HUDSON | What kind of a country were we being asked to defend?
Author: Miller Hudson - April 6, 2018 - Updated: April 6, 2018
At 6:30 AM on Friday morning April 5, 1968, I was driving to work at the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company’s Dupont Central Office building at 14thand R Streets in Washington, D. C. It was to be my last day before reporting on April 20 to the U. S. Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. I could feel a serious hangover coming on from the farewell party that had run past 2:00 AM the evening before. The test center personnel I supervised, half of whom were African American, had taken up a collection to purchase me the largest and most expensive Buck knife they could find. I hoped I would never require this formidable weapon aboard ship, but their thought was appreciated nonetheless. We partied hard and consumed alcohol as you only can when you are 22. Never one to listen to radio so early in the morning, I was playing an 8-track tape and looking forward to two weeks of vacation before reporting for duty.
The nation’s capital was a dirtier place 50 years ago than it is today. The previous night’s rain failed to clean the streets, but left instead ugly puddles of oil-stained debris floating along the curbs. Having made this same trip for nearly a year, I quickly noticed clusters of young black men gathering on most street corners. It struck me as odd, since the streets were usually vacant at this early hour. D. C. remains a town that only begins moving after nine in the morning. When I arrived at the phone company garage I immediately asked whether something was going on? “Haven’t you heard, Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis last night,” was the jarring reply. And no, I didn’t know. The riots that had spread rapidly across urban America were dampened overnight in Washington, but the day ahead would unleash a conflagration that soon left the city looking as though it were being bombed. Fire trucks were soon running up and down 14thStreet from as far away as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
It was a time for score settling with predatory retailers in minority neighborhoods. Pay day lenders, liquor stores (once they were emptied) and appliance leasing outlets were set afire, the flames often spreading to adjoining buildings. Phone service was usually provided from cables attached to the back walls of adjoining townhomes and stores. When a building was lost to fire, every phone customer further down the street lost their dial tone. Within 72 hours nearly three fourths of the 120,000 phone lines we monitored were out of service. Despite reports to the contrary, looters were more joyous than vicious. There was no policing the thousands of residents pushing new television sets home in grocery carts or loading their car trunks with beer and groceries. A lone, white policeman asked looters to pull their cars up on the sidewalk at the liquor store across from our office so that 14thStreet would remain open for firetrucks. A photo of his traffic management later appeared in the Washington Post.
It should come as no surprise that there were subsequent howls of outrage and demands this young man be fired. Although I was at OCS by this time, I wrote a letter to the Post and defended the officer’s actions. He made the best possible decision in the face of a mob that numbered more than a hundred. Stolen booze wasn’t worth his injury or death. Charges against him were eventually dropped and I like to think my testimony may have helped. Fortunately, rioters had no beef with the phone company. Everyone needed a phone and several years before AT&T would sign the first major consent decree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, C&P Telephone was affirmatively hiring blacks in a majority black city. Once I returned from the Navy they were promoting those workers into management as well. I was trapped at the Dupont office for five days because it was thought too risky to travel, and, even then, we were transported back and forth in a windowless cable carrier.
From the roof of our six-story building, we could see fires burning out of control by the hundreds across downtown Washington and we could engage in shouted banter with rioters on the sidewalk below. Clifton Terrace was composed of several nineteenth century apartment buildings that were in an advanced state of decay. To install or repair phones there took two technicians: one with a flashlight and baseball bat to push away rats and another to run the phone connections. We shouted down, “Go get Clifton Terrace. Burn it down!” Our entreaties were ignored and the buildings remain today, gentrified and surely cost prohibitive to the families that occupied them in 1968. We were also receiving thousands of inexplicably irate complaints demanding we restore phone service, a job that wasn’t completed for nearly a year. I left work at 7:00 PM April 19 and reported to Newport, Rhode Island, the following morning.
As I hustled to morning formation on June 6, I noticed the flag was lowered to half-mast. I found myself seized with a troubling premonition. For reasons I still cannot explain I suspected there had been another assassination. Once again, cut off from news, I was informed Senator Robert Kennedy had been killed the night before in Los Angeles. I was not the only young man shivering in the wind off Narragansett Bay wondering just what kind of a country we were being asked to defend.