Holy Week: Inferno
Part 2: The Black capital of the world catches fire
Listen: Apple Podcasts | Stitcher | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Pocket Casts
Reporter: You don’t think the death of Martin Luther King had anything to do with the rioting?
Young man: Some of them, they did it because of Martin Luther King, and some of them didn’t. Some of them did it because they just needed clothes for Easter and they didn’t have money to get it.
Reporter: Paul, you participated in the riots. Can you tell us why they—why you—had a part in them?
Paul: I had a part in it because where I live at is five stories high. And I can see my cleaners. And I saw them burning down my cleaners. So I say, Why shouldn’t I get something? And everybody burn down my clothes, take my clothes out, and do what they want to do? So I’m gonna go in the store and get what I want.
Reporter: You got any feeling about it at all, David?
David: No, I don’t.
Reporter: Why not?
David: It’s kind of fun to me, see, burning up property and stuff like that.
Reporter: You thought that was just fun?
David: Yes I did.
Vann R. Newkirk II: A riot is a collective. When people start to act together, the crowd can seem to have a mind of its own. It can move like an organic entity, with a will and a drive. By the time it reaches a critical mass, people, individuals, can be swallowed up into it.
But every person who decides to go out has a reason. Frustrations, rage, passions, setbacks, or even boredom all can play a role. Years of history and upbringing and feeling all come into play in the decision to throw just one brick. And you have to consider all that to understand any riot, uprising, or rebellion. Vanessa Dixon was just 12 years old when King was killed. She was Vanessa Lawson back then.
Newkirk: Did you ever watch any of the news when they were reporting on the looting and the rioting?
Vanessa Dixon: Yes, it was unbelievable. It was unbelievable to me, for one, for myself and my friends, that we participated at the beginning of what turned out to be so, so bad.
Newkirk: How do you feel about that?
Dixon: I can say I’m sorry for the things I did. I didn’t know better. But then the flip side of me says, I’m glad for the experience.
Newkirk: I went to see Vanessa in her house to understand. Vanessa Dixon lives just outside D.C. She’s something of a family historian.
Dixon: I’ve got a bunch of projects in here. I did try to clean it up as much as I could.
Newkirk: She keeps old newspapers, comic strips, obituaries, family trees. And she’s got a ton of photographs.
Dixon: … right here is the one with the black-and-white pictures in it.
Newkirk: Oh, wow.
Newkirk: The photos are all black-and-white. But they all remind me of my own childhood. She’s got one where her three older brothers are all very little, standing in front of a brick wall, smiling. She wasn’t born yet, I guess. The youngest of the boys, Vincent, is a toddler in overalls.
Dixon: This is Vincent.
Newkirk: What’s he wearing here?
Newkirk: Underneath the picture, somebody scribbled, “Boys in the Hood.”
Dixon: Do you remember the little photobooth they used to have? This was at Union Station.
Newkirk: Oh, wow.
Newkirk: The picture she treasures most is one of just Vincent, the littlest of her older brothers—the closest one to her age. They were the two youngest kids. They even got matching medallions with their initials on them: V.L. They were peas in a pod.
Dixon: He was my best friend in the world. I had little girlfriends and stuff like that I called my best friend, but he was really my best friend because we, we was like the dynamic duo.
Newkirk: Maybe it’s hard to imagine the little boy from the picture going out the night of a riot, but Vanessa says that Vincent did love excitement. He got in a little trouble sometimes, and Vanessa did too. But he was smart. He did well in class and he had a way with people. He was supposed to make it out. They were supposed to make it out together.
Dixon: We always thought we could feel each other’s heartbeat when we weren’t around.
Newkirk: In the picture Vanessa showed me, Vincent is a teenager, maybe 14 or so. To me, he mostly still looks like a little boy, but you can see where he’s starting to grow up. He’s still got a baby face and these wide eyes. But he’s clearly trying to look older, you know? He’s got on one of those ’60s-style, spread-collar white shirts and a jacket. Think … like, Teddy Pendergrass style. And his lineup is immaculate.
