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Dr. King Comes to Washington

Updated: Jan 11

There are three important birthdays that I celebrate in January – David Bowie’s (January 8th), my mother’s (January 20th) and of course the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15th), not in that order. While my mother's might be the most important of those three to me, Dr. King’s is by far the most important to countless people here in America, and all over the world. Dr. King spent quite a bit of time in Washington, DC during the height of his activism. He visited Washington on at least a dozen occasions, if not more. His most well known visit, and speech, was for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. However, in the course of his career as a minister and equal rights activist he visited DC churches and academic institutions, attended meetings for national civil rights organizations, and patronized DC hotels and businesses. In this post I'll be taking a closer look at some of Dr. King’s movements around town, and his inspiring messages during these visits. This list is not exhaustive, but I think it covers the highlights.

December 6th, 1956 – Dr. King gives his “Facing the Challenges of a New Age” speech at an NAACP gathering at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, 1630 Vermont Avenue NW.

The Vermont Street Baptist Church. Photo Credit: author

This was actually one of three speeches that King gave on December 6th, 1956, the first being at the Andrew Rankin Chapel at Howard University, and the second at the Student Christian Association Dinner. However, the only speech covered in the Evening Star (“Injustice is Target, Negro Leader Says,”Dec. 7th 1956, B-19), was the one he gave at the Vermont Street Baptist Church, citing that 3,000 people attended the meeting led by Howard President Dr. James Nabrit. The “Facing Challenges of a New Age” speech was one that he would also give in Alabama at the First Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change.

The Vermont Avenue Baptist Church is a historically black church that was founded in 1866 by seven formerly enslaved people. The original name was the 5th Baptist Church, and Reverend John Henry Brooks, a former Union Army wagon driver, was their first pastor. Various leaders of the church would establish a variety of benevolent associations throughout DC history, and expand the church to extend its reach to a wide community. The Church hosted the NAACP meeting at a time when the Montgomery bus boycotts had marked a triumph for the King-led Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). In his speech, Dr. King talks about the death of the old world and the emergence of a new one. He references several other parts of the globe experiencing unrest due to a growing resentment of colonial and imperial regimes, specifically in Asia and Africa. He also references legislation that was passed after the Civil War that reinstated racially motivated policies, including the “Plessy vs. Ferguson” decision that introduced “separate but equal” policies. These policies led to a mental paralysis in the black community, he said, in which they were induced to accept their “place” to maintain a sort of peace with their oppressors. That paralysis was challenged when black populations were forced to migrate for various reasons, leading them to see a bigger world with more possibilities. Hence the introduction of the “new Negro” (referencing Howard University philosophy professor Alain Locke).

He then speaks to the challenges that will face the black community in the new world, including the need “to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity,” “achieving excellency in our various fields of endeavor” and “entering the new age with understanding goodwill,” reaffirming his belief in fighting the good fight with non-violence. He ends his speech with the message that would be his drumbeat throughout his speaking career, which is the need to stand up against moral injustice wherever it rears its ugly head, understanding that it may mean sacrificing ones personal freedom.

April 5, 1957 – Prayer Pilgrimage planning meeting with Dr. King and A. Philip Randolph at the Metropolitan Baptist Church at 1225 R Street NW.

The Unity Church of Washington DC now occupies the former Metropolitan Church, which is currently located in Largo, MD. Photo credit: author

The Metropolitan Baptist Church is another historically black church, founded in 1864 by a small congregation of ten people led by Reverend Henry Bailey. Their first services were held inside abandoned Civil War barracks, across the street from Camp Barker. Camp Barker was later the Freedman’s Hospital, the predecessor to Howard University Hospital. Together the congregation was able to raise the funds to purchase a wooden frame house and convert it into the 4th Baptist Church of the District of Columbia. That section of town was known as “Hell’s Bottom” and so the congregation dubbed themselves “Heaven-bound in Hell’s Bottom.” They then purchased two lots on R and 12th Street NW and built their own building, renaming themselves the Metropolitan Baptist Church in 1888. The Congregation by then had grown to 1,500 people. The church’s leadership would go on to include professors at Howard University, founders of women’s steering committees, coordinate national Baptist Church conventions, and establishing the first Church-based Federal Credit Union.

