Promise and Peril in Post-1968 Washington, DC — “When the Smoke Cleared: The 1968 Rebellions and the Unfinished Battle for Civil Rights in the Nation’s Capital”

While not completely ignored among urbanists, for a city of its size and significance, Washington, DC—or at least its post-1968 incarnation—remains an under-historicized metropolis. To be fair, historians like Scott Berg and J. D. Dickey have tackled its beginnings in the nineteenth century. James H. Whyte, Ronald Johnson, Carol Gelderman, Sharon Harley, and others have explored the capital’s role as an entrepot for freedmen and women escaping slavery during the Civil War and who later chased opportunities created by the woefully brief Reconstruction era. Its early to mid-twentieth-century history, including U Street’s importance to the local Black community, have been examined in Briana A. Thomas’ work Black Broadway in Washington, DC, and Paula C. Austin’s Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC—the latter documents the years 1919–1941. Obviously, the Georgetown set, defined by folks like Joseph Alsop and Alice Roosevelt Longworth and the Camelot administration of the Kennedys, has received its fair due by folks such as Robert Dallek and others. 

However, with some notable exceptions such as Howard Gillette’s Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, DC, and the Tom Sherwood/Harry S. Jaffe journalistic account Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, DC (1994), less attention has been paid to the history of Washington after 1970.

The persistence of congressional control over municipal affairs even with Home Rule serves as one reason that Washington has received less scholarly attention. No other city in the United States operates under a structure in which its laws can be so easily revoked by the federal government. Thankfully, over the past two decades historians have begun to correct this blind spot, which is particularly important in 2023—the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of Home Rule, which enabled Washingtonians to elect a mayor and city council for the first time in nearly a century. With that said, the twenty-first century has welcomed new works by historians Derek Hyra, Sabiyha Prince, Lauren Pearlman, Derek Musgrove, Chris Myers Asch, Cameron Logan, Natalie Hopkinson, and others, adding new interpretations and perspectives on the city’s history.

Which brings us to the latest addition to this historiography, Kyla Sommers’s When the Smoke Cleared: The 1968 Rebellions and the Unfinished Battle for Civil Rights in the Nation’s Capital. At a recent book talk held at the DC independent bookstore/institution Politics and Prose, moderated by journalists and long-time Washingtonians Kojo Nnamdi and the aforementioned Sherwood, Sommers discussed her work in front of a nearly packed house.

During an hour-long discussion of Washington since 1968, Sommers, Nnamdi, and Sherwood covered a number of topics and issues that were central then and remain relevant now, notably the city’s inability to truly govern itself, the role of police and policing in the capital, and DC’s role as boogeyman, dystopian, crime-ridden metropolis but also laboratory for anti-crime, pro-police initiatives.

Passed by the Johnson Administration but enacted under Nixon, the 1968 Crime Bill legitimized no-knock warrants, wiretapping, and mandatory minimums; it occupies a central place in both the city’s history and the nation’s, as the law encouraged municipalities to adopt many of its tactics based on the capital’s example. Washington became the municipal canvas on which its provisions would be drawn, giving DC a significant influence on the spread of the policy. As discussed later, expressions of equality by Black Washingtonians and their attempts to gain political influence often engendered racist responses from the power structure, and the 1968 Crime Bill arguably exists as evidence of such developments.

Nixon campaigned on “law and order,” frequently juxtaposing his desire to impose his authority while also declaring DC “the crime capital of the world.” However, though the law raised the profile of the police in the public mind and gave law enforcement wider leeway to conduct raids, searches, and surveillance, according to Sommers, it failed to actually reduce crime. The recent fate of the 2023 DC crime bill, authored by the current city council as a means to alleviate some of the problems created by the 1968 law, encapsulates the issues at the heart of Sommers’s work.

What distinguishes Sommers’s history from those that came before? First, according to Sommers: sources. Previous histories, she argued, depended on official narratives provided by the police or federal government, which amplified institutional viewpoints over those of Washingtonians. Instead, Sommers utilized fifty oral histories from local archives at George Washington University, the Kiplinger Center at DC History, and the District of Columbia Martin Luther King Public Library, focusing on activists and other folks outside the traditional power structure of the day to better capture the perspective of insights and views of residents, notably its Black population.

Second, Sommers sees hope rather than despair in the city’s post-1968 arc. When the Smoke Cleared emerged from an undergraduate paper by Sommers about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. After completing her degree at George Washington University, Sommers pursued a PhD there in US History, which enabled her to expand on her original idea. Her dissertation’s title, “I Believe in the City,” serves as evidence of Sommers’s approach: acknowledge the inequality and racism that spawned the 1968 rebellions, but rather than focus on the destruction, highlight the aftermath, paying attention to roads not taken and what new avenues can we and policymakers draw upon to improve the current day.

Indeed, as Nnamdi noted, while the events of 1968 left the city damaged, some residents, such as the Black United Front, a coalition of moderate and militant Black leaders founded by Stokely Carmichael, saw new opportunity. Local leaders like Walter Fauntroy, Julius Hobson, and Chuck Stone, though sometimes wary of Carmichael’s militancy, believed collaboration between the city’s robust but siloed activists would serve as a means to redevelop the capital in a way that favored community interests over developer profits and what they saw as a rapacious capitalism. “This happened because of inequality,” Sommers noted, and then paraphrased Carmichael and others: “We want control and power…anything that comes out of this must come out of community and solve these structural inequalities.” Nnambi agreed, “It worked for one person, I was able to build a house and live in [the] Shaw [neighborhood] for twenty years” 

Yet, eventually developers managed to regain their foothold, bought up a number of properties in Shaw and elsewhere, and then sat on them for years, which contributed to rising crime and dysfunction as lots remained vacant. When private developers did finally move on these investments, the media and local government hailed them as heroes for bringing new economic development to the neighborhood, despite the fact that their inactivity had contributed to the issues afflicting many of Washington’s Black communities.

The parallels between debates about governance in the capital today and in 1968 remain remarkably similar, and race continues to be inextricable to the city’s national standing. As Sommers told the audience, “DC’s lack of democracy has always been [related] to a fear of black power. This goes all the way back to why we have DC—because southerners insisted the capital be created out of two slave holding states.” The arrival of freedmen and women during the Civil War and Reconstruction furthered white fears of Black governance, an issue that blunted the Home Rule Movement as whites feared it would result in the same. Statehood’s strongest moment, she argued, occurred when it was at its most gentrified “and seen as…white in the public image.”

Sommers, Sherwood, and Nnamdi covered much more, but perhaps concluding with a comment by Sommers regarding the importance of history more generally captures the thrust of the talk best. Without history, “it’s really easy to feel like things haven’t happened before, especially in tumultuous times,” she told the audience. Such moments feel disorienting and overwhelming, but “really studying the past, and realizing the common threads” one comes to identify the “borrowed playbook” from which political actors continue to draw and to recognize the “cyclical” nature of history. People before us have responded to tumultuous events. These responses can operate simply “as a cautionary tale,” but they also are pregnant with possibility and can “embolden and reassure us.” After all, “reminding us of the paths not taken is a way to imagine political futures.”

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