Dixon: That was his signature haircut. You never catch him, he wasn’t into the bush.
Newkirk: So, no afro.
Dixon: He wanted it shaped up. He was always brushing it. Always brushing. He used to talk about his mustache—when he got his mustache, how it was going to look, how his beard was going to look, how he’s going to keep it so shaped up. But he never got to have any hair on his face.
Newkirk: After King was assassinated, Vincent hit the streets, just like his sister. I wonder why he went out. Vanessa says part of it was that he was a bit of a thrill seeker, a daredevil. But there was also something there from how he grew up, and what he didn’t have growing up.
When they were kids, Vanessa and Vincent’s family bounced around the working-class neighborhoods in the heart of old Black D.C., around the H Street Corridor. The house Vanessa seems to remember best was right off 8th and H [Street] NE, right down the way from where the old Apollo Theater used to be. Their parents didn’t make a lot. Sometimes, instead of going to Shoe Town for new shoes, their dad would take them to Safeway, the grocery store.
Dixon: And there was a big, old, big, old basket. Huge. And the shoes weren’t in boxes. They were just tied together by the shoestrings. [Laughs.] And we, you know, while they did the shopping, our job was, You want some shoes? Dig through them, find your size and find what you want. Typically, that’s what most of the people around there did for their kids.
Newkirk: But, even as little kids, Vincent and Vanessa stayed with some money. The dynamic duo was always scheming on how to do odd jobs and hustle to make more for themselves. They were everywhere around H Street. They did yard work.
Dixon: We would knock on people’s doors and ask them, you know, “Do you want me to rake your leaves?”
Newkirk: They sold popcorn bags and odds and ends on the street. Their dad got them a broke-down Radio Flyer wagon from Goodwill, and they fixed it up and used it to take people’s groceries home—for a fee, of course.
Dixon: We couldn’t get them all in the wagon. So I literally had to carry a bag and my brother and I took turns. He would pull and I would carry, and he would carry and I would pull.
Newkirk: Vanessa and Vincent kept the money they made in shoeboxes, and needed bigger and bigger sized boxes when they came up with more hustles. One time, they turned their backyard into a petting zoo.
But things changed for the family when their parents got divorced. Vanessa and her siblings had to move with their mother away from H Street to the housing projects out on East Capitol, right by the Maryland border.
Dixon: I remember riding in a car up East Capitol Street, and when we got to where it was, my brother said, “All these houses look alike.” I had never even seen a project before. He hadn’t either.
Newkirk: The projects were different. It was like they were designed to remind people that they were poor. Mom had to take up a job keeping house for white folks across town. Vanessa hated that. They all still went to the Morton’s department store back on H Street to shop for essentials. But now those trips were heartbreaking for Vanessa and Vincent.
Dixon: She would get this cardboard box and she’d open it up. And then they had about six pairs of stockings in it, and she would take a couple of pair out. And one time I remember my brother asking her, “Mom, why do you keep coming up here and getting two pair of stockings?” Okay, and she said, “Well, that’s all I can afford for right now.” And we used to try to give her some of our money. We even tried to go in Morton’s to try to buy stuff. They wouldn’t let us in the store without a parent.
Newkirk: Looking at Vincent in that picture, with his spread collar and sharp haircut, he looks like was moving from boyhood to adulthood. He was trying to be somebody. He was blazing a new trail, finishing up his first year of high school. He went to school back over by his grandmother’s house, still out by H Street, which meant that he and Vanessa had to be apart more than ever. He wanted to make his folks happy. He wanted to make his mom happy. And then came the assassination.
Dixon: We see people blowing horns and sitting on the car doors and yelling and screaming and smoke bombs. It was crazy. It was hype for me, and I don’t think any of us had any fear. That’s why I know my brother felt the same way.
Newkirk: Vanessa and Vincent were just two of the thousands of Black people who hit the streets in D.C. after King was killed. Each one of those thousands is more than just a footnote to history. On the whole, they all tell a story that goes beyond the binary of the triumph of the civil-rights movement and the tragedy of losing one man. They help explain why, after a decade of supposed progress in America, its capital city, and one of its blackest cities, burned.
