Today's protests remind some Pittsburghers of the riots after MLK's 1968 assassination
Lenore Williams was living in Homewood when civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
She learned about King’s death when she returned home from Belmar Elementary School to eat lunch that Thursday.
“It was scary,” Williams said. “It was very emotional, even for me at 11, to go through it. You keep seeing pictures of him, keep hearing speeches.”
The daughter of an educator and homemaker, Williams said King’s message of nonviolence and civil activism was a topic of discussion in her family.
“We did talk about some of the things that were a part of the dream,” Williams said. “My dad would go out to be part of some of the marches that took place.”
The next day and throughout the weekend, planned peaceful demonstrations turned violent. In the city’s predominately black neighborhoods of Manchester, the Hill District and Homewood, businesses were fire-bombed and windows were smashed by protesters.
A 1968 Pittsburgh Press account of the events wrote that the Hill District was “riot-torn.”
“Damage from looting and fires — 189 fires were reported since 1 p.m. Saturday, 50 of them serious — has not been totaled but is certain to run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Heinz History Center Director of African American Programs Samuel Black said at first, protesters targeted businesses with reputations for mistreating black and brown people. He cited one butcher shop that was reportedly well-known for serving bad meat to black customers.
“It wasn’t indiscriminate, violent and looting and destruction of property,” Black said. “They went after places that they felt had been a nuisance or a bad example by treating black people in a terrible way.”
The Saturday Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s story about the violence said a Castle Shannon man had been shot and police cars had been stoned.
“Roving gangs of young Negroes in racial unrest wreaked destruction through the Hill District and other city sections last night with one motorist shot and widespread damage to stores.”
Meanwhile in Homewood, Edward Sneed, 67, was a junior at Westinghouse High School. He remembers learning about King’s death on his “old black and white TV” with an “aluminum foil antenna.” Not far from his home, a grocery store had been fire-bombed.
“And they set it on fire, broke the windows, busted,” Sneed said. “I could see the smoke from where we lived, ‘cause it lasted for weeks.”
On Sunday, April 7, Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond P. Shafer mobilized thousands of National Guard troops to Pittsburgh. Mayor Joseph Barr announced a daily curfew for five days, from 7 p.m. - 5 a.m.
“One thing that I will always remember is in the middle of the night, the helicopters overhead and sometimes the searchlights were out,” Lenore Williams said. Her father, who would later go on to be one of Westinghouse High School’s first black principals, loaded the family in their car to check on an aunt in the Hill District.
“And we saw the National Guard and the trucks and, you know, people with guns and wearing fatigues,” Williams said.
Most of the troops were stationed in the Hill District, but about 250 were sent to Manchester and 400 into Homewood.
Pittsburgh’s black communities, particularly in the Hill District, were already grappling with inequities. Just a few years prior, city officials demolished thousands of homes to make way for the Civic Arena. The predominantly black residents had been promised re-housing assistance and economic aid — none of which came to fruition.
The displacement led to families having to crowd into smaller homes and apartments, and led to a loss of community: The lower Hill, which had largely been demolished, was part of a neighborhood once known for its thriving black cultural scene. Famous jazz artists from around the country would perform and the community’s clubs and theaters, and the business district there included many shops owned by black proprietors.
“Urban renewalwas going to destroy what was seen as a blight in the city and replace it with something that was new and looking toward a future and a brighter day and all that,” Black said. “What it turned out to be was they just removed the African Americans.”
The looters represented a small percentage of these black communities, but were angered by the injustice they felt at the hands of white lawmakers and law enforcement. The History Center’s Samuel Black said 1968 was a tough year for America as a whole.
“His assassination really was - it was an attack on the civil rights movement, no doubt,” Black said. “But it was also one that people felt that someone who had committed themselves to nonviolence and was willing to help solve America's problems in a nonviolent way could be eliminated in such a violent way.”
In 1968, the U.S. was in the midst of the Vietnam War and many Americans were beginning to protest the country’s presence there; King’s assassination rocked the country,and later, Robert Kennedy would also be assassinated.
After about a week, the city grew quieter and the troops eventually left, but the upheaval had changed those neighborhoods.
The riots scared white business owners. The April 13, 1968 edition of the Pittsburgh Press ran an article about shop owners already planning to leave.
“Sam Podolsky, an angry white man who had run a grocery at 1712 Center Ave., the last seven years, said he won’t return to the Hill. ‘You have to be crazy to work all your life and lose it to hoodlums,’ he expressed his rage. Other white merchants said they, too, would not re-open in the Hill.”
Lenore Williams remembers Homewood as being a diverse community. She frequently visited the German and Italian-owned corner stores to buy candy.
“It was great because at that point [the neighborhood] was a combination of people,” Williams said. “It's something that was sorely missed. After [the demonstrations] we didn't realize some of the things we had going on in the community until people became afraid and stopped coming.”
In 30 years, Homewood’s population dropped by more than half to 9,000 by the year 2000. The neighborhood now has a nearly 60 percent residential vacancy rate. Those shiftsare reflected in a 1937 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation map that ranked Pittsburgh neighborhoods by their desirability.
Many of the white business owners fled to the nearby suburbs, places like Monroeville or Plum borough, while others relocated to different city neighborhoods.
Following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police officer on Memorial Day protests have been held around the country and here in Pittsburgh. The demonstrations remind Williams of 1968.
“The fact that people realize that this affects me no matter what the color of my skin and suddenly realize it to such a level that they actually are coming out and demonstrating. It is wonderful to see white women having a sign saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Williams said. “There was a time when you would never see that.”
She said the diversity of the crowds at the demonstration illustrate, in her assessment, that white people are realizing their privilege and working to understand how it’s affected black communities for generations.
“It just gives me hope. It gives me a sense of a promise,” Williams said.
Edward Sneed said when he was growing up, there were few discussions about racial inequity, and he’s heartened to see young people talking about them now
“Everybody's more open about things. Everybody's more inquisitive about things.”