The front page of the April 11, 1968 Catholic Standard focused on Catholic relief efforts in response to the destructive riots in Washington following the murder of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The front page of the April 11, 1968 Catholic Standard focused on Catholic relief efforts in response to the destructive riots in Washington following the murder of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the frightening hours and days after the April 4, 1968 assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an estimated 1,000 fires burned along the streets of Washington, D.C., engulfing businesses, homes and neighborhoods, ignited after Dr. King was killed by the racism that he had given his life to oppose. His voice for peace and nonviolence had been silenced, and the resulting sorrow and rage helped spark a frenzy of three days of rioting, looting and lawlessness in the nation’s capital.

Smoke smoldering over the city of Washington could be seen for miles, rising near its familiar landmarks. But something else arose in those harrowing days: demonstrations of the faith, sacrifice and selflessness and the recognition of people’s shared human dignity which marked the life and legacy of the slain civil rights leader, whose voice ultimately could never quieted.

Fifty years after Dr. King’s death, the numbers related to those riots are still nightmarish: 13 people killed and more than 1,000 injured; millions in dollars of damage to about 900 businesses and 700 units of housing, primarily along Seventh and 14 streets, N.W., and H Street, N.E.; and about 13,000 members of the National Guard, Army and Marines patrolling streets to quell the violence and destruction.

But the archives of the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington tell another story. They reveal how the aftermath of Dr. King’s death – which came three days before Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week – became a time for the area’s Catholics to shine the light of Christ’s love and redemption on a city as several of its neighborhoods smoldered in charred ruins. For them, like their fellow Americans and residents of the Washington area of different races and backgrounds, Dr. King’s passing was a death in the family, and a time for family members to comfort the mourning and find hope in the God whom that Baptist minister preached and for whom he lived and died.

Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle, then the archbishop of Washington, had stood beside Dr. King and other civil rights leaders almost five years earlier at the Lincoln Memorial, delivering the invocation before the March on Washington, where the civil rights leader gave his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. After being installed as the first resident Catholic archbishop of Washington in 1948, then-Archbishop O’Boyle began his pioneering work of integrating local Catholic schools and parishes.

Upon hearing of Dr. King’s death, Cardinal O’Boyle expressed his shock and sorrow at the news. In a statement on the front page of the Catholic Standard, Washington’s archbishop praised him as “the outstanding civil rights leader in our country who as an apostle of nonviolence advanced the cause of justice for all Americans. We must never lose sight of the goals he sought to achieve. We shall honor his memory by striving constantly to achieve the goals for which he gave his life.”

Boarding a flight to Atlanta with Vice President Hubert Humphrey and D.C. Mayor Walter Washington, Cardinal O’Boyle attended the funeral services for Dr. King that were held five days after the death of the civil rights leader.

One day earlier, the cardinal had visited several centers at D.C. parishes where victims of the rioting had come to find food, clothing and shelter.

The front page of the April 11, 1968 Catholic Standard included a photo showing Cardinal O’Boyle at one of the relief centers at Sacred Heart Parish in Washington, where he spoke with volunteers and with the victims they were helping.

That same front page included a Holy Week themed pastoral letter by the cardinal titled, “Beyond the Resurrection,” where he spoke out against racism and the violence that it had spawned. “As citizens, and as Catholics pledged to love of neighbor, our duty is clear,” Washington’s archbishop wrote. “We must help to build on the smoking foundations of suspicion and hate a new community where all citizens, both black and white, can live together in justice and in love.”

The beginning of that work was highlighted in the lead story on that same edition of the Catholic Standard. Under a banner headline reading “Help Comes Fast in Wake of Violence,” was the subhead, “Parishes Rush Food, Clothing.”

The Catholic Standard’s reporter, Valerie MacNees, who five years earlier had written simply and poignantly about the Funeral Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral for the slain President John F. Kennedy, wrote this about that decade’s latest tragedy:

“In contrast to the violence that scarred the city last weekend, acts of brotherly  love and deep concern were seen throughout the Washington area.

“So immediate, widespread and spontaneous was the outpouring of generosity that no exact count could be made of the number of people helped, the number of volunteers or the amount of relief supplies donated.

“As one observer mentioned, ‘Everybody is helping.’ It was obvious help came from every part of the Archdiocese, and the response was immediate.

“Even before the violence calmed, churches outside the stricken areas had set up food collection depots, and churches in the inner-city were busy distributing food to the poor…”

That edition of the Catholic Standard recounted how parishioners from nearby suburbs brought supplies to about a dozen parish outreach centers in the city, which were staffed by priests, women religious, seminarians and lay volunteers. Many worked around the clock. Several local convents opened their doors to people left homeless by the strife. One local pastor praised the outreach effort as “gallant.”

The food distribution center at St. Joseph’s Parish on Capitol Hill was kept open throughout the weekend, and Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish also distributed food to victims of the rioting. Sacred Heart Parish provided food to 300 families that Saturday and more were helped there on Palm Sunday. The St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Peter’s Parish on Capitol Hill fed 500 families that weekend.

In Northeast Washington, St. Anthony’s and St. Francis de Sales Parish collected six station wagons of food and a busload of clothing in one day, and supported the relief efforts at Sacred Heart and Holy Name parishes that were closer to the epicenter of the strife. St. Martin’s Parish on North Capitol Street supplied 1,800 persons with food that weekend, and Holy Name Parish fed 1,200 people on Palm Sunday.

At St. Benedict the Moor Parish, N.E., volunteers distributing food included an “assembly line system” to help hungry families, staffed by St. Vincent de Paul Society men, Ladies of Charity, parish religious education teachers, and young women home from college on their spring break.

One week later, Cardinal O’Boyle on the front page of the Catholic Standard issued an appeal for renewal. He noted that the Archdiocese of Washington would donate $10,000 to an emergency fund to help meet the immediate needs of riot victims and would be working with other community groups to rehabilitate 322 living units for home ownership for poor families under federally assisted programs. He also announced that the archdiocese would establish three day care centers for the children of working mothers in the city and that its Catholic Charities would expand its family services by establishing regional centers in various neighborhoods throughout the city.

Fifty years after Dr. King’s death – as upscale businesses and homes have arisen in neighborhoods devastated by the riots, but as a lack of educational, housing and job opportunities have persisted for the city’s poor – the words of Cardinal O’Boyle’s plea for renewal ring true in 2018, as they did in 1968:

“Now the work of reconstruction must begin. By reconstruction I mean not only the erection of new buildings and businesses of the city, I mean also the reconstruction of society, so that, as much as is humanly possible, we shall witness the disappearance of ghettos and the appearance of equal opportunity of employment that assures every man a living wage, a type of education in which every child can develop to his full potential, and the universally recognized freedom for all American citizens to live and move and exercise their human rights with dignity, decency and true brotherhood. This ideal must be achieved locally and nationally if our American nation is to survive.”