Newkirk: Part 2: “Inferno.”
Newkirk: Which route would you have taken, did you take?
Tony Gittens: We would have taken right down this street. This is Columbia Road. And we would have come from down where Howard is and walked up. We didn’t take any bus, there was no metro, and so we just walked.
Newkirk: Today, Tony Gittens is an institution in D.C. He founded the Washington, D.C., International Film Festival and has run it for over 35 years. He was on the local Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and he’s known just about every mayor to come through the city. He used to work with Marion Barry. He knows these streets like the back of his hand. But back in 1968, April 4, he was still a kid from Brooklyn who had only been in D.C. for a few years. He was attending Howard University.
Gittens: I didn’t know anything about Washington when I came here. I had no idea. I knew I was going to Howard. That’s all I knew. Got on the bus from Brooklyn, came. That’s all I knew.
Newkirk: While Vanessa and Vincent Lawson were settling into the East Capitol projects, Tony got involved with The Hilltop, the Howard University newspaper. And he started volunteering with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC—one of the major civil-rights protest organizations. It was famous on campus. Some of SNCC’s earliest and most well-known members had gone to Howard, including Kwame Ture, then known as Stokely Carmichael. Back In ’66, they took Tony on his first trip down South, to Alabama.
Gittens: And so I got to meet Stokely and Bob Manns and these other folks who had been in the movement in the South. Then they moved up to D.C. and we became friends, you know, became friends.
Newkirk: In 1966, Stokely was the chairman of SNCC. He was one of the most famous—or infamous—Black men in America. The same summer Tony went down to Alabama, Stokely started talking about Black Power. It was new. It was radical.
Stokely Carmichael: Every courthouse in Mississippi ought to be burned down tomorrow to get rid of the dirt in here. Now, from now on, when they ask you what you want, you know what to tell them. What do you want?
Crowd: Black Power!
Stokely Carmichael: What do you want?
Crowd: Black Power!
Stokely Carmichael: Everybody, what do you want?
Newkirk : What was Stokely like?
Gittens: Stokely. Stokely was a little … um … I was always a little scared of Stokely, until later on, when I got to know him slightly, a bit—slightly a bit.
He was a smart guy. He knew every goddamn thing. Bob Manns used to say, “Stokely Carmichael, you know every goddamn thing.” And he was a smart guy.
Newkirk: Tony turned all that organizing experience with SNCC into momentum on campus. In March, he and other students staged demonstrations, calling for change inside and outside the walls of campus. They even occupied the university’s administration building. And in response, Howard agreed to create a new student disciplinary system and consider making a more pro-Black curriculum.
Gittens: You know, we got, we walked into a room and they would almost say, “What do you want?” [Laughs.] They didn’t want us going back in that building. I tell you that.
Newkirk: SNCC was a major inspiration for Tony and the student protesters. They also were becoming a force in D.C. politics. Stokely had moved up to the city to try and build a power base for his organizing. Other SNCC veterans also moved up from projects in the Deep South. One of them was Frank Smith.
Newkirk: So you were in Mississippi for years?
Frank Smith: Six years.
Newkirk: What brought you to D.C.?
Frank Smith: Well, I met a woman who was in the civil-rights movement, too—a Howard University student. I dropped out of Morehouse. She dropped out of Howard. And we got married in ’65, and one of the things that we promised was we were both going to finish. She wanted to go to medical school. And so we eventually came here.
Newkirk: Frank is from Georgia, and he started his activism as a student at Morehouse College. He was involved in boycotts and other protests pretty early on. He says it’s something that was sparked in him by the killing of Emmett Till in 1955.
Frank Smith: I think I was in the eighth or ninth grade in Newnan, Georgia, when a young girl named Jessie Smith brought the Jet magazine to school with Emmett Till’s picture in there, that awful assassination and brutalization of him and mutilation of his body. And I think in my heart, I must have thought, That could have been me. And, This has to stop. And I hear that from a lot of people of my generation. It was personal, really, in a sense.
