On November 5, 2018, historian J. Samuel Walker presented an Overbeck Lecture on the Washington riots of 1968. Walker began by placing the riots in the larger context of urban violence that had broken out throughout the United States during the previous years, and described the poverty, disenfranchisement, and hopelessness that created conditions that he described as being like tinder, awaiting a spark to create a firestorm. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968, created the spark that led to the riots. Disturbances broke out first on 14th Street NW, spread to 7th Street NW and eventually engulfed the H Street NE commercial corridor. Local police were entirely outnumbered and eventually President Lyndon B. Johnson called in troops to calm the unrest. Troops and machine guns defensively surrounded the White House and the United States Capitol Building and were deployed throughout the city, eventually bringing the looting and violence under control.
The Washington riots broke out only a month after release of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission Report. In addition to examining causes of earlier riots, the report proposed a less aggressive police response to save lives and help toward recovery. As a result, responding in Washington, soldiers carried ammunition, but did not load their rifles, and their bayonets were fixed but sheathed. Thus, although property destruction was massive, relatively few lives were lost.
Following the lecture, Walker responded to questions, and audience members shared their own experiences living on Capitol Hill during the riots. A number of retail establishments throughout the neighborhood were looted, and residents observed young people walking through the neighborhood carrying booty, including in one case a couch. In an unusual situation, one observer recalled watching white and African American looters joining together in emptying a store.
J. Samuel Walker is a historian who has written on a wide range of subjects, ranging from atomic weapons and energy to college basketball in America. He is the author of Most of 14th Street is Gone: The Washington, DC Riots of 1968, published in 2018.