This month I revisited 1968, one of the most earth-shattering years in our city’s (and nation’s) 20th century history. What I discovered was 1968 wasn’t a year unto itself. There were strong lead-ins and the events added urgency to important initiatives for communities and individuals.
I didn’t want to tell this story from my perspective alone. I didn’t want to tell it only from the perspectives of “movement people.” We’ve heard and will always hear their stories. I invited 11 other voices and perspectives. The people who had to show up for work or go to school the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. The result is “Riot. Rebellion. Resurrection.” or #RRR1968 the cover story for the April 5, 2018 edition of Washington City Paper (WCP) . It’s an oral history with some wonderful original photos by WCP photographer Darrow Montgomery.
Historian Marya McQuirter and I had a conversation in 2017 about how to approach 1968. We were both planning projects. She decided to produce an online daily calendar (dc1968project.com) of events from that year. I wanted to focus on H Street in my 50 year “retro-perspective” but wasn’t sure about theming it solely on the “riots” which some would correct me by saying “rebellion” or “uprising.” My politics obviously haven’t lean in any specific direction about it.
I decided to take on the “R” in all its humanity, personally adopting the old-school civic term “civil unrest”. However it’s characterized, these events didn’t happen on a whim, in a vacuum and without an incident to ignite the tinderbox of infractions on civil rights, racial injustice, and economic disparities. The violent murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. April 5, 1968 and the days “riot, rebellion” that followed should not have caught anyone by surprise. Yet it did in DC. Even the cover story photo taken in 1968 near 14th & Park Road took some by surprise. “No that didn’t happen this week. It’s a 50-year-old photo.” Those reactions said something to me about what may lie beneath our city’s transparent steel and glass facades.
My Hard Revolution playlist was pumping out of the speakers in The LINE hotel lobbies. WCP added it to its website. Hard Revolution is a crime novel by George Pelecanos (HBO “The Deuce”). The playlist was one of my early ideas for looking back at DC in 1968. I plugged into the SoundCloud website and played it while writing my article.
“Riot. Rebellion. Resurrection.” became the #RRR1968 live event at The LINE Hotel in DC the day of publication. The live event became a podcast. You can listen to it here.
#RRR1968 became a trans media project for me and Washington City Paper. Poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller (If God Invented Baseball), one of the subjects in the article hosts “The Scholars” television show on UDC TV (University of the District of Columbia). Though I’ve been on the radio with Ethelbert, I knew it was going to take something extra special to sit at the table with him in the television studio. It would take 50 years to get here.