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Fifty years after the death of Martin Luther King, race relations are better

Written By | Mar 29, 2018

WASHINGTON:  On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. Riots exploded in 125 cities nationally. Forty-three people died, 3,500 were injured and 27,000 arrested during the ten days following King’s murder.  Peter B. Levy’s new book about race riots in the 1960s, “The Great Uprising” says damage estimates reached upwards of $65 million, about $442 million today.

The DC Riots

In 1968, this writer, a few years out of law school, was working in the U.S. Senate as Washington went up in flames. Thirteen people were killed, two of them never identified. Smoke and tear gas filled the air while broken glass littered the streets.

In order to regain control of the chaos the president sent in 13,000 members of the Army, Marines and National Guard. I remember tanks patrolling the streets of Capitol Hill and a curfew of 6 p.m.

From the window of a friend’s apartment across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia, we could see smoke filling the air of the nation’s Capital. It felt as if our country was tearing itself apart.




Washington was a largely segregated city in 1968

 

There was no city government in D.C. back then. The House had the Committee on the District of Columbia which controlled the capital. It was presided over by Rep. John McMillan (D-SC) and other Southern Democrats who were sympathetic to segregation.

It represented the very system of taxation without representation—the catalyst that launched the American Revolution. Thus, a majority-black city, already disenfranchised, grew in anger amid the riots.


 Have A Dream: Dr. Martin Luther King’s words still resonate

Charlene Drew Jarvis, a fourth generation black Washingtonian, and former member of the D.C. Council recalls that

“There was a confluence of anger and hurt about the death of Martin Luther King. But there was also a way of breaking out of a cage in which African Americans felt they had been contained. A lot of it had to do with, ‘We’ve been contained here. We’re angry about this. We owe nothing to people who have confined us.'”

 

It did not elect its own city government but was controlled by the House Committee on the District of Columbia. It was presided over by Rep. John McMillan (D-SC) and other Southern Democrats who were sympathetic to segregation.

It represented the very system of taxation without representation against which the American Revolution had been launched. Thus, a majority-black city was disenfranchised, adding to the anger on display in the riots.


 Have A Dream: Dr. Martin Luther King’s words still resonate

Charlene Drew Jarvis, a fourth generation black Washingtonian, and former member of the D.C. Council recalls that

“There was a confluence of anger and hurt about the death of Martin Luther King. But there was also a way of breaking out of a cage in which African Americans felt they had been contained. A lot of it had to do with, ‘We’ve been contained here. We’re angry about this. We owe nothing to people who have confined us.'”




It did not elect its own city government but was controlled by the House Committee on the District of Columbia. It was presided over by Rep. John McMillan (D-SC) and other Southern Democrats who were sympathetic to segregation.

It represented the very system of taxation without representation against which the American Revolution had been launched. Thus, a majority-black city was disenfranchised, adding to the anger on display in the riots.


 Have A Dream: Dr. Martin Luther King’s words still resonate

Charlene Drew Jarvis, a fourth generation black Washingtonian, and former member of the D.C. Council recalls that

“There was a confluence of anger and hurt about the death of Martin Luther King. But there was also a way of breaking out of a cage in which African Americans felt they had been contained. A lot of it had to do with, ‘We’ve been contained here. We’re angry about this. We owe nothing to people who have confined us.'”

Much has changed in Washington since 1968.

There is now an elected D.C. Mayor and City Council. Former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who is black, notes that,

“Civil rights advances resulted in the desegregation of the federal and District government work forces, reversing discrimination that began, formally at least, more than 50 years earlier during the Woodrow Wilson administration.”

This is not to say that Washington does not still have serious social problems to deal with, and that many African-Americans continue to feel left behind.

But the larger picture, as Anthony Williams points out, is a positive and hopeful one:

“For many residents, commuters and tourists, life is dramatically better. Seen through this lens, 50 years after rioting left large sections of the city in ruin, the District is a great success story. Washington has advanced markedly in its revitalization, its finances are on an enviable footing, its population continues to increase, investment continues to flow, and it is considered a front-runner for a new Amazon headquarters. I am optimistic. Yes, inequality has been persistent; yes, the concentration of poverty in our city is daunting; but we have the capacity, we have the resources, and we’ve shown the willingness to tackle the big problems.”

Race relations today

There has been much concern expressed in recent days about the state of race relations in the American society. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 inspired hope that the country had moved into a new era of racial equality.

However, the rise of white nationalist groups, such as those which organized last summer’s racist march in Charlottesville, Virginia caused doubt. And distrust grew even more with the continued police shootings of unarmed black men.

Both have ignited real doubt to the reality of real progress.

Despite some shortcomings, things continue to improve.

According to the Center for American Progress, the number of black men between 18 and 24 who attend a form of higher education is on the rise. Between 1976 and 2014 the number of black men aged 25 and over who earned at least a bachelor’s degree has risen from 6.3% to 20.4%.

In the same time period the rate of high school dropouts for black men has more than halved, decreasing from 21.2% to 8.1%.



Race baiting destroys Martin Luther King Dream  

The respected black academician, Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard, believes that the past five decades have been, if not a new Reconstruction, the occasion for tremendous progress for black Americans:

“This period, 1965-2015, I was thinking of it as the Second Reconstruction. This specific period is one between the Voting Rights Act and the re-election of the first black man to occupy the White House.”

Gates refers to this 50-year period as one of “unparalleled advances for black people,” which he explored in a four-hour PBS series, “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” in 2016.

While racial injustice continues to exist, in Gates’ view,

“The picture is quite complicated. On one hand, the black middle class has doubled. The black upper middle class has quadrupled. We have more black people elected to state office than ever before. These things were scarcely imaginable the terrible day in April 1968 when Dr. King was killed.”

An eyewitness to racial segregation

To those of us of a certain age, who lived in the South during the years of segregation, when a black person could not get a cup of coffee, or use a restroom or, in many cases, cast a ballot, to suggest that race relations have not been steadily improving is to ask us not to believe our own eyes.

When I was in college, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to integrate the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. In our dormitory discussions, if anyone suggested that we would live to see a black Governor of Virginia, or a black Secretary of State, let alone a black president, he would have been viewed as mad.

We have, fortunately, lived to see things we never imagined. But things don’t move steadily in the right direction.  Sometimes, there are those who suggest a backward step.

Some problems prove difficult to resolve. But, taking all things in their proper perspective, fifty years after Dr. King’s murder, fifty years after Washington was in flames, we are a better country than we have ever been when it comes to race.

Hopefully, despite all of our problems, we will become better still.

Allan C. Brownfeld

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.