On April 5th, Dr. King met with Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and representatives of 75 national organizations to plan the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. Mr. Wilkins was quoted in the Evening Star stating that the purpose of the Pilgrimage was to “demonstrate the unity of all Negro people behind the Civil Rights legislation.” The organizers had an official request to gather on the Lincoln Memorial on May 17th in with the Department of Interior at the time of the meetings. The request was eventually approved, and the march went forward.

May 17, 1957 - Dr. King returns to the DC to deliver his “Give Us the Ballot” speech at the Lincoln Memorial as part of the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom.

Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool. Photo credit: author.

Three years to the day prior to the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, the Supreme Court had settled the issue of Brown Vs. the Board of Education (1954), resulting in the desegregation of public schools. However, Civil Rights activists were still fighting for voting rights and organized the event to take place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The organizers were Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker and Stanley Levinson, with participating by A. Philip Randolph and Dr. King. The day featured performances by Mahalia Jackson and Henry Belafonte. Almost 25,000 people attended and listened to the rousing speeches, amazing performances, and testimonies, in an event that felt like a great outdoor revival. Randolph was one of the first to speak, followed by Howard University President Mordecai Johnson. King was the last speaker, and excoriated President Eisenhower and members of Congress to ensure greater equality in voting rights at a time when, he says, “all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.” He also addressed several groups of people besides federal government to lead in the fight for equality, including “white northern liberals” and “moderates of the white South." He specifically asked the latter to speak up at a time when moderates were afraid of reprisals from the "close-minded, reactionary, recalcitrant group" which "constitutes a numerical minority.” He also calls for continued action on behalf of the black community itself, for them to not lose hope in the face of “gigantic mountains of opposition.” One of the results of the march was the first Civil Rights Act passed by Congress in September that year, though it was not nearly as robust as civil rights leaders had hoped thanks to lack of cooperation from Southern Democrats.

November 9, 1957 – King delivers “A Look to the Future” speech at the National Council of Negro Women’s Mary McLeod Bethune Commemoration Week.

Willard Intercontinental Hotel. Photo credit: author.

Almost a year after the triumphant conclusion to the bus boycotts, Dr. King addressed the National Council of Negro Women at their national convention at the Willard Hotel.

King’s speech “A Look to the Future” cites three periods of race relations in America’s history, beginning with the period of slavery, from 1619 to 1863, followed by the period of “separate but equal” segregation, the end of which began with the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision to desegregate schools in 1954, and finally the “promised land” of integration. He also discusses forces that arose in reaction to the transition from the second to third period. This included the White Citizens Councils that he and the MIA themselves battled during the bus boycott, and the recently revived Ku Klux Klan. King turns then to allies of freedom, pointing in particular to the growing industrial sector in the South, and its reliance on laborers. In turn, he stresses the importance of labor unions and how disenfranchisement of black people goes hand in hand with the disenfranchisement of workers. He also describes the non-violent approach to resisting oppression:

“What if these acts of violence continue and increase as a result of the Negro following this method? What then can be his defense? His defense is to meet every act of violence toward an individual Negro with the fact that there are thousands of others who will present themselves in his place as potential victims…This dynamic unity, this amazing self-respect, this willingness to suffer and this refusal to hit back will soon cause the oppressor to become ashamed of his own methods.”

He ends with speaking to the concept of being “maladjusted” and how a negative description can be flipped to describe someone who does not “adjust” to a reality of mob rule and of segregation. In fact, he calls on people to BE maladjusted to “the tragic inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes” and “the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.” The theme of non-violence would persist throughout his activism.

May 11th 1959 – King is invited by Vice President Nixon to speak at the Religious Leaders Conference at the Sheraton Park Hotel (later the Wardman Park hotel in Woodley Park)

Wardman Park Hotel (now apartments). Photo credit: Wikipedia.

After multiple requests to President Eisenhower by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to address violence against the black community in the South and continued segregationist policies, the President passed the buck to a more sympathetic Vice President Richard Nixon. Nixon called together a conference of 500 religious leaders to discuss pushing through a stronger Civil Rights Bill than the watered down version that made it through in 1957. The desegregation legislation that the Supreme Court passed was not being honored, so clearly appealing to law was insufficient. Instead, he stated that “there is a vital need for recognizing that ending discrimination is a moral as much as a legal problem.” It was the first time the Federal Government had convened a group of religious leaders to discuss an issue of national social policy. John Kennedy, one of Eisenhower’s cabinet members, stated “discrimination in employment opportunities is causing us to waste most of the potential of what amounts to 10 percent of our total labor resources.” Dr. King was quoted in the Evening Star as stating the “millions of whites want to end the dying order of discrimination.”

