When the Smoke Cleared: The 1968 Rebellions and the Unfinished Battle for Civil Rights in the Nation’s Capital
- By Kyla Sommers
- The New Press
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Paul D. Pearlstein
- May 4, 2023
A detailed, challenging account of historic unrest in the District.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, during Easter week. When news of the murder broke, thousands of Washington’s Black residents took to the streets in search of comfort, answers, and to share their grief. Unfortunately, the gathering quickly spun out of control as multitudes roved the city in a frenzied carnival mode, setting fires and looting.
Soon, entire blocks were burning, stores and offices were plundered, and federal troops were called in. The mayhem continued for nearly two weeks, resulting in the most destructive riot in America’s history. Property damage exceeded $30 million, and over 6,000 people were arrested.
When the Smoke Cleared, an account of the riots and their aftermath, grew out of author Kyla Sommers’ doctoral dissertation, and it shows. The writing, while informative, is torn between the style of the academy and that of mass-market nonfiction, making it a somewhat disjointed, challenging read. Still, it offers a comprehensive picture of the riots and the political upheaval that followed.
For many years, the District of Columbia functioned as a typical Southern town. White residents prospered and enjoyed total freedom, while their Black counterparts endured the strict segregation of schools, stores, restaurants, transportation, and workplaces. In 1913, after he’d been in office only a few days, the Virginia-bred President Woodrow Wilson ordered the integrated federal workforce to be segregated by race.
Well before the Civil War, Jim Crow-like laws had been codified in DC. Racist Southern “rules” and customs were the norm. During Reconstruction, Republicans repealed these restrictive laws to no effect. The DC government claimed that the newly repealed laws had been “lost,” allowing segregation and overt discrimination against Blacks to continue — and to be harshly enforced — for the next 100 years.
The 1968 disturbance caused a rebellion across the entire DC community, with both good and bad results. The riots — depicted here in gripping detail — birthed powerful new Black and white leaders who demanded full civil rights for all residents of DC. Most importantly, these leaders insisted, DC had to be freed from intrusive control by Congress; it must be granted home rule. (By contrast, opponents demanded fewer civil rights for Black citizens and much harsher punishment for those involved in civil unrest.)
Many of the new Black leaders were radicals. Julius Hobson, Stokely Carmichael, SNCC leader Marion Barry, and Destiny-Pride founder Rufus “Catfish” Mayfield fanned a hopeful flame, Sommers writes. And several prominent white residents joined in the work to reform the city, including business leader John Hechinger, Ben Gilbert of the Washington Post, future DC City Council member David A. Clarke, and Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN).
By banding together, these loud but savvy change agents began to see results. Walter Washington became the city’s first Black mayor when he was appointed to the role by President Lyndon B. Johnson; he would be elected to it after the 1973 District of Columbia Home Rule Act took effect. Other Black leaders were also now “allowed” to hold meaningful jobs in the DC government, including elected office. These advances were impressive, but the activists’ gains alarmed DC’s white population and stiffened the resistance of Congress.
Much of that resistance came from whites’ long-held distrust of Black people. Pre-Civil War, slave uprisings had been the worst fear of many whites, and that anxiety outlived slavery. Southern politicians still had nightmares about the 18th-century Haitian Revolution, the Amistad mutiny, Nat Turner’s bloody uprising, and the infamous abolitionist/zealot John Brown. Granting statehood to largely Black Washington, DC, meant a liberal Democrat could one day be voted into office and change the balance of power in America forever. As Sommers explains, the very idea of statehood (let alone home rule) was anathema to Congress and was opposed by the Metropolitan Police, the white business establishment, and most commanders-in-chief, especially Richard Nixon.
During his time in office, the “law and order” Nixon endorsed the creation of new criminal laws, more severe penalties for crimes, and mandatory-minimum sentences. He also increased police funding via his short-lived Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. The strongest of the pro-punishment voices, however, were those of Congress’ Southern Democrats, led by Senators Harry Byrd and Strom Thurmond. Adding to the bloodlust was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Together, their calls for vengeance set back progress in Washington, DC, for years.
Unfortunately, the lack of progress continues. Despite the modest Home Rule Act, mostly an eyewash passed by Congress, there is no realistic chance of DC being granted statehood. Even now, Congress continues to suggest that elected leadership in the District requires “adult supervision” from Capitol Hill. Just recently, President Joe Biden bowed to pressure and agreed not to oppose a congressional faction blocking a revision of DC’s criminal code. Apparently, the penalties provided in the new law were deemed (from on high) insufficiently punitive.
Thus, the “rebellions” of the book’s title haven’t yet led to autonomy for residents of Washington, DC. Perhaps someday Congress will find it in its heart to grant full constitutional rights to the hundreds of thousands of American citizens who make their home in our nation’s capital, not unlike a 21st-century manumission. But today is not that day.
Paul D. Pearlstein was one of 250 volunteer lawyers called to court in DC on Friday, April 5, 1968. There he stayed and represented those prisoners assigned to him until they were finally released from jail at 3:30 a.m. the next day.