After MLK's Assassination, A Capital Ripped Apart

NPR's Susan Stamberg recalls returning to Washington, D.C., from living in India just after the assassination of Martin Luther King — and seeing the city in flames.

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April 1968 was the cruelest month America had seen since November 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered, anguish and rage and the numb silence of shock alternated here for days. In 1968, landing back in this federal city after several years overseas I remember Washington's reaction to Dr. King's death.

We had been living in India for two-and-a-half years. My husband worked for the Agency for International Development, the foreign aid agency, and we were posted in New Delhi. There news of the West arrived a week late on the pages of Newsweek or Time magazine. We had no TV in Delhi - nobody did. We could listen to all India radio, the BBC, the Voice of America at times.

But until we were en route home and stopped in Thailand, war in Vietnam was a distant reality. The Bangkok airport was full of American soldiers on rest and recuperation. We knew Dr. King has spoken out against that war and was severely criticized for it but we learned that at a distance. Now, here was the evidence at an airport in Asia.

Landing in Washington just after Dr. King was killed - another visual shock -parts of the city on fire, dark black smoke heaving into the sky, the air smelling acrid, losers ransacking stores right here on the street from which I am broadcasting - 7th Street in Northwest Washington - and lots of other places.

Police and National Guardsmen patrolling the streets. There were tanks at strategic corners, a curfew had been imposed, and it was very hard to find a taxi to get from National Airport into town, and the small hotel where we would spend our first days back home.

What was this home, we wondered; where were we now? Coming back from a place that was so completely different from anything we'd known, the roiling devastating poverty and exotic brilliance of India. Returning to what had been a stable, steady homeland, we discovered that going west was the culture shock. Our country had changed in our absence and was changing still.

That change, of course, continues. Over the years - and it took so many years -the rubble in the streets was finally cleared away, new buildings went up in the old riot neighborhoods, 40 years past. But the loss of Dr. King, and weeks later, Bobby Kennedy, smashed hope. So many bright dreams and no amount of change erases the scars from memory.

(Soundbite of song, "Inner City Blues")

Mr. MARVIN GAYE (Singer): (Singing) Oh, makes me want to holler, throw up both my hands. Yeah, it makes me want to holler, throw up both my hands. Oh, crime is increasing, trigger-happy policing, panic is spreading, God knows where…

STAMBERG: This is NPR News.

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