By the time John Layton was named Metropolitan Police Chief in 1964, there was a well-established undercurrent of hostility between the Police Department and Washington's inner city African American community. Layton added resources to the Community Relations Unit and promoted the first African American to the rank of Captain. He created a Public Information Division to better coordinate communications with the public and the media. And, in an effort to recognize the African American community’s complaints about police brutality and harassment, the chief went on record that the Metropolitan police department would not rely on lethal force should they need to put down a riot.
Layton’s actions were put to the test on April 4, 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN that day, and when word reached Washington, D.C., angry crowds began gathering in the streets.
In the early morning hours of June 23, 1968, thick clouds of tear gas rolled through a multitude of shacks on the National Mall. This shantytown was Resurrection City, and its residents were the nation’s poor. As many ran from their shelters, they saw Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final dream of economic equality withering in the gas. They had been citizens of the city for six weeks, all the while campaigning for rights for the poor around D.C. Now their work seemed all for naught. After an increase in violence and with an expiring living permit, the police had come to chase them out. Children were crying, adults screaming, and some were even vomiting. But amid the chaos, a song rang out: “we shall overcome.”
In the early 1960s, Malcolm X traveled widely preaching black separatism on behalf of the Nation of Islam and – after splitting from the group in 1964 – promoting a more moderate vision for American race relations. So, it's no surprise that he came to the nation's capital on a number of occasions.
On the 50th anniversary of his death, we look back on two rather unusual connections Malcolm made in Washington.
In 1964, D.C. was the site of the only known in-person meeting between Malcolm and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was significant considering the two leaders' very public differences on approaches to the civil rights movement. Malcolm once called King "Rev. Dr. Chicken-wing" in a not-so-subtle critique of non-violent civil disobedience.
The two staged a made-for-the-cameras meeting in the U.S. Capitol. But, as strange as the photo-op with King seemed at the time, Malcolm made headlines with an even more unlikely connection in Washington a few years earlier.
“God gave me a talent, and that talent was verbal skills." Critically acclaimed as America’s first “shock jock,” Petey Greene had the mouth and charisma to roar in the ears of people in the streets of Washington, D.C. His impact was no more apparent than in April of 1968 during the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Running down the streets outraged, a group of about thirty young people burst into a drug store. “Martin Luther King is dead,” they shouted. “Close the store down!” 26-year old Stokely Carmichael, former chairman of the SNNC and the initiator of the what became the “Black Power Movement” in 1967, led Washington, D.C. civilians down the streets demanding that all businesses close out of respect of the death of King.
Although the initial goal was to maintain peace, things quickly went out of Carmichael’s hands. Emotions boiled and violence broke out.