August 28th 1963 – March for Jobs and Freedom – Martin Luther King visits Ben’s Chili Bowl and Florida Avenue Grill

I can't NOT mention the march that would define King's Civil Rights career. The March for Jobs and Freedom would be the culminating event that memorialized Dr. King's role in the Civil Rights movement and his place in American history. The March was organized by several civil rights leaders including Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, head of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Community (SNCC), and Dr. King himself. The purpose of the march was to bring more attention to the strengthened Civil Right Act that the Kennedy administration was attempting to pass, but was being blocked (again) by Southern Democrats. The bill would obtain greater rights for African Americans in all spheres of American life. The March began at the White House ellipse and made its way to the Lincoln Memorial. Originally, the march was supposed to end at the Capitol building, but the leaders decided that it would seem to aggressive to gather there. The March drew around 250,000 people and was marked by several speeches, the most memorable of which was the “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. King. The speech began with an excerpt from the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, published 100 years prior, which spoke of Inalienable rights of all men. The Emancipation Proclamation had actually taken that quote from the Declaration of Independence. He called the founding document the country’s “Promissory Note” on which it continued to default.

While preparing for the March, Dr. King came to Washington on multiple occasions during which he stayed at various hotels, but he spent time in the Shaw neighborhood as well. Two of the eateries that he frequented were Ben’s Chili Bowl and Florida Avenue Grill. Both eateries are longstanding black-owned businesses that witnessed the unfolding of the Civil Rights movement. Virginia Ali, one of the founders of Ben's Chili Bowl, has recounted in several interviews her interactions with Dr. King during his visits. In articles by WTOP and Thrillist she recounts that while he was in his office at 14th and U Street he would stop in to Ben’s during breaks, and they would discuss his dreams. Virginia and her husband, the late Ben Ali, served folks in town for the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, then closed briefly to attend the March themselves. Before it was done they raced back to the restaurant to open it up again for people looking to eat after the event was over. She emphasized in the interviews how peaceful the demonstrations were, and how that contributed to the passing of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act the next year by the Johnson administration (following Kennedy's assassination).

Florida Avenue Grill has a booth dedicated to Dr. King. The Grill has the distinction of being one of the oldest soul food restaurants in the city, founded in 1944 by Lacey and Bertha Wilson. For decades it has hosted Howard students, locals, and occasionally Dr. King. Though I haven't found many details about King's visits, Florida Avenue Grill's legacy as a local eatery that witnessed the impact of the fight for civil rights, including the riots that broke out after Dr. King's assassination, is undoubtable.

August 5th, 1965 – MLK participates in the Home Rule March at Lafayette Square

Lafayette Square, photo credit: author.

The concept of Home Rule was one that King knew was important to the black citizens of the DC. They lacked the representation they needed to have more influence over city projects that would directly impact their lives. King worked with Reverend Paul Moore, Ralph Abernathy, Reverend Andrew Young, and local Shaw resident Walter Fauntroy, to organize march and vigil that would be held at Lafayette Square. President Lyndon B. Johnson supported the bill to establish the seats, but it didn't pass Congress. The protest was also timed to coincide with the Voting Rights Act being sent to Congress for approval, which would protect voting rights across the country, and Fauntroy witnessed Johnson sign it. However, a bill that specifically provided for local elected DC government it wouldn't be passed until 1973, under Nixon. The bill established nine city council seats that represented city wards, instead of the three that existed at that time.

March 12th,1967 – MLK rides in a parade for Shaw Renewal and gives a speech at Cardozo High School.

