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The King assassination riots, also known as the Holy Week Uprising, was a wave of civil disturbance which swept the United States following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. They were the greatest wave of social unrest the United States experienced since the Civil War.Some of the biggest riots took place in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, and Kansas City.
The Washington, D.C., riots of April 4–8, 1968, resulted in Washington, along with Chicago and Baltimore, receiving the heaviest impact of the 110 cities to see unrest following the King assassination.
The ready availability of jobs in the growing federal government attracted many to Washington in the 1960s, and middle class African-American neighborhoods prospered. Despite the end of legally mandated racial segregation, the historic neighborhoods of Shaw, the H Street Northeast corridor, and Columbia Heights, centered at the intersection of 14th and U Streets Northwest, remained the centers of African-American commercial life in the city.
As word of King's murder by James Earl Ray in Memphis spread on the evening of Thursday, April 4, crowds began to gather at 14th and U. Stokely Carmichael led members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to stores in the neighborhood demanding that they close out of respect. Although polite at first, the crowd fell out of control and began breaking windows. By 11pm, widespread looting had begun.
Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington ordered the damage cleaned up immediately the next morning. However, anger was still evident on Friday morning when Carmichael addressed a rally at Howard, warning of violence. After the close of the rally, crowds walking down 7th Street NW and in the H Street NE corridor came into violent confrontations with police. By midday, numerous buildings were on fire, and firefighters were prevented from responding by crowds attacking with bottles and rocks.
Crowds of as many as 20,000 overwhelmed the District's 3,100-member police force, and President Lyndon B. Johnson dispatched some 13,600 federal troops, including 1,750 federalized D.C. National Guard troops, to assist them. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol and Army troops from the 3rd Infantry guarded the White House. At one point, on April 5, rioting reached within two blocks of the White House before rioters retreated. The occupation of Washington was the largest of any American city since the Civil War. Mayor Washington imposed a curfew and banned the sale of alcohol and guns in the city. By the time the city was considered pacified on Sunday, April 8, some 1,200 buildings had been burned, including over 900 stores. Damages reached $27 million.
The riots utterly devastated Washington's inner city economy. With the destruction or closing of businesses, thousands of jobs were lost, and insurance rates soared. Made uneasy by the violence, city residents of all races accelerated their departure for suburban areas, depressing property values. Crime in the burned out neighborhoods rose sharply, further discouraging investment.
On some blocks, only rubble remained for decades. Columbia Heights and the U Street corridor did not begin to recover economically until the opening of the U Street and Columbia Heights Metro stations in 1991 and 1999, respectively, while the H Street NE corridor remained depressed for several years longer.
Mayor-Commissioner Washington, who was the last presidentially appointed mayor of Washington, went on to become the city's first elected mayor.