Memorializing Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, DC

My introduction to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in the home of my ...

This article was originally published by Black Perspectives, the blog of The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), and is reprinted here with permission.


My introduction to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in the home of my grandmother, Lillie Hale, in Washington, DC. She lived in the same apartment for more than 50 years. For as long as I can remember, she had only two framed photos on her living room wall: one of King and the other of Jesus. Her personal memorial to King left an impression on me.

In January 2018, I curated an online exhibit with archivist Derek Gray that traces King’s long history in DC and the multiple ways he has been embraced by Washingtonians. The exhibit begins with the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom on the National Mall in 1957—organized by the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—and ends with the naming of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the city’s main library branch, in 1972.

For the exhibit, I was particularly concerned with how to visually and textually frame April 4, 1968, the day King was assassinated. I knew that we were not going to include an overused and problematic image showing one of the 10,000-plus mostly white National Guardsmen armed with rifles, gas masks, and tear-gas canisters deployed in the city to contain and control residents after King’s assassination. At the same time, I felt that that no image would sufficiently represent him or that day. Instead, we decided to have a moment of reflection of our collective loss. We chose a slide frame with a black background and white letters that simply stated, “Martin Luther King, Jr. January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968.”

This intervention is particularly important in Washington, DC, because in the city’s collective memory, King’s death has been virtually erased, or is minimized and only alluded to as a preface to the uprising. On April 4, 1968, the locus and specter of violence was effectively displaced from white people—the individual who shot him and the federal government that voraciously surveilled him—onto Black people who expressed their sadness, fear, and anger over King’s assassination. This essay restores the importance of King to Washingtonians in 1968 and illumines the myriad ways in which residents, like my grandmother, individually and collectively memorialized him.

King’s first visit to DC in 1968 was on February 6th for the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam conference held at the historically white New York Avenue Presbyterian Church—located three blocks from the White House. On that day, King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and two thousand men and women marched silently in Arlington National Cemetery to protest the Vietnam War. They had intended to hold a prayer vigil in the cemetery but the police prevented them from doing so.

The next day, King delivered a speech titled “In Search of a Sense of Direction” at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church. Vernard R. Gray remembers attending the speech with his father, Vernard D. Gray: “We were members of Ward Memorial A. M. E. Church and heard Reverend King was to speak that evening and decided to go.” Before leaving for the speech, Gray grabbed his Nikon F camera and 135 mm lens. When they arrived at the church, it was almost filled to capacity. Gray took out his camera and began photographing King.

Martin Luther King Jr. at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church on February 7, 1968. Photograph by Vernard R. Gray

On Sunday, March 31st, King returned to DC to deliver a sermon at the National Cathedral. In “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” he explained why the SCLC was planning the Poor People’s Campaign to the two thousand individuals inside the sanctuary, and the thousand others who were part of the overflow crowd listening at a nearby parish and outside on the cathedral grounds. His sermon was also intended to galvanize support for the march and to encourage Washingtonians to provide logistical support to this massive campaign, which was originally conceived by Marian Wright Edelman.

Five days later, on Thursday, April 4th, Washingtonians read in the Evening Star, a white-owned newspaper, that King was scheduled to return to DC the following week to speak at the National Press Club, a private membership club for male journalists. He would be the inaugural speaker for their new town hall series on current issues. According to the article, “King is expected to use the forum to answer questions about the Poor People’s Campaign on Washington that begins April 22, and about his drive to end the seven-week-old sanitation workers strike [in Memphis].”1He was scheduled to speak on Tuesday, April 9th.

Hours later, unbeknownst to Washingtonians, King was shot at 6:01 p.m. while on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. At 7:05 p.m., he was pronounced dead. Most Washingtonians have vivid memories of where they were when they heard that King was dead. Melvin Mitchell was with his colleagues Bob Jayson, Casey Mann, and Harry Quintana—all trained at the Howard University School of Architecture—in their community design center, located ten blocks from the main campus. “We were sitting around the coffee table,” he explained, “and someone poked their head in the door and said King was shot. Someone around the table said, ‘They’re testing us. Time to pull out the guns.’ ‘Others said wait a minute.’”2 The exchange reflects the range of emotions and responses displayed after people learned that King had been assassinated.

Another response was to demand that businesses close immediately in order to appropriately honor Dr. King. Many businesses were reluctant to do so on the night of the 4th. However, after the uprising, almost all businesses closed on Tuesday, April 9th. It was the day of King’s funeral in Atlanta. A number of business owners placed large photographs of King in their windows. In addition, newspapers were filled with advertisements from businesses informing their customers that they would be closed on the 9th. This city-wide response was seen by many Washingtonians as an encouraging sign for a more permanent commemoration of King.

On April 4, 1968, the locus and specter of violence was effectively displaced onto Black people who expressed their sadness, fear, and anger over King’s assassination.

While Congressman John Conyers and Senator Edward Brooke pushed for a federal holiday, many Washingtonians, beginning in May 1968, demanded that the City Council declare April 4th a city holiday. Men and women engaged in sit-ins at the District Building, where the presidentially appointed mayor-commissioner and nine-member City Council had their offices. In response to this activism, the City Council held public hearings throughout 1968 and 1969 on whether there should be a city holiday to honor King.3

Although unresolved by the one-year anniversary of King’s death, there were numerous commemorations and living memorials to King throughout the city. The local holiday organizers printed signs and wore them on their bodies, carried them and plastered them on walls to encourage Washingtonians to stay home from work. Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington held a public event in front of the District Building. Public school students throughout the city remembered King through visual art, poetry, music, dance, and elocution. The City Council opened the Martin Luther King Memorial Center in a temporary space on the one-year anniversary of his death as a short-term solution while they continued to negotiate the local holiday.

The following year, the DC Public Library Board of Trustees solicited suggestions for the naming of the new main library branch, located twelve blocks from the White House, and scheduled to open in the summer of 1972. A vociferous letter-writing campaign ensued with King as the overwhelming choice. One of the hundreds of letters from individuals that the trustee board received was written by Regina, a 7-year-old, who wrote, “I think it is a shame that Dr. King cannot have anything dedicated to him. He has been away nearly two years now and you and your fellow bureaucrats still haven’t done anything in memory of our beloved friend.”4

In the end, the letter-writing campaign was a success. On August 21, 1972, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library opened and became the first public building in the US named in his honor. This public memorial was the culmination of more than four years of organizing by Washingtonians to officially memorialize King that began immediately after April 4th. Both the building itself and the activism that brought it to fruition are testaments to the long history of organizing and activism in DC.5 Even more, they underscore the importance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy to the residents of Washington, DC. icon

  1. “King Will Speak at Press Club,” Evening Star, April 4, 1968.
  2. Conversation with the author, January 25, 2018.
  3. Keith A. Mayes, Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition (Routledge, 2009).
  4. DC Community Archives, DC Public Library Archives, Collection #40.
  5. For more on Black activism in DC, see Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove, Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital (University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Anne M. Valk, Radical Sisters: Second-Wave Feminism and Black Liberation in Washington, DC (University of Illinois Press, 2008); Treva Lindsey, Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C. (University of Illinois Press, 2017).
Featured image: Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Photograph by Rowland Scherman, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons