The riots of 1968, following Martin Luther King’s death, devastated the neighborhood of Columbia Heights; businesses and homes were left in ruin, and many remained boarded shut as some residents left the area, leaving few behind to pick up the pieces and without the resources to do so. At the intersection of 14th and Monroe Streets N.W. is one of the nineteen “Cultural Convergence” boards, part of the Columbia Heights heritage trail, a 2.9 mile trail which circles the neighborhood. These notable yellow signs and “keepsake guide[s]” published by Cultural Tourism DC serve to “summarize [the] stories [of] Washington D.C.’s historic neighborhoods… that reflect our nation’s history and describe how we became who we are as communities.” This particular Cultural Convergence board is titled “After the Hard Times” and intends to provide insight into the aftermath of the riots of 1968, stating they began “in response to the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr… [leaving] the 14th street corridor devastated… but from despair grew hope.” This explanation of the riots seems decidedly brief and simplistic. Ben Gilbert, in his book Ten Blocks from the White House: Anatomy of the Washington Riots of 1968, explicitly questions this exact explanation as the cause for the riots. He asks, “what were the Washington rioters in April, 1968, trying to say? Were they simply angered by the untimely death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr….Or did they have something else to say to the city of Washington and the world at large… and what was the reply? Was it the beginning of a dialogue or the end of a conversation that never really started?” It seems apparent that Gilbert’s questions are rhetorical; perhaps it was King’s death which acted as the final catalyst for riots which really had been brewing in black communities which had been marginalized in nearly all elements of their lives, from education to housing, and targeted for violence from both the state and private citizens since their arrival in the United States. It is certainly much more complex than the Cultural Convergence board indicates.
It is telling that this critical moment in time - for the future of the Civil Rights Movement, for the black community in D.C. and specifically in Columbia Heights, and for the development of D.C. as a city following the riots - is almost entirely glossed over in a historical account of the neighborhood, published by the city and intended to be seen by residents and tourists alike. To the knowing reader, the conspicuous absence of this information seems like a purposeful attempt by the city to erase a period in time that was critical to the black community.
The riots of 1968 were not the last time the residents Columbia Heights would witness them. A riot broke out in 1991 between black and Latino youth in Mt. Pleasant after an El Salvadoran man was murdered by a police officer at a Cinco de Mayo celebration. Although the riot did not occur specifically in Columbia Heights, the ripple effects were felt in the neighborhood when a state of emergency was declared and a curfew enacted by the mayor.
Videos of the riots: