Last month, the Wilmington News Journal published never before seen photographs of the 1968 riot and its aftermath in the paper. Along with the unchartered, and frankly, frightening times that seem to loom just at the end of this week, it felt like the right time to finally bring this story to the site.
Older locals might remember it well, but it’s important that we never forget the past. It is also a reminder in the face of the many protests we will see this week, what does and doesn’t work when you march for your rights.
On April the 4th, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by escaped prison convict James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee.
More than 120 U.S. cities experienced racial protests following his assassination in a week ultimately nicknamed the “Holy Week Uprising.” His death, amid his unwavering message of nonviolence, caused an explosion of pent up anger and frustration, particularly among youths. Maybe he’d been wrong. Maybe violent resistance was the only effective measure against racism.
The riot in Wilmington, Delaware was short compared to the rest. It lasted only two days, from April 9-10. There were no deaths and dozens of cities saw far worse violence. Yet, no other city saw its excessive aftermath: a 9 ½ month occupation by the National Guard. A virtual police state.
While older protesters dispersed peacefully, many teens could not hold their frustration back any longer. Looting, vandalism, firebombing and shooting temporarily ruled the city.
The city’s mayor requested a small force of 400-500 National Guardsmen to restore order, a measure taken by many other cities experiencing riots.
But to the mayor’s surprise, Governor Charles L. Terry, Jr. sent the entire state National Guard. And then, he refused to remove them even after the riot had ended. At its peak, around 3,800 military personnel patrolled the streets of the city. Many of the soldiers called in had no experience in urban policing and were nervous by the narrow streets crowded with rowhouses and resentful residents.
There was unrest amongst protestors too. The youths believed themselves freedom fighters, the guards represented their suppression by a white government and social order. Their peers who had dispersed peacefully and believed that their violence disrespected Rev. King were labelled “Uncle Toms.”
They didn’t want to hear that destroying property would solve nothing. With Rev. King’s death it felt as if hope had been killed, echoing a feeling from our latest presidential race and election (history always repeats itself).
The black pastors and leaders were right. Violence did not force reconciliation. Today, people still take to the streets, almost regularly, to protest police shootings, the presidential election and the deepening divide between the classes.
But back to 1968. Amidst Guardsmen firing shotguns into the air to disperse crowds, a group of black men called the “Goon Squad” attempted to restore order themselves. Against angry teenagers who felt they had little to lose, the Squad resorted to beating youths into submission. Businesses (black and white owned) which had closed upon the news of Rev. King’s death, returned to looted, burned and totally destroyed shops. Firefighters worked long hours into the night to put out fire after fire while dodging sniper fire.
A state of emergency installed safety measures such as checkpoints, curfews, and bans on open gasoline containers and alcohol sales, but that didn’t stop the violence. Bricks were hurled, motorists were pelted with stolen and broken milk bottles, and broken glass from Molotov cocktails littered the streets.
Gangs joined in the protests competing for who could cause the most destruction. While they did, members of the Blackie Blacks and Black Gestapo chanted “Get Whitey” and “Burn Baby Burn.” Twenty vacant buildings were burned to the ground, 400 were arrested, dozens were injured or left homeless.
The riots were quelled in a couple days by Guardsmen clutching their bayonetted rifles. The state of emergency officially ended on May 2. And yet, the governor ignored repeated pleas from the city’s mayor, politicians and the press to remove the troops. Once order had been restored, the city found itself living under a tense police state. Later that month, the Guard seized a sizable ammunition cache from the home of a black militant. Governor Terry used this to defend his actions to the press.
Now nicknamed “The Great Divider,” Governor Terry closed the Delaware State College for a month after they shouted him into silence at a speech and occupied the administration building.
The Guards presence solved nothing for the city. In fact, it only flared tensions when later that year a guardsman accidentally killed a youth during an attempted robbery.
Guardsmen were unsure of why they were still there. Many were as disgusted and frustrated as the residents of the city but that didn’t stop the stares filled with hatred directed at them during their continued presence.
Unpopular in Wilmington but not elsewhere in the more conservative state, Governor Terry led in the polls in October of 1968 even after suffering a heart attack. On his last day in office, after being only narrowly defeated, Terry refused one last time to remove the Guard.
At an unprecedented special midnight swearing-in, new governor Russell W. Peterson, immediately made his first act as governor: ending the National Guard’s occupation of Wilmington.
As time passes, and the National Guard has been called in to disperse riots in Baltimore and Missouri, etc., Wilmington still holds the dubious title: longest occupation of an American city by armed forces since the U.S. Civil War.
The riot left the city scarred. Fewer people came into town, businesses relocated, families left the city after beatings of white students became a problem when frustration with the situation was left unresolved and unchecked. Today, the city is still attempting to lure businesses and people back.