The days of darkest despair following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. pitted the American ghetto against itself. Inner city neighborhoods in over 50 cities burned to the ground, as rioters sought to avenge the death of the century's most powerful black American leader.
While this tragic climax of the civil rights movement in April 1968 was a spasm of understandable rage, the destruction wrought was sometimes counterproductive, as black-owned homes and businesses were also indiscriminately targeted. Although merchants suffered extensive property damage, black neighborhoods ultimately paid the highest price for the arson, looting, and violence.
Forty years after the nadir of racial conflict in which Harlem suffered less than many other inner-city places, Harlem erupted in ecstasy after the election of the first American president of African descent. Across Harlem, the night of Nov. 4, 2008, was cause for some of the nation's most cathartic celebration.
Election night was a frenzy of pent-up patriotism, communal bonding, and political redemption. The evening of Barack Obama's inauguration promises to be even more triumphant on the streets of Harlem, U.S.A. Memories of racial strife are supplanted by a newfound optimism in the black ghetto - even if there are no guarantees about how Obama will govern.
"This is the manifestation of so many dreams that were deferred. So many people who came before us died, were lynched, faced dogs and hoses. They went through all of that so that we could enjoy tonight - Barack Obama being named the president of the United States," said Renee Wright-Woodside, 36, a teacher from East New York, who gathered with friends in front of the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building on election night to watch the results on the big screen.
“We're gonna celebrate tomorrow. Words can't explain how it's going to feel tomorrow when I wake up. It will be a brand new day for America, for all Americans. Sorely needed change is here,” she said.
"I'm moved to tears when I think about all that we've overcome. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event for all of us. Who knows when this is going to happen again, and look how long it took for it to happen," Wright-Woodside added.
Rewind to Apr. 4, 1968. New York was one of a few cities with a large African-American population that was spared catastrophic damage after King was assassinated. Harlem emerged relatively unscathed, with two riot-related deaths and $3 million in property damage. Central Brooklyn, the city's other major African-American area, also remained relatively calm.
Harlem's toll of destruction pales in comparison to a nationwide total of 43 deaths, 23,987 arrests, 5,117 acts of arson, 1,928 homes and shops wrecked, and $39.5 million in property damage - as 72,800 Army and National Guard troops were called up during four days of rioting.
Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Chicago saw the worst destruction. In the nation's capital, Shaw, H Street, and Columbia Heights were among the worst hit areas. The remnants of that fateful aftermath are still abundantly visible in those neighborhoods.
"Fires crackled three blocks from the White House and from the air the capital looked like a bombed city," read a Time magazine editorial dated Apr. 12, 1968. Light machine gun posts defended the Capitol, and the helmets and bayoneted rifles of National Guard troops became indelible images of the soldiers who tried in vain to save vast African-American sections of the city.
Baltimore, placed under martial law by Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew, had 3,000 rioters, mostly teenagers. The final toll there was six dead, 700 injured, 4,500 arrested and over 1,000 fires set. More than a thousand businesses were looted and burned. Many of them never reopened. The total property damage, in 1968 dollars, was around $13.5 million - more than double the damage by the Hurricane Gladys, the worst storm of 1968.
Trenton, Pittsburgh, Kansas City and other urban centers also saw their black ghettos implode in racially motivated rioting.
The New York Times of Apr. 7, 1968, assessed the logic of despair: "In sullen corners of the country, revenge was sought in the name of the man who preached against it...Moses who would lead them out of the wilderness...was universally hailed by almost all as the man who represented their aspirations."
A Newsweek editorial from Apr. 15 labeled the riots "a black rampage that subjected the U.S. to the most widespread spasm of racial disorder in its violent history."
"For every Martin Luther King who falls, 10 white racists will go down with him," said Lincoln Lynch, the chairman of the radical United Black Front, in rejecting King's strategy of nonviolence during the immediate aftermath of the assassination.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey sought to placate a torn society: "This nation of law and order, which has its Presidents shot down in cold murder, its spiritual leaders assassinated, and has those who walk and speak and work for human rights beaten and killed. My fellow Americans, every one of us must resolve that we will never, never, never let it happen again."
The 20th century's urban race riots expressed the stifled political power of black communities. They began with Atlanta in 1905 and then continued with East St. Louis in 1917; Charleston, Chicago, Washington, Boston, and Knoxville rioted in 1919; Harlem was set off in both 1935 and 1943; Detroit also burned in 1943. Then, beginning in 1964, the riots became much more severe across the country. Detroit and Watts burned most intensely in 1967.
In 1968, Harlem did not suffer to the same extent as many other urban centers because of the rapport that Mayor John Lindsay enjoyed with the city's African-American communities. Lindsay's liberal Republican bent facilitated relations with civil rights groups.
The night that King was shot down on the balcony of the Hotel Lorraine in Memphis, the sage mayor rushed from Manhattan's Theater District to West 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard to calm the frenzied crowd. Lindsay was politically astute, and many of the city's African-Americans believed that the racism they experienced was not as severe as in many other metropolises. Their rage was tempered by a belief in the egalitarian promise of New York City, according to sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod.
