, and he used everything he knew.

Newkirk: The bill would exempt single-family houses sold directly by the family, which would make the bill less effective at stopping discrimination but maybe more palatable for white voters.

Levinson: They called it the Dirksen amendment.

Reporter: The bill contains the first comprehensive federal open-housing law of our century, unless the owner sells without a real-estate agent, or in small, owner-occupied boarding houses.

Newkirk: Dirksen finally agreed to get the bill through the Senate. Still, even with Dirksen and the Senate on board, and even with the bill weaker than before, the House Rules Committee would not bring it to a vote.

But after the assassination, Johnson was energized. He loved having the opportunity to be able to bully congressmen one more time, or persuade them over scotch and soda.

Califano: Johnson was really very good at taking a crisis and using it.

Newkirk: On April 5, the day Johnson had made big promises about finding money for a new social program, he also told the speaker of the House to pass fair housing.

Levinson: Johnson was saying, look, we need to focus our attention on the House and the House members and on the Rules Committee.

Newkirk: They needed to get more support for the bill, and they needed to do it quickly. Conservatives were already lining up to defeat the legislation.

Reporter: The opposition’s strategy was to convince House members that the times are too tense to make a level judgment on a civil-rights bill. And speaker after speaker cited riots in the streets, cities still smoldering, troops on the Capitol plaza.

Newkirk: And white voters were sending letters and even coming to D.C. to protest the bill.

Journalist: Their vehicles, buses, and Jeeps are parked outside the central plaza steps. If this was not testament enough to the racial turmoil in this city and in the nation, the letters have flooded into congressional offices. A majority of these letters are complaints, what one member calls backlash by zip code.

Newkirk: The White House and allies in Congress made another compromise to get more support from conservatives. They decided to add an anti-riot provision. It was nicknamed after the SNCC leader H. Rap Brown.

Journalist: The bill tries to control riots by making it a federal crime to travel across state lines or use radio or telephone across state lines to incite a riot or to make or sell firearms or explosives to use in a riot.

Newkirk: The compromises were enough to move some people. Richard Nixon endorsed fair housing after opposing it for years. Nixon’s support helped give some Republicans in Congress the green light. President Johnson’s bullying, begging, and charming did the rest. The day before the funeral, he picked up a vote from a Democratic congressman in Texas by promising a million-dollar grant for housing in his district. And then, the night of the funeral, the White House finally got the last committee vote.

Levinson: And there was a congressman named John Anderson who said, “You know, I’m going for the fair-housing bill, and I think we can get this bill out of the Rules Committee.”

Newkirk: The White House celebrated. The next day, the Fair Housing Act would finally pass in Congress, and fulfill some version of Johnson’s promise to get something done. On the streets, the mood wasn’t exactly celebratory. Almost a week after King was killed, Baltimore and Chicago were still raging. And in places like D.C., where the unrest was dying down, the aftermath was becoming clear.

Brooks: It was ashes—like somebody took an atomic bomb and blew it up.

Newkirk: Theophus Brooks walked through D.C. streets that were still choked with debris, smoke, and lingering tear gas.

Brooks: With all the excitement, the next week was like a graveyard. It was calm.

Newkirk: Not too far away from Cardozo, Howard University student Tony Gittens was surveying the damage. He’d been out there the night the riot started. He’d understood the rage that moved people. Still, it was hard to see.

Recently, I walked with him down 14th Street and he tried to tell me just how it all looked in ’68.

Tony Gittens: Some places were still smoldering. Things were burned down, torn down. There was no place to to live then. I mean, it was uninhabitable. You would have felt as though you were in World War II, going into some place that had been bombed and where a war had taken place. They tore it up.

Newkirk: At Howard, finals were coming. Tony was due to graduate. He and the rest of his class were getting ready to move out, to move on. But they were still angry.

Gittens: But collectively, we had a sense that it was the country doing that, killing him. I was surprised and pissed off. And we’re so, How the fuck?—I mean, I’m sorry. [Laughs.]

They do that, to this man? He was their guy, you know. He said, “No, no, no. Don’t get too violent,” and that they killed him was incredible. It was just incredible that that would happen.

