Gritter on Walker, 'Most of 14th Street is Gone: The Washington, DC Riots of 1968'

Author: 
J. Samuel Walker
Reviewer: 
Elizabeth Gritter

J. Samuel Walker. Most of 14th Street is Gone: The Washington, DC Riots of 1968. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. 200 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-084479-0.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Gritter (Indiana University Southeast) Published on H-SAWH (August, 2018) Commissioned by Lisa A. Francavilla (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series and Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52053

Capital Chaos

I remember that in the late 1990s, when I moved to Washington, DC to attend college at American University, parts of the city, including the historically black U Street area, had not recovered from the 1968 riots. Returning to DC in November 2017, I observed that the U Street and 14th Street corridors, both badly affected by the riots, were now bustling areas with restaurants, shops, and businesses.  

J. Samuel Walker confirms my observations in Most of 14th Street Is Gone: The Washington, DC Riots of 1968. In this definitive work Walker takes a long view of the conflict, first relating the history of race relations in the city, then focusing on the details of the riots that erupted, like others in the country, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, and finally, exploring the long recovery of the city afterward. Walker draws from oral histories and other archival sources, newspaper accounts, governmental reports, and secondary sources in this well-researched account.  

Walker begins the book with a history of Washington, DC, focusing on race relations and bringing to light the history of the people who lived there, especially the city’s disproportionately poor African American population. Some of the information that he relays is downright depressing. For example, a survey conducted in 1950, during the affluent post-World War II era, found that, of 5,600 housing units in the southwest area of DC, “more than 43 percent had outside toilets, more than 70 percent had no central heating, more than 44 percent had no baths, and more than 21 percent had no electricity” (p. 19). Walker shows that although a vibrant black community existed in a city that offered employment in governmental agencies, dramatic inequalities sowed the seeds of discontent that erupted into violent frustration during the 1968 riots. 

Walker then turns to examining the rioting that largely occurred from April 4 to April 5, essentially turning the area into a war zone. His comparison echoes this reviewer’s familiarity with a firsthand account of the 1968 riot in Detroit. Property destruction, fires and arson, looting, and death and injuries were rampant in DC. As Walker writes, “before calm returned, thirteen people were dead, thousands were injured, and nearly eight thousand were arrested” (p. 3). Walker quotes Leonard Downie of the Washington Post, who observed, “left behind were hundreds of burned-out buildings, whole blocks that looked as though they had been bombed into oblivion, vital centers of commerce for black Washington that had been reduced to rubble, small businesses and lifetimes of investment by their owners that had been obliterated” (p. 3). 

In Walker’s final chapter, appropriately titled “The Long Recovery,” he examines the steps taken from soon after the riots to decades later in order to revitalize the city. Walker commends President Nixon for funneling funds to rebuild DC, but he notes that total recovery was not to come for decades. While the riots stemmed from unrest about prejudicial and racist social conditions, as Walker explains, he argues that ultimately they were counterproductive, hurting the residents and communities in which they occurred. 

Walker ends his book wondering why more riots have not occurred in recent times, beyond the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles and later urban unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore. He warns that conditions in urban areas will remain ripe for riots if issues of poverty and poor living conditions are not addressed. Thus, he makes a moral judgement, which historians can be uniquely capable of doing. Instead of divorcing the past from the present, he wisely makes clear the connections between his work and present-day issues.  

At the back of his book, Walker includes an essay on sources with information that would have been more useful had it been incorporated into the main text. In this essay, Walker places his work within the historiography of the riots and urban unrest that plagued the United States in the mid- to late 1960s. He also more explicitly summarizes some of his arguments. 

One of Walker’s chief arguments deals with the response of the US government and local law enforcement to the riots. He argues that deploying twelve thousand troops to the streets of Washington was instrumental in defusing the riots. He also seems complimentary of the police and troops, who used relatively minimal force against the rioters. For instance, as Walker states, “the rounds of ammunition fired by military personnel came to a total of only fourteen; the number of tear gas grenades launched was 5,248” (p. 98). He writes that observers and participants of the riots at the time believed that the use of greater force by law enforcement and military forces would have exacerbated the tensions and violence. Yet, Walker also points out that Senator Robert Byrd, together with some business operators who suffered heavy losses, argued that greater force should have been employed earlier on. Walker does not specifically analyze whether there was a racial divide regarding these expectations for law enforcement engagement, but he suggests that there might have been, with more whites on the side of greater force than African Americans. Clearly the policy of restraint, as the Washington Post commented at the time, came at the cost of greater destruction and property damage. 

Placing the Washington, DC riots within the larger context of race riots in the 1960s, Walker states that police misconduct was the primary complaint of residents in poor neighborhoods. Walker observes that steps taken to improve police-community relations after the riots of the late 1960s, such as hiring more black police officers, “did not solve the problem of police-community relations or end citizen complaints about police misconduct. But they did help to bring about welcome and necessary progress” (p. 131-2). Walker’s argument for the importance of positive relationships between the police and the community is particularly timely. In 2014, after the Ferguson race riots, this reviewer participated in a panel with a former black police officer who stressed the same point. 

Walker’s book should especially interest Washington, DC residents, undergraduate and graduate students, and anyone else interested in race relations and the history of the 1960s. It could serve as a valuable resource for policymakers as well. The narrative is well balanced, with its various firsthand perspectives and accounts of the riots, including those of the rioters themselves, governmental officials, police officers, and business owners. Indeed, these personal accounts make Walker’s work particularly significant and this reviewer only wishes that he had included more of them in this slim volume. Nonetheless, Walker is to be commended for writing a fine book about the important topic of urban unrest in the 1960s.

Citation: Elizabeth Gritter. Review of Walker, J. Samuel, Most of 14th Street is Gone: The Washington, DC Riots of 1968. H-SAWH, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52053

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