- Most of 14th Street Is Gone: The Washington, DC Riots of 1968 by J. Samuel Walker
In many respects, the details of the rioting in J. Samuel Walker's Most of 14th Street Is Gone: The Washington, DC Riots of 1968 are familiar. A violent flashpoint—in this instance, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—triggered a wave of reactionary violence in poor, predominantly black urban areas in 1960s America. Disaffected rioters smashed windows, looted businesses, and set fire to entire city blocks, leaving in their wake destruction and fear. What distinguishes these particular 1960s American riots, however, is that while President Lyndon B. Johnson was accustomed to the procedure of responding to riots, he was not accustomed to responding to riots he could actually see. Walker's detailed accounts of the April 1968 Washington, D.C., riots unfold in spaces familiar to those in the White House; rather than reading dispatches on the carnage from Los Angeles, Newark, or Detroit, they saw the smoke rising themselves. Anyone familiar with riot narratives of the 1960s may find this particular narrative a bit surreal, as Johnson made his way through riot-torn areas of Washington en route to a memorial service for King at the National Cathedral. After several summers of chaos in cities across the country, the riots were finally at the president's doorstep.
That riots occurred in the nation's capital is of particular interest to Walker. Most of 14th Street Is Gone bypasses the "monumental Washington" that so many tourists know in favor of examining a residential city with "a long, shadowy, and frequently contentious history" (pp. 7, 5). Walker attributes the formation of the overcrowded, dilapidated neighborhoods that erupted into violence to a number of political, economic, and social factors that began long before April 1968. The degree of neglect and squalor in areas of the city made the riots seem almost inevitable, he argues—decades in the making and just waiting for a national or local instigator. Those less familiar with the city will appreciate the maps, photographs, and detailed geography of areas such as 7th Street and 14th and U Streets that suffered so much damage. Walker does an excellent job of constantly orienting his readers so that they always know the [End Page 226] exact location of the scene he describes. The entire account is relatively spare—135 pages before endnotes—but it is packed with harrowing tidbits and manages to contextualize the D.C. riots in both the larger scheme of 1960s America and as a stand-alone event.
There is scant literature on these particular riots, but that is, in part, what makes Walker's work a useful contribution, blending urban history, local history, and political history to show how the timeline of certain D.C. neighborhoods descending into smoldering ruins was both typical in its specifics and exceptional in its location. Walker eschews the symbolism of the Washington Mall in favor of a harsher portrait, but that does not make the symbolism of the city itself irrelevant; if conditions were this dire and anger this fervent in America's political center, what does that say about the state of America in 1968? Walker need not answer that question, preferring to let the horrifying, normalized specifics and hotly contested aftermath of the riots offer both the answer and the centerpiece of his narrative. In the wake of the murder of America's greatest civil rights icon, a president mulled deploying U.S. troops, business owners fled as their stores were demolished, and Vietnam War veterans said that the scenes in D.C. were "just like the front line" (p. 65).
Ultimately, Most of 14th Street Is Gone is a carefully researched, valuable addition to the local history of Washington, D.C., and the national history of urban riots.