Newkirk: Looking at the businesses in D.C. that had been burned down, Frank Smith was worried. He’d only been in D.C. for a little while, after working in the South with SNCC for so long. But this was his home now, and he knew life would be hard for the people he was trying to organize. Grocery stores were gone, other essential establishments too. And lots of the people who owned them looked like they were leaving the city for good.

Frank Smith: There was nothing to eat in most of the neighborhoods. The food stores were all gone. And these people were saying they weren’t coming back. They just said, “We’ve had enough of that. There’s not enough ‘there’ to come back to in the first place. And secondly, it’s dangerous. So we’re not coming back.”

Newkirk: He was watching the beginning of the most aggressive era of white flight in urban America.

Frank Smith: Everybody who had two nickels to rub together left D.C. White people moved out to the suburbs, and D.C. became mostly Black. So now it was in rubbles and shambles and had to be put back together, and that happened in many of the major cities.

Newkirk: The riots had come and gone. Like so many Black commentators had predicted, the dynamite of the ghettos had finally and fully exploded. For some folks like Stokely Carmichael, the fires of uprisings would lead to a Black phoenix of liberation. But when Frank looked out at the streets, all he saw was devastation. All he saw were ashes.

***

Newkirk: How did things wind down?

Robert Birt: The military. [Laughs.]

Newkirk: On April 11, exactly a week after King was killed, the Holy Week uprising in Baltimore was over. Over 100 cities total had gone up. In all, across the country, there were 43 recorded deaths, and over 20,000 arrests. One-fifth of those arrests had been in Baltimore. Maryland crushed the riots with overwhelming force, sending as many as 11,000 troops into the streets. Robert Birt watched the crackdown from the Latrobe housing projects in East Baltimore.

Birt: [Laughs.] Sooner or later, I mean, there is no such thing as battling the military with Molotov cocktails and bricks. It's not real. The National Guard and some parts of the Army came into the city, and gradually, they reestablished control of the city.

Newkirk: Before the city went up, Governor Agnew had been happy to play the moderate. He’d even invited civil-rights leaders to meet and discuss reforms that might finally start fixing Baltimore’s ghettos. By April 11, that version of Spiro Agnew was gone. He said there would be no sympathy for people who looted or burned.

But he still held to his word to host those Black leaders in Baltimore. That afternoon, around 100 Black activists, politicians, and community leaders gathered at the state office. They hoped that the meeting would be the beginning of real change for Black Baltimore. But then Spiro Agnew just started reading prepared remarks.

Spiro Agnew: Hard on the heels of tragedy come the assignment of blame and the excuses. I did not invite you here today for either purpose. I did not ask you here to recount previous deprivations nor to hear me enumerate prior attempts to correct them. I did not request your presence to bid for peace with the public dollar.

Newkirk: As it turns out, he wasn’t there to discuss anything—not solutions, not proposals for jobs or housing. Agnew praised the leaders present for being law-abiding citizens. But then his speech took a turn.

Agnew: Look around you. If you’ll observe, the ready-mix, instantaneous type of leader is not present. The circuit-riding, Hanoi-visiting type of leader is not present. The caterwauling, riot-inciting, burn-America-down type of leader is conspicuous by his absence. This is no accident, ladies and gentlemen. It’s just good planning. And in the vernacular of today, that’s what it’s all about, baby.

Newkirk: Agnew was on the offensive. He called out Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown as provocateurs who had incited Black neighborhoods to riot. By extension, he blamed all Black radicals for creating the conditions for a race war in America. He rejected the idea that racism or the killing of King had anything to do with it.

Agnew: Now parts of many of our cities lie in ruins. And you know who the fires burned out, just as you know who lit the fires. They were not lit in honor of your great fallen leader, nor were they lit from frustration and despair. These fires were kindled at the suggestion and with the instruction of the advocates of violence.

Newkirk: What’s worse, he didn’t just blame the radicals. The room was full of moderates—the kind of people who’d even supported Agnew politically. And he was blaming them.