Newkirk: Frank was a founding member of SNCC when the group was formed at Shaw University in 1960. When the group decided to shift gears from the sit-ins and Freedom Rides to its voter-registration project, he was the first person they sent into the teeth of Jim Crow, the Mississippi Delta.
Frank Smith: So people ask me, “Why did you feel … Were you scared when you … ?” Well, hell, being scared was a rite of passage for Black boys in my generation. You were scared all the time. So what’s the difference between being scared in Mississippi and being scared in Georgia? You’ve got the same fear that some white person thinks they’re entitled, and with the law behind them and with all the tradition, could just do whatever the hell they want to you and your family and your property and your friends. Who wants to live like that?
Newkirk: He got there just seven years after Emmett Till was killed. In Mississippi, people were still being fired, beaten, disappeared, or worse for even joining the NAACP, let alone registering to vote. Just a few years earlier, a Black man named Mack Charles Parker was murdered and his body thrown from a bridge over the Pearl River. SNCC didn’t have infrastructure or protection. But Frank got to work getting sharecroppers to register. One of the people who was brave enough to do it was Fannie Lou Hamer. She ended up becoming a household name in Black America.
Frank Smith: She was already made by the time we met her. We found her in the Delta. She was ready for her freedom.
Newkirk: Frank had been to D.C. during the height of Freedom Summer in 1964, trying to spread the news nationally about the folks like Fannie Lou Hamer who were trying to participate in democracy for the first time. But when he moved up to the city for real, to the Adams Morgan neighborhood, it was a big change from life in the Mississippi Delta. Luckily for him, there were some familiar faces.
Frank Smith: One advantage of living in Adams Morgan was that it looked like what SNCC had started to look like then. And I wasn’t the only one there. There was probably 20 people from SNCC who were living in the neighborhood, too, in between there and 14th Street. So we had enough people for our own little tribe, if we wanted to have a tribe.
Newkirk: Frank started organizing immediately. He helped tenants out in disputes with landlords. He was all over the Black neighborhoods in D.C. He actually felt at home there. Lots of Black families had just recently arrived from the South. There were middle-class, working-class, and upper-class communities; Black universities like Howard; people who followed King; Black Power activists; and members of the Nation of Islam. There were people who just wanted to keep their heads down. Living in D.C., Frank saw potential for bringing everybody together. On April 3, Frank Smith was still working towards that goal when he ran into Martin Luther King.
Frank Smith: The day before he was killed, I flew into the airport in Memphis. He was coming from Atlanta. And I think it was Andy Young that pointed me out, saying, “There’s one of those SNCC’ers over there.” And so King came over and asked me … said he wanted me to come to Memphis to help organize the young people—he said the young Panthers.
Newkirk: King and his folks called all the Black radicals Panthers. But he was really talking about a local Memphis group, called the Invaders.
Frank Smith: They were obviously interested because they were coming to the demonstration and stuff. They just wouldn’t join the march. They were marching on the sides. They were throwing rocks and stuff. And he was scared that they were going to incite the cops to riot. And he wanted to see somebody come and help organize those young people. And I was probably 25 years old then, and so I wasn’t so young anymore, and also I told him I’d hung up my marching shoes. And he said, “Don’t ever hang up your marching shoes.” That was his last words to me.
Newkirk: In D.C., Tony Gittens and his friends were riding high. They were celebrating their successful protests against the Howard University administration. On the night of April 4, he and the boys were just hanging out.
Gittens: I was in Drew Hall, which is a dormitory, and in the social lobby there, and we’re just hanging around, talking, you know, some people probably playing cards and stuff. I don’t know.
Newkirk: And then …
Walter Cronkite: Good evening. Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence in the civil-rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee. Police have issued an all points bulletin …
Gittens: Everybody stopped. Everybody stopped. You know, everybody stopped and said, “What?”
Newkirk: Across the city, Black Washingtonians of all ages came out as more and more people heard the news. Rage came spontaneously, like hot tears or a lump in the throat.
Gittens: And they were talking about—there was this riot in the streets of D.C. So we had to be there.
