Remembering APRIL 4, 1968: The death of Martin Luther King Jr.

The Washington Post newsroom at deadline is a maelstrom of activity and noise, and the early evening of April 4, 1968, was no exception. I was finishing writing a story for the national desk about a now-forgotten subject when a strange hush fell over that main editing section. A bulletin had just come in reporting Martin Luther King’s wounding by a sniper in Memphis. Shortly after, a second flash told the world of his death.


The news came as a body blow to the supposedly crisis-hardened and skeptical journalists in Ben Bradlee’s then relatively small empire. Great sorrow, and dread about what the assassination would unlock, spread quickly through the room.

Then the journalist’s reflex took over and we pitched in to produce what we habitually called the Daily Miracle the next day’s newspaper which somehow came together in the chaos of the production deadline.

The banner headline, “King Assassinated in Memphis,” stretched across the front page as the presses rolled. A subhead, “Shouting Crowds Smash Stores in District,” also ran the length of the page.

When I got home to my third-floor, walk-up apartment near Dupont Circle a few hours later, I could see the glow of fires rising up from the area of 14th and U Streets. I slept an uneasy few hours before rising at daybreak to begin reporting on what would become three days of rioting and a dozen days of occupation by Federal and National Guard troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers one of which was soon parked at the corner of 19th and S streets, where I lived.

The streets I crossed were quiet as I walked toward an area I had come to know from covering urban planning when I first came to the Post from the New York Times in 1966. Now, the odor of tear gas used the night before hung in the air.

At 8 a.m., near 14th and U Streets, three African American youths were standing on the corner when a garbage truck pulled up. “Get on,” the driver called out. “It’s time to go to work.”

“Not today, man,” came the reply. “Not today. I’m not going to work today.” I realized as I listened that Dr. King had been in Memphis to support a garbage workers’ strike. The truck drove away.

Photograph looking west showing firefighters spraying water on shops, including Beyda’s, Miles Shoes, and Grayson’s, that were burned during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Warren K. Leffler / Library of CongressGaston Hall.Gunther Stern.

Crowds  started  to  gather  along  14th  Street.  Young  people  who  should  have  been  reporting  to  high  school  milled  about,  looking  at  the  scattered damage of Thursday night, when store and  restaurant  owners  had  closed  early  on  the  advice of community organizers who told them to honor Dr. King’s death and avoid damage. Many  schools  closed  on  Friday  after  receiving  similar advice.

Soon  the  crowds  began  taunting  the  few  white motorists who were driving through their streets.  I  uncomfortably  realized  that  I  was  the  only  white  face  for  blocks,  and  was  drawing  some glances that ranged from unwelcoming to hostile. But I also thought: “What a story. And it’s all mine.”

I still remember the crashing of a plate-glass window  of  a  small  grocery  store  that  became  the signal for an all-out assault on stores up and down 14th Street, and the crowds surging in to begin looting.

I  kept  finding  phone  booths  to  call  in  my  notes to the city desk as the attacks on property grew  more  substantial.  At  mid-morning,  Bob  Maynard who  was  my  closest  friend  at  the  Post  as  well  as  being  a  brilliant,  black  reporter  and  writer broke  into  one  of  those  conversations  to  ask  me  where  I  was  and  why  the devil I was still there, given the dangers he perceived.

“I’m  coming  to  find  you,”  he  said.  The  Post  was  organizing  teams  of  reporters  to  blanket the streets, to minimize risk. In any event, my watering eyes and smoke-filled lungs needed a break.

Photograph facing northeast showing a soldier standing guard on the corner of 7th & N Street NW in Washington D.C. with the ruins of buildings that were destroyed during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.- Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congres

“Don’t,” I responded. “We can link up on 16th Street. I’ll walk away quietly.” And I did, saddened not only by the loss of a great American leader but that the riot had momentarily taken attention away from his towering accomplishments.

Jim Hoagland is a Georgetown resident. He has occupied senior editorial positions at the Washington Post since 1966 and won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting on South Africa in 1971 and for commentary on foreign affairs in 1991.

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