Agnew: We cannot have a meaningful communication and dialogue to solve the problem if we continue to listen to the lunatic fringes on each end of the problem. Now, I’ve said this to you, and I threw down the gauntlet to you: I repudiate white racists. Do you repudiate Black racists? Are you willing, as I am willing, to repudiate the white racists? Are you willing to repudiate the Carmichaels on the ground? Answer me. Answer me. Do you repudiate Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael?

Leader: We don’t repudiate them as human beings.

Agnew: That’s what I was afraid of.

Leader: Wait a minute! Wait just a minute. I don't repudiate you as a person. I happen to be a Christian.

Newkirk: The speech blindsided the leaders. They were so angry that many of them walked out and held their own press conference, responding to Agnew, calling him out. But by then, not a lot of viewers or listeners would have tuned in, because around that same time, the signing ceremony for the Fair Housing Act was starting.

***

Journalist: Good afternoon. Signing of the civil-rights bill will be here in the East Room of the White House, a large room.

Levinson: Keep in mind, Vann, we went from April 4—the riots in Washington, the death of Martin Luther King, the meeting with the civil-rights leaders—to dealing with the American public, to dealing with the Senate, dealing with the House.

Journalist: A few months ago, few would have thought the 90th Congress would pass a bill so far reaching as to include a ban on discrimination in most of the nation’s housing.

Newkirk: Just after Spiro Agnew’s press conference, the time had finally come for President Johnson to sign the Fair Housing Act. It had been a hell of a week for the White House. Aides like Larry Levinson had spent so much time keeping tabs on riots and trying to get the bill through Congress. On the afternoon of April 11, they got to sit back and watch the show.

Levinson: Johnson sat down and looked around, had all his pens—piles and piles of signing pens. And around him were the leaders of the civil-rights movement: Thurgood Marshall; Clarence Mitchell Jr.; others in the NAACP; Senator Mondale; Senator Brooke; the House leader, McCormack; Emanuel Celler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Newkirk: Johnson was supposed to be the presidential lion in winter. He was old, sick, and tired, and he had given up the fight to younger, healthier men. But here in the East Room, he was LBJ again. He took time to look back on his legacy as the civil-rights president. He compared the moment to Reconstruction.

Lyndon B. Johnson: I shall never forget that it is more than 100 years ago when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. But it was a proclamation. It was not a fact. And in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we affirmed through law that men equal under God are also equal when they seek a job, when they go to get a meal in a restaurant, or when they seek lodging for the night in any state in the union.

Newkirk: He even urged Congress to do more, to take up the big spending bills that King had fought for. He denounced racism and rioting, and told Americans that unity was the only way forward through this national crisis.

Johnson: Of course, all America is outraged at the assassination of an outstanding Negro leader, who was at that meeting that afternoon in the White House in 1966. And America is also outraged at the looting and the burning that defiled our democracy. And we just must put our shoulders together and put a stop to both. The time is here. Action must be now.

Levinson: And as he was picking up his pen to sign the bill, he said, “And by the way, I want you to know, when I sign this bill, the chimes of liberty and the bell of liberty will ring a little bit louder.” And I heard that message, that statement, and I began to get sort of shivers up my spine. What a way to capture a moment.

Newkirk: This was the moment. For the White House, they’d finally gotten the trifecta passed. And they had done it in the middle of riots, in maybe the most hostile atmosphere for civil-rights legislation in a decade. Still, the bill wasn’t what Johnson had promised civil-rights leaders, or what the Kerner Commission recommended, and definitely not what more-radical Black leaders wanted. The ultimate question was the only one that nobody could really answer: What would King think?

Larry Levinson: I think there was always that, you know, dissonant chorus out there. But I think it was sort of a joinder at a point of mutual interest: the Martin Luther King movement with the aims and objectives of the LBJ administration.

Journalist: Do you happen to know whether Dr. King was asked before his death whether he was for or against this bill?

Hosea Williams: Certainly. We discussed it many times, and as far as Dr. King was concerned, as far as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is concerned, this bill is an aspirin for cancer into blood. It is nothing.

