Washington in the '60s

Creating a National Culture Center

AR7606-H. President John F. Kennedy Speaks at Fundraising Event for the National Cultural Center, November 29, 1962 (Photo Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum) AR7606-H, Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

At 7 p.m. on November 29th , 1962, 5,000 Washingtonians dressed in black ties and furs arrived at the D.C. National Guard Armory for a $100-a-plate dinner, and fundraising show titled An American Pageant of the Arts. President and Mrs. Kennedy started the event by addressing the crowd about the importance of the arts in fostering American culture and a healthy democracy. Afterwards, the master of ceremonies, Leonard Bernstein, took over and the 2 hour and 43 minute show, featuring some of the greatest performers in music, literature, and comedy, began. The variety show kicked off a $30 million fundraising initiative to raise money for the construction of a National Cultural Center on the bank of the Potomac.

Whatever Happened to the Flower Girl?

Jan Rose Kasmire, confronts National Guard troops during Vietnam War protest outside Pentagon on October 21, 1967 (Photo by Marc Riboud, licensed from Magnum Photos)

The Vietnam War left a number of indelible images burned in our collective psyche, but few encapsulated the anti-war movement here at home more than Marc Riboud's 1967 photograph of a flower girl standing before a row of bayonet-wielding soldiers in front of the Pentagon. Amazingly, despite the attention the photo garnered, the young woman, Jan Rose Kasmir, didn't know it existed for almost 20 years.

The Great White Hope at 50: Making All D.C. a Stage

The cast of The Great White Hope at Arena, 1967 (Credit: Arena Stage Records, C0017, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.)

It’s Washington in 1967, and the District’s old reputation as a sleepy, southern city is being squashed by the feet of Vietnam War protesters and the voices of Washingtonians calling for racial equality. That same year, local theatre Arena Stage announced that, on December 12th, it would be putting on the world premiere of Howard Sackler’s play, The Great White Hope. At the time of its production, the play was completely unknown. No one would have imagined that 50 years later, the production of the now-Tony-winning show would go down in history as one of the most influential moments in shaping the political and cultural landscape of Washington in the 1960s. 
 

National Guard patrols Washington, D.C. in the aftermath of the 1968 riots. (Source: Library of Congress)

John Layton, the M.P.D., and the 1968 Washington Riots

By the time John Layton was named Metropolitan Police Chief in 1964, there was a well-established undercurrent of hostility between the Police Department and Washington's inner city African American community. Layton added resources to the Community Relations Unit and promoted the first African American to the rank of Captain. He created a Public Information Division to better coordinate communications with the public and the media. And, in an effort to recognize the African American community’s complaints about police brutality and harassment, the chief went on record that the Metropolitan police department would not rely on lethal force should they need to put down a riot.

Layton’s actions were put to the test on April 4, 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN that day, and when word reached Washington, D.C., angry crowds began gathering in the streets.

Julius Hobson's Unlikely Relationship with the F.B.I.

Julius Hobson was as active an activist as you could imagine, but he also collaborated with law enforcement for several years. (Image source: DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division, Collection 1, Julius Hobson Papers.)

We’ve written before on this blog about the exploits of Julius Hobson. A D.C. civil rights activist in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, his campaigns against segregation and injustice were based on equal parts audacity and bluff, ranging from staging a “lie-in” at a D.C. hospital, to encouraging people to paste pro-integration stickers over the punchcards on their power bills,  to threatening massive protests and boycotts that had no chance of materializing. He combated police brutality by following policemen around with a long-range microphone, and, most famously, promised to release cages full of rats on Georgetown if the city didn’t deal with the rat problem elsewhere. His antics effected genuine social change, in large part because everyone was too nervous to call him on his bluffs, for fear that he might be able to back them up. His acts were already so outlandish, anything seemed plausible, except for one rumor that seemed to be too uncharacteristic to be true. Yet, it was the truth: for years, Julius Hobson passed information to the FBI.

Marion Barry Leads Bus Boycott

Boycotters board a “freedom bus,” one of the provided forms of transportation. (Source: Jet Magazine, Feb 10, 1966, accessible via GoogleBooks)

The price of public transportation in D.C. is rising and people are angry. Although this statement could accurately describe the present time, let’s turn back the clock to 1965.

D.C. Transit had just announced plans to raise bus fares and one man wasn’t having it. This man was Marion Barry, who would go on to become mayor of D.C., serving four terms. But Barry wasn’t mayor yet. He was a relatively new resident in D.C., having moved here to open up a local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Barry saw the bus company’s raised rates as a direct hit to low income people in the District, who were mostly African American.

"The Whitest Huddle of Any Team in the League"

The Washington football team in 1961. (Image source: RedskinsCardMuseum.com)

The Washington Redskins are being accused of insensitivity and intolerance. The government is taking steps to intervene if the team doesn’t change its ways. Sound familiar? That’s because today’s name-change controversy echoes the situation over fifty years ago, when the Redskins were the last all-white team in the NFL. By 1952, every other team in the league had African-American players, but Washington team founder and owner George Preston Marshall refused to integrate, and dragged his feet for ten more years until his hand was forced.

Hobson with his station wagon and trademark pipe and fedora, ready to harangue the multitudes. (Source: Evening Star)

Julius Hobson Gets Out of the Rat Race

If you lived in DC in August of 1964, you might have seen Julius Hobson driving through downtown with a cage full of enormous rats strapped to the roof of his station wagon. Frustrated by the city government’s refusal to do anything about the rat problem in Northeast and Southeast DC, and about the District’s more affluent citizens’ apathy about the issue, he said that if Southeast was having this problem, then Georgetown should share it too. Hobson caught “possum-sized rats” in Shaw and Northeast, and transported them up to Georgetown, promising to release the cage full of rats in the middle of the wealthy district unless the city government acted to curb the epidemic. Since he was, as a piece in The Washingtonian put it, “[a]ware that a DC problem usually is not a problem until it is a white problem,” he decided to go ahead and make it a white problem.

A Place for the Poor: Resurrection City

Resurrection City spent six muddy weeks on the National Mall, within view of landmarks such as the Capitol. (Photo source: Wikipedia Commons)

In the early morning hours of June 23, 1968, thick clouds of tear gas rolled through a multitude of shacks on the National Mall.  This shantytown was Resurrection City, and its residents were the nation’s poor. As many ran from their shelters, they saw Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final dream of economic equality withering in the gas. They had been citizens of the city for six weeks, all the while campaigning for rights for the poor around D.C. Now their work seemed all for naught. After an increase in violence and with an expiring living permit, the police had come to chase them out. Children were crying, adults screaming, and some were even vomiting. But amid the chaos, a song rang out: “we shall overcome.”

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