Her 2007 book Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles analyzes the impact of the riots in light of the federal government's Kerner report on the riots. She argues that New York's political culture was much more responsive to black grievances than other cities. The former New School for Social Research professor also attributes the city's relatively calm reaction to New York's racial tolerance, an ethnically diverse black population, less intense housing segregation, and accessible mass transit.
"Harlem got off lightly in the back draft of the slaying that ignited racial explosions elsewhere. This is attributed to the good works of Mayor Lindsay," reported the Amsterdam News, the primary New York African-American weekly, in its Apr. 13, 1968 edition.
Mayor Lindsay, as well as New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, went to King's memorial service in Atlanta. Several hundred thousand marchers followed behind a denim-clad Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee honor guard, two mules, and a rustic wooden hearse-cart.
"With all New Yorkers, I hope that calm will continue. No serious disorders have taken place...It depends on us," said Mayor Lindsay, during the tense weekend after the assassination.
In Harlem, as elsewhere, rioters did not refrain from attacking black-owned businesses, such as Davega Sporting Goods Store and Unique Records and Gift Store.
One Amsterdam News headline read: "Mini Riots Fail to Clip Easter Sales on 125th Street." Lindsay had successfully pacified the city with his good looks, WASP charm, and conciliatory sensibility.
"That happened with every riot in Harlem. Politicians were always eager to make change seem less severe than it was," said Michael Henry Adams, the author of the 2001 book Harlem: Lost and Found.
"But, all it would take would be another Rodney King or Amadou Diallo incident to set off a riot in Harlem," added Adams.
"Blacks aren't as oppressed here as they are in other cities. New York was never as racist. That's why they didn't burn the city down in '68," said Tom, a 69-year-old tee-shirt and DVD vendor on 125th Street, who was living in Berlin in 1968.
"But, the mentality was, white people killed King, so you kill white folk. That's the way black people in America were thinking then," he added. Tom does not see Obama's election as a sign of change, due to the "unseen hands" that he said still control American politics. However, other merchants on 125th Street disagreed.
"Obama's election is a celebration of humanity, not just of black people. Humanity has stepped into line, not just Harlem," said Scarecrow Anonymous, 43, a Harlem-based artist.
"As a three-year-old in 1968, I saw my mother and grandmother crying and everybody holding each other. But I didn't understand at the time," he said.
Scarecrow attributes Harlem's appeasement at the time to Mayor Lindsay's ability to show the black community that segregation was changing. He also cites James Brown's legendary performance of "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" in Boston on the night of Apr. 4. The VH1 documentary "The Night James Brown Saved Boston" depicts how Boston's city government, with a political shrewdness not unlike New York's, enlisted Brown's help in pacifying the predominantly black Roxbury neighborhood.
Oddly enough, according to Amsterdam News columnist Les Matthews, King had faced a string of trouble in Harlem during the last decade of his life.
In 1958, he was stabbed in the chest with a Japanese penknife by mentally unstable African-American woman, Izola Ware Curry. The next morning, the New York Times reported that, if King had sneezed afterwards, he would have died from a punctured aorta. In 1965, he was egged at Salem Methodist Church by radical black nationalists. And just three weeks before his death, he was ridiculed as he preached at the New Canaan Baptist Church on 116th Street.
Regardless, the Civil Rights movement had invested in the future - until April 4, when King's assassination plunged the nation into an abyss of racial anguish.
Middle-class blacks began to flee from many inner-city neighborhoods, leaving mere shells of communities, with high concentrations of elderly, impoverished, and uneducated residents in many once-vibrant urban cores.
1968 unleashed a generation of economic decay and stagnation, whose scars are still vivid in vast swaths of inner-city America. In most cities, white flight accelerated, and decades-old businesses closed shop for good. The monumental year was a watershed one for America and for the rest of the world.
Radical social movements saw sexual liberation, feminist agitation, ecological activism, and drug experimentation offend the sensibilities of the old guard.
Just up the hill from Harlem in Morningside Heights, anti-war and anti-racism activists clashed with the establishment at Columbia University in the most violent encounters that the 200-year-old institution has experienced.
Anti-war protests rocked the nation at Harvard, Boston University, Orangeburg, and Catonsville, as the Tet Offensive sacrificed American lives.
In the same year, student uprisings also paralyzed Paris, Rome, Buenos Aires, and West Berlin. Elsewhere, the Prague Spring challenged the yoke of Soviet domination.
Generalized protests hit France, Spain, Poland, and Brazil. Religious conflict stewed in Northern Ireland and the Middle East.
Robert F. Kennedy's assassination on June 6 further shocked the nation.
In August, protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago provoked some of the worst political violence that Americans had ever witnessed.
Then in October, racial tensions stewed at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, where black American track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their Black Power fists.
And now, 40 years after a pivotal year at the abyss of racial strife, a pinnacle of reconciliation and rejuvenation has uplifted many Harlem residents.
Although some Harlemites fear that Obama could suffer the same fate as King, America's black mecca remains optimistic about the 44th president.