Newkirk: Tony and his friends walked out from campus. They figured that if anything was happening, it was gonna be down on 14th and U. It was one of the busiest and most famous street corners in Black America. The corner was where everything happened. There was a drugstore there, and nearby a florist, banks, theaters—lots of shops. They didn’t have to walk far.
Gittens: The closer we got to it, the more you could smell the smoke.
Newkirk: Stokely Carmichael had actually been there, on that corner, when it all started. He’d been going from store to store, telling white business owners to shut down shop and go home. He was also telling Black folks to be careful. That they weren’t prepared to go up against the guns and tear gas of the police and military. But then, somebody threw a trash can through the window of the Peoples Drug Store.
Gittens: So we got to 14th and Columbia Road. And I remember this sharply, that there was all this fire. I mean, the place was … it was like a forest fire. You know, it was like this red fire. It was coming out of these buildings, these stores.
Newkirk: They made it a few blocks north of the epicenter. They were surrounded on all sides by fire.
Gittens: There were these young guys who were breaking into the stores and taking out the stuff, whatever was in that window there. A lot of people were just watching by, shouting at the police. Cars were going down, honking their horns, and there were these people just walking the streets, shouting, pissed off—just very, very angry people.
Newkirk: Walking on Columbia Road with Tony today, you can envision looking down the hill and seeing the smoke, hearing the chants of “Black Power!”, seeing the police … powerless.
Gittens: The police had no control. I mean, they had no control. They tried to talk to people. They weren’t pulling any arms or anything. But nobody was paying any attention to them. It was just chaos. It was like a war zone.
Newkirk: Some people went home. Down on U Street, things got out of hand, and Stokely got in a car and drove off. But lots of people, like Tony, just stayed out there, in a daze.
Gittens: You know, we felt like we were a part of it, quite frankly. We weren’t breaking into any buildings or setting any fires; we made no attempt to stop it; we understood it, thought maybe it was time for it to happen. We just felt, you know, Hey, America brought this on itself and this is what they had to pay.
We walked the street. I was up all night. I remember being up all night and just walking the street. Nobody wanted to mess with the police. We just stayed away from the police, just watching what was going on.
Newkirk: Why did you feel like you had to be out there to see it?
Gittens: It wasn’t even a question. Um … it would have been cowardly for me not to be there, that these were my people, in a way. These were the people who were fighting the fight. I didn’t even think about not going. [Laughs.] I had to be there. If the police were going to come and take us all to jail, I had to be one of the ones that was going to go down there.
Newkirk: Tony says he never participated in the riots. He wasn’t even really a King guy, philosophically. But he was angry at white people.
Gittens: This had built up over months, over years of frustration, not getting any response from the government. No change. No change. And this was like the last straw. He was holding it back.
Newkirk: He was holding it back?
Gittens: Holding it back. He would’ve said, Don’t do this rioting. He would have said, you know, Be cool. Go home. Demonstrate. March. You know. But don’t go in here and tear up this place like this. He would have said that. He was holding it back. And they took him away. Dams burst. Dams burst. I mean, that was my feeling. He was the good guy, and you killed him.
Newkirk: Within just a few hours, disturbances were reported in many of the country’s largest Black communities. There was unrest in Harlem, Brooklyn, Detroit, Cincinnati, Trenton. There were even reports coming from outside of cities. Frank Smith saw what rebellion looked like in rural Mississippi.
Frank Smith: So I was actually in Mississippi the day he was killed. I was in Greenwood. And I can tell you, the demonstrations broke out everywhere.
Newkirk: They broke out in Mississippi?
Frank Smith: Everywhere brother. People burned cotton gins and stuff, man. Everybody did some kind of protesting, man.
Newkirk: Frank watched the chaos unfold around him. He also paid attention to the news from the rest of the country. He knew D.C. was on fire. He had to find a way back to his wife. He wanted to get out there and organize his community.
But Frank didn’t know what would happen next. He didn’t know whether one night of disturbances would become many. Whether it might become the revolution or the race war that so many had feared. He didn’t know how America would react. He didn’t know that when he left the fields of Greenwood, he would be leaving one era and entering another.