April 1968: King's Assassination
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968 compounded a sense of hopelessness many felt about America’s treatment of Black citizens.
“We are not asking politely, we are demanding that you name the library after Martin Luther King Jr.”
—Charles Cassell, School Board member and local architect, speaking to the DC Public Library Board of Trustees, January 1971
Washington Post Cover Story the Day After the Assassination, "Dr. King is Slain in Memphis" (1968-04-05) by Washington PostDC Public Library
Cover of the Washington Post, April 5, 1968
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot by a white assassin at his hotel in Memphis.
Uprising and Occupation
D.C. residents erupted upon hearing of Dr. King’s assassination. Grief, rage, and years of tension drove protest into the streets.
Many Black Washingtonians were stuck in low-level jobs, and lived in buildings owned by absentee slumlords. Police abuse was rampant.
“America declared war on us last night."
Upon hearing the news of King's murder, Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) asked businesses near 14th and U streets NW to close out of respect for Dr. King. At a press conference the next day, he called on Black Americans to defend themselves from violence.
Photo Taken During the Riots Showing Broken Storefront Windows at Safeway (1968) by Darrell C. Crain Jr. Photograph CollectionDC Public Library
Broken glass and debris in front of Safeway, April 6, 1968
Over four days, beginning the night of April 4, people attacked hundreds of buildings.
Fire trucks, firemen and smoldering, damaged store fronts (1968) by Darrell C. Crain Jr. Photograph CollectionDC Public Library
Fire trucks outside smoldering storefronts, April 6, 1968
Police contained most property damage to areas that already suffered from neglect.
Photo Taken During the Riots Showing Armed Soldiers on Patrol, F Street NW (1968) by Darrell C. Crain Jr. Photograph CollectionDC Public Library
Armed soldiers patrol F Street NW, April 6, 1968.
President Johnson called in 13,000 National Guard troops—the largest occupation of an American city since the Civil War.
Young men walk past Martin Luther King, Jr. portrait after riots (1968) by Darrell C. Crain Jr. Photograph CollectionDC Public Library
King's portrait in a storefront, April 6, 1968
D.C. Remembers King
Soon after Dr. King’s assassination, a movement arose in cities across the nation to honor his memory with a holiday.
D.C. leaders and activists were among those who led the effort.
Left: In 1968, newspapers were filled with advertisements like this one from Food Fair, stating it would be closed on April 9th, the day of King’s funeral in Atlanta. Right: As seen in this flier from Bible Way Baptist Church, in the years following King's assassination, many D.C. churches and community groups organized their own tributes to Dr. King.
DC Mayor Walter Washington at the groundbreaking of the new central library (1968-06) by DCPL People's ArchiveDC Public Library
Breaking Ground at a Time of Turmoil
In July 1968, as many of D.C.'s neighborhoods lay in ruin, Mayor Walter Washington presided over the groundbreaking of a new, long-awaited library facility. Designed by famed modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, it was known simply as the Downtown Central Library.
Original MLK Library Letter (Fauntroy) (1971) by Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, DC Public Library RecordsDC Public Library
Naming the Library
In 1970, the DC Public Library Board of Trustees solicited suggestions for the naming of the new, modern central library. Washingtonians organized a citywide letter writing campaign.
Original MLK Library Letter (Robert Frazier) (1971) by DC Public Library RecordsDC Public Library
Letter to Milford Schwartz from Robert Frazier, 1971
Original MLK Library Letter (Regina Friedman + daddy) (1971) by DC Public Library RecordsDC Public Library
Letter to Milford Schwartz from Regina Friedman, 1971
The library received nearly a hundred letters, overwhelmingly in support of naming the Library for Dr. King. Some, like this one, written by a seven year old (with parental assistance) reflect intense emotion.
DC-Public-Library-Board-of-Trustees-name-Martin-Luther-King-Jr.-Memorial-Library (1971-01-14) by DC Public Library ArchivesDC Public Library
Library Board of Trustees meeting, 1971
The day before King's birthday, on January 14, 1971, Library Board of Trustees voted to adopt the name the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library Dedication Week program (1972-09-17) by DC Public LibraryDC Public Library
Dedication Week program, 1972
The new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library opened on August 21, 1972 and was dedicated to Dr. King with a week of official events from September 17-23. It was the culmination of more than four years of community organizing demanding that the city honor Dr. King.
The library opened on August 21, 1972 and was dedicated to Dr. King with a week of official events from September 17-23. It was the culmination of more than four years of community organizing demanding that the city honor Dr. King.
Installation View, DC Remembers King (2021) by Photograph by Olivia WeiseDC Public Library
April 1968 is located in the West Gallery, on the fourth floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
Learn more about the the local activists and the issues that Dr. King cared about in the Library's new permanent exhibit, Up from the People: Protest and Change in D.C., on view at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.
You can also learn more in these online exhibits:
A Revolution of Values
D.C. Wins Home Rule
Everybody's Got a Right to Live: The Poor People's Campaign
Marion Barry: Mayor for Life
D.C. & King: The Story Behind the Films
This exhibition was made possible by the generous support of the DC Public Library Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this exhibit do not represent the views of any funding organizations.