Newkirk: In a televised debate just after the bill was signed, King’s old friend and former SCLC lieutenant Hosea Williams came out and said that the Fair Housing Act was a mockery, an insult to King’s memory. He stressed that the only thing that could make things right was a real investment in Black America.

Williams: If you can find money to put a man on the moon, if you can find money to burn little brown babies in Vietnam with napalm bombs, why can’t you find money to put Black men on their feet in this nation?

Newkirk: But there would be no more money, no new major bills. This new housing bill was what we got, and it would take a while to kick in, to hopefully integrate neighborhoods and outlaw discrimination. Until then, the plan was to try and go back to normal. But for people who had just been through the most traumatic week of their lives, that was more than hard to do.

***

Newkirk: In Baltimore, Robert Birt went back to taking the bus to his mostly white high school. One day, his teacher, a white woman, tried her best to talk to the students about the cause of the rebellion.

Robert Birt: She was trying to explain what had happened, and especially cause she’s a white teacher, she was saying that there were, of course, problems and grievances and etcetera, and that they’ve not been attended to. And so she said she imagined that the assassination of Dr. King was sort of the last straw, and things boiled over.

Newkirk: It was a pretty good, liberal sort of explanation. Some of the kids agreed with her.

Birt: One guy said, “You know, I’ll tell you the truth. If I was colored, I’d probably riot too, because I’ve been keeping up with this, and this is pretty bad, you know.”

Newkirk: But some students didn’t buy it.

Birt: And some person started saying things like, “Well, this is criminal activity,” you know? And at that point, I said, “What’s criminal—” And I was 15. I said, “What’s criminal is you and your society.”

Newkirk: Robert hadn’t been in trouble in school before. Maybe before the riots, before the assassination, he would’ve let something like this go. But that week, something in Robert Birt had changed.

Birt: The more they talked, the angrier I got, and I said, “I’m not going to tell you about everything you did. The last thing you did is you murdered Martin Luther King.”

Newkirk: In D.C., for Vanessa Lawson and her family, each passing day increased their anxiety and despair. There was still no sign of her brother Vincent. Her dad even hired a white private investigator to go search. They figured he might have better luck than Black people could in getting through all the curfews and checkpoints, but he hadn’t found anything yet.

Vanessa Dixon: I remember this guy assuring him, my dad. It just shook him, because within a couple of days, they were starting to board up buildings.

Newkirk: When the curfew finally lifted, the family decided to get out there and start looking themselves.

Dixon: When the National Guard finally start letting people come around, when they were boarding up buildings, my grandmother—everybody—just started walking and walking the whole neighborhood. You couldn’t even get down in that area. And my brother, my dad—I remember them going and just walking and walking.

Newkirk: Their only lead was the last call that Vincent had made to his mother, when he was so proud of grabbing her some stockings from a store. And then, the friends he was with told the investigator where they had gone last.

Dixon: They told him where they went. They were a group. They ran to this store. They ran to that store. And the last store that they ran out of, because the police was chasing them, was Morton’s.

Newkirk: It was Morton’s. The same department store they used to visit with their mother. It was a start. Someplace to look, even if it was just for a body, at that point.

Dixon: And what hurts me the most is the detective told my dad that they checked all these buildings before they started boarding them up.

Newkirk: The investigator told them that Mayor Washington had sent people in to look at all the boarded-up buildings. He said they didn’t find Vincent in Morton’s, or any evidence he had been there.

Dixon: They said they checked these buildings, and they haven’t found anything. Let’s just hope he’s okay, and he’s still just walking around. This guy says, “You know, maybe he’s just got hit in the head. Maybe he’s having a memory loss, and maybe, you know, he’s just drifted off somewhere.

Newkirk: It was the thought that kept the family going, the hope against hope—this idea that Vincent might just be walking around the streets with no memory, no recollection of who he was or where he came from, that one day they might bump into him and things might go back to normal. But that kind of hope also kept them from moving on. It kept them stuck in the middle of the riots, looking out the window, waiting for Vincent to come home. And they waited for a long time.