Essay: Experiencing the Washington D.C. Riots, April 4, 1968

Apr 4, 2018

At 6:01pm, on April 4, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King jr. was murdered. The timing of  his assassination meant that many people didn’t learn about his death until the morning after - but the following week brought chaos to many American cities as frustrated mourners rioted and protested King’s untimely death.

For Lake Effect essayist Marnie Mamminga, the news set off a series of unforeseeable events during a spring break trip to Washington D.C.

United States soldiers guard the Capitol during the Martin Luther King Jr. assination riots. In the background the American flag can be seen flying at half staff in honor of King.
Credit Warren K. Leffler / Wikimedia

“King’s been shot!” announced our cabbie as my girlfriend and I hoped in a late night cab to catch our train home.

“What?” I stuttered.

“Martin Luther King, he’s been killed by an assassin!” repeated the cabbie to my uncomprehending ears.

Up until that moment, we two college freshmen were giddy with excitement to be heading off to our first spring break. While many college students hit the highways leading to sunny beaches and beer parties, we opted to go to Washington, D. C.

It wasn’t because we shunned such adventures; it was because we were broke. We had met as dishwashers in our dorm’s cafeteria, and although we didn’t have a dime between us, we just knew part of our college education was to experience spring break.

And we could not have been more right.

Because my sister lived and worked in D.C. and because we could fly standby for a mere $25, we pooled out dishwasher money and headed east.

The date was April 4, 1968.

It was a somber homecoming when we arrived around midnight at my parents’ house. Shocked and devastated by King’s assassination, we shared what little facts we knew from the few news sources available late at night. At that point, no one could have guessed how King’s death would affect the nation, and so with our parents’ blessing, we caught an early morning flight and headed off to the nation’s capitol.

Oh, such freedom! Two 18-year-olds on our first travel adventure alone!

Luckily, on that first day, we took in all the sights that we could. Walking everywhere, we climbed to the top of the Washington Monument, hiked under the fragrant blossoms of the cherry trees circling the Jefferson Memorial, and rested on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before heading across the Potomac to Arlington Cemetery to see the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Finally, exhausted and foot sore, we turned around in late afternoon to hike the several miles back to my sister’s.

And that’s when we saw the city burning.

“Wow, something big is on fire!” I said as huge billows of black smoke rose from the center of the city.

“I wonder what it is?” answered my friend in amazement.

It wasn’t until we got closer and could hear sirens screaming, that we knew something was terribly wrong.

“Where have you been?” my sister said, panic in her voice as she greeted us at the door. “I’ve been worried sick about you! Don’t you know what’s happening?”

We did not. How could we? We did not own transistor radios and, of course, this was pre-cell phones.

“There’s rioting in the city and buildings are burning!” my sister gasped. “They sent us home from work early because the riots are so close.”

“How close?” I asked, stunned by this frightening information.

“The riots are only blocks away from the White House, and we are just six blocks from there. The National Guard has been called in and a curfew is in effect!”

Gone was the happy spring break we had set off on. Gone too was our youthful innocence. Instead, we found ourselves in the aftermath of a national tragedy.

We spent the first few days sequestered in my sister’s apartment watching the news, trying to understand what was happening and when it might end. To pass the time, we read, and slept, and ate whatever food was left in the cupboards.

Patrolling our neighborhood at night, the National Guard sometimes parked their trucks on our street. In the darkness of a curfewed city, we felt a little less afraid with their close presence, and being curious, we often stepped out in the shadows of our second story balcony to see what was happening.

“How’s it going?” we called from above. “What are your names and where are you from?”

For several nights, we chatted back and forth in the eerie quiet, for like us, they too were young and lonely and eager for conversation and talk of home.

But as the riots escalated, we needed to get out of there. Gratefully, my sister had a co-worker who lived farther out and who graciously opened her home to us and to a number of others. We slept on her floor and shared large pots of homemade soup that our host made from whatever food was available. At last, as the riots calmed, we were finally able to catch a plane and fly standby back home.

Back in our college dorm, friends eagerly shared their joyous spring break journeys and we shared ours. Despite the differences in our adventures, however, I would not in a heart beat exchange my experience for theirs.

For despite, the fear and uncertainty of the situation, I was given a lesson of a lifetime. Trapped in a small apartment, I learned what it was like not to have freedom. Caught in a city shut down by curfews and military, I began to understand the price of peace. And blessed by the kindness of others living side by side in trying times, I discovered how important tolerance was for all.

But mostly I learned about the hope that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke so eloquently about in his final speech before his death; the hope he never gave up on. Hope for the violence to end, hope for justice to prevail, hope for us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Fifty years later, I am still hoping.

And so is our nation.