This series of posts is called “Confessions of a School Reformer,” a book I am now writing. Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 describe my entry into classroom teaching beginning in 1955 and ending in 1972. So this post continues Part 4.
The King assassination
On April 4th, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis (TN) where he was supporting sanitation workers’ demands for higher wages and better working conditions triggered explosive anger across the country. Civil unrest broke out in over 100 cities across the U.S. Protests, looting, fires swept the nation.
In Washington, D.C., the 14th St. business corridor, a few blocks from Roosevelt High School where I taught, was picked clean and burnt. A news article described the scene.
As night fell, angry people began to pour from their houses into the streets. Headed by the black activist Stokely Carmichael, crowds surged along 14th Street, ordering businesses to close. Carmichael tried to keep control, but things quickly got out of hand. A rock was thrown through a store window. Then a trash can was hurled. Someone used lighter fluid to start a small fire in a tree. As firefighters doused it, someone in the crowd yelled, “We’ll just light it again!”[i]
Over four days of violent disturbances, 13 people died and damages or destruction occurred to nearly 1200 residential and commercial buildings. The President called in the National Guard. Just barely a 100 yards from our house, Barbara, Sondra, Janice, and I stood at the corner of 16th and Holly Sts. to watch troop-filled trucks and tanks move down the broad avenue toward heavily damaged areas in the city. [ii]
Like so many other families in D.C., we were distraught. Schools closed. Businesses shuttered their windows. Everything shut down, TV reports of shootings shook all of us. Since grocery stores in the damaged areas were either wiped out or picked clean, many families in those areas needed food. St. Stephen’s Church organized food drives and volunteers to take bags of groceries to families near 14th St. For two days these volunteers, including me, drove to apartment buildings and residences to drop off groceries.
King’s assassination altered dramatically what happened in my morning Roosevelt classes and what occurred in the afternoons at CCR. At school, there was much absenteeism and when even smaller classes convened, feelings were raw and silence was common during lessons. The school held a memorial service for Dr. King. Ever so slowly, my students re-entered discussions. In the Negro History class, where there had been many free-wheeling discussions of racism in American society, three students displayed their anger at whites including their teacher over the next few weeks. Sullen aggressiveness was the order of the day from many (but not all) students.
At CCR, divisions among the multiracial staff became even worse than it had been. Hateful looks and whispered comments about whites were frequent and often went unanswered. The sadness and anger over the loss of an exceptional leader whose views of making Blacks full citizens had broadened to include fighting poverty, connecting capitalism to inequalities, and the blood-letting Vietnam War were evident in the weeks to come. My own inexperience within a bureaucracy and working half-days increased my uncertainty over what exactly should be the Unit’s agenda for school desegregation. What could the U.S. ever do to rid itself of racist structures and behaviors ricocheted in my mind. My questions and stumbling, uncertain efforts to ease the racial antagonisms shaped the following months of work at CCR. My inability to come up with a viable agenda of research and, more important heal the open racial divide that had been simmering before I became Director and now erupted within our Unit led, after many discussions with Barbara, to my quitting a few months later. No other job awaited me.
[i] Wikipedia, “1968 Washington, D.C. Riots,” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_Washington,_D.C.,_riots
Denise Wills, “People Were Out of Control,”: Remembering the 1968 Riots, Washingtonian, April 1, 2008 at: https://www.washingtonian.com/2008/04/01/people-were-out-of-control-remembering-the-1968-riots/
[ii] Wikipedia, “1968 Washington, D.C. Riots,” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_Washington,_D.C.,_riots