Joan Sacarob was 31 and at home in Northern Virginia watching television when she heard that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
“It was a bright spring day,” she said this week, which marks the 50th anniversary of his murder. “My housekeeper, who was African American, and I saw it on the TV and we just embraced and we sat on the floor and sobbed. And I sent her home early because I knew there would be riots. And she barely made it home.”
Sacarob describes that night as one of “terror, anger and hostility.” There was just so much anger at his death, she said.
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to support a strike of city workers. After his death, riots broke out across the country, including in Washington where a number of businesses — many Jewish-owned — were destroyed. Local Jews remember the dark day and its aftereffects.
Larry Rosen, 94, was one of those whose business was looted and burned. Rosen, who now lives in Rockville, owned Smith’s Pharmacy in Washington on 14th Street NW, several blocks north of U Street. “I worked a lot of hours, but I had taken the night off to take my two sons out to eat,” he said. “We stopped at a place and the guy said, ‘Did you hear? They killed Dr. King.’”
When he got home, Rosen saw the riots on television before receiving a call from an employee that his store was in the crossfire. Rosen called the police, but they couldn’t do anything. He was finally able to check on his store in the morning.
“I got there and it was all looted,” he said. “Everything smashed, just a mess. No one ever reopened on that block. That was it.”
Much of the April 11, 1968, issue of The Jewish Week (precursor to WJW) was dedicated to the aftermath of King’s assassination, with articles on Jewish groups providing aid after the riots, Jewish merchants affected, interfaith services in King’s memory and a front page editorial headlined “What can one do?” that offered steps “toward righting wrongs and improving the health of our society.”
But what Jews don’t remember, according to Stuart Eizenstat, former ambassador to the European Union and White House policy adviser, is how important King’s civil rights wins were for the Jewish community, especially in housing and business where Jews were regularly discriminated against.
Eizenstat, 75, was a young White House aide in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration the day King was killed. Everyone, he said, “was in a state of shock.”
“I remember as if it were yesterday, from the Old Executive balcony, going out and seeing the smoke burning from 14th Street after the assassination,” he said. “It’s an image I’ll never forget.”
At 17, Doug Sherman was “a kid” and while he knew King’s death was a sad event, he was seeing the event only through how it was affecting Washington at the moment. He heard the news in the locker room at karate class. He lived in the Maryland suburbs and the National Guard was not letting anyone into Washington who was not a resident. So, for fun, he and his friends drove their cars as close as they could to the National Guard, and then turned around.
His family had friends affected by the looting, he said. His dad helped a friend set up a convenience store in Bethesda after his grocery store in Washington was destroyed. And Sherman ended up working for a hardware store in Takoma Park that had moved there after the original store near 14th Street was burned in the riots.
Rose Krasnow, a former Rockville mayor, was a senior in high school in Memphis when King was shot and killed in her city. Memphis was still largely segregated and she was in the first cohort to be integrated in the public schools. Her uncle had set up the first interracial law firm in Tennessee and her father had worked to promote one of his janitors, an African American, to apprentice printer. But even in her very liberal father’s print shop, she said, there were two drinking fountains.
“It was such a sad day,” she said. “I do think it brought Memphis up short.”
Krasnow doesn’t remember exactly where she was when she found out about King’s death, but she does remember the aftermath. There was a large service in the city football stadium near her high school that she and her family attended. She also remembers the divisiveness — while many were mourning the death, others were saying King deserved his fate.
Five decades after King’s murder, Sacarob said, not much is different.
“I wish I could tell you things have changed since he died. I am horribly, horribly disappointed in the way America treats black people,” she said, pointing to the disproportionate rates of incarceration for black men accused of a crime and Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man holding a cell phone who was shot and killed by police in his grandmother’s back yard last month.
“I beg people, if you want to follow MLK’s legacy, then don’t just say it. Do it.”