Cardozo High School, Photo credit: Wikipedia

In 1967, King joined up with Walter Fauntroy again on the Shaw Community Parade. Fauntroy was heading a neighborhood revitalization project, the Model Inner City Community Organization (MICCO), the mission of which was to democratize urban renewal projects to avoid displacement for DC residents, requiring community and small business input into development proposals. King was familiar with the Shaw neighborhood from when he was in town planning the 1963 March, amongst other visits. He and Fauntroy organized a 10 block parade from Dunbar High School to Cordozo High School, where he gave a speech about his continued dream of racial equality. He referred to Shaw as a symbol of urban neighborhoods that can provide hope for the future: “I believe that you on these 675 acres of Shaw area can point the way for the nation out of her most serious domestic dilemma – the decay of the city…the Shaw neighborhood can be renewed with the people, for the people, by the people.” The MICCO had recently received a grant for $151,000 by the Redevelopment Land Agency. Those funds were used to organize the citizens of Shaw through a series of meetings and rallies with the community to get their input. King called on government experts in the Johnson administration to lend their expertise. The result were affordable housing projects, a few of which still stand today. Gentrification and the lack of affordable housing in the city overall continues to be a point of discussion amongst DC residents and local government leaders.

February 6th 1968 – MLK Attended the Clergy and Layman Concerned about Vietnam meeting at the New York Presbyterian Church on New York and 12th and led march to Arlington Cemetery.

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Photo credit: author.

The Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV) was created in 1965 after 100 religious leaders met in New York to discuss how to protest the Vietnam War. Dr. King was one of the few black, and fewer southern, religious leaders who were a part of the organization. He gave two speeches at their request. The first was his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4th 1967, in which he deplores the money being spent on a hopeless war at the cost of the lives of both poor Americans and Vietnamese. Afterward, the CALCAV made King their co-chair. They dubbed the summer of 1967 “Vietnam Summer,” as a rallying moment to gather support for the anti-war effort before the 1968 elections and teach local chapters about peaceful civil disobedience methods. Then in February 1968, to coincide with the release of the CALCAV report documenting American war crimes, King attended a meeting of the CALCAV the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. There they planned their next national event, a march and vigil at the Arlington Cemetery at which King gave further remarks.

March 1968 - Pitts Motor Hotel at 1451 Belmont Avenue NW– Where Dr. King sometimes stayed and reserved 30 rooms for attendees of the Poor People’s Campaign.

Former Pitts Motor Hotel, now The Fedora apartment building. Photo credit: author.

Cornelius Pitts, a local African American businessman and entrepreneur owned the Pitts Motor Hotel. Throughout the late 1960s Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, Coretta Scott King, and others who were integral to planning the Poor People’s Campaign stayed there on several occasions. King himself stayed in the “Bridal Suite.” Pitts also rented out rooms to them to use as office space. In the basement, Pitts opened the Red Carpet bar, a high class performance space used by Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin, and Bill Cosby.

In March of 1968, a month before his assassination, Dr. King rented 30 rooms out in anticipation of the crowds who would flood into the city for the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, set to happen that May. Despite the widespread grief shared by his cohorts and supporters following his untimely death, the demonstration went forward with activists setting up “Resurrection City “ around the reflecting pool. Due to rain, the tent city soon turned into a muddy mess, and activists marched to the Pitts Motor Hotel demanding that Civil Rights leaders come down to the Mall to spend time in the mud.

April 4th 1968 – Assassination of Dr. King – Riots of 1968 – Ben’s Chili Bowl

After assassins shot Dr. King in Memphis on April 4th 1968, shock and grief quickly spread. Someone ran into Ben’s Chili Bowl, where Dr. King spent several meals interacting with the public and talking to the Alis, reporting his death. Soon grief turned to anger. That anger resulted in widespread destruction in various neighborhoods of the city, including the U Street Corridor. Black business owners, including the Alis, wrote “Soul Brother” and “Soul Sister” on their windows in soap to demonstrate their support and identify themselves as black-owned businesses. Ben’s Chili Bowl remained open and serving food to the community throughout the following days, trying to provide comfort and share in their grief. For almost four nights the city was under a curfew. Ben’s Chili Bowl was one of the few businesses allowed to remain open late, according to Virginia Ali, because they provided a haven for first responders, activists, and city officials. Throughout the chaos, Ben’s remained untouched.

As we reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, let us remember how he personally touched the communities with which he worked. DC has always considered Dr. King one of their own, as a fighter for not only civil rights but for those who live in the capital. His name and image are found on DC libraries, streets, alleyways, and beyond. He fought tirelessly for those who deserved the same opportunities to have a say in the shaping of their communities as any other. Thank you, Dr. King.

The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial at the Tidal Basin. Photo credit: author.

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