At 21, Jack White was one of only a handful of African-American journalists working in the mainstream Washington media when the city erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Jack White was just 21 and reporting for the Washington Post when word came from Memphis that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. One of a handful of black newsmen working in the city’s media at the time, White dashed to 14th and U Streets—the commercial and cultural heart of black Washington—and into the offices of King’s Poor People’s Campaign, where he found Stokely Carmichael, former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), on the phone. White waited just paces away, and when Carmichael hung up, his words struck like a thunderbolt. “He’s dead,” White recalls him saying. “That’s it.”
Carmichael was soon out the door, and White followed in lockstep as the field-jacket-clad activist made a trek through nearby streets, urging shopkeepers to close their businesses out of respect for King. White frantically scribbled notes—as the owners locked their doors, as the stunned crowd swelled, as the first looters began smashing storefronts, and ultimately as parts of the city White grew up in and loved erupted in flames.
The events that night and in the days following triggered a personal crisis for the young reporter: In that troubled climate, where African-American cries for justice were more desperate than ever, was journalism the way he wanted to take a stand? CityLab talked to White, who went on to a 30-year career at Time magazine and is now retired, about the conundrum that came with being a “conscious” black man—and reporter—in 1968 America.
As news of King’s death spread, even Stokely Carmichael—the very embodiment of the black power movement—couldn’t sway the crowd that had followed him. What happened?
The whole thing started out calmly enough, but it went sideways real fast. At one point I looked around and Stokely had a big pistol, waving it in the air, shouting at the crowd, “Go home, go home!” I think he realized he was losing control and that he had to get the hell out of there. He got in a car and left, and that’s when the looting really started.
How were you reporting all this?
Back in those days, [when] you left the office you took two things—your notebook and a pocketful of dimes so you could call the desk from a pay phone. I was trying to [function] as close to a video machine as possible, recording everything so I could repeat it to the rewrite person in the newsroom, then get back to watching, because things were happening so fast. I was out until 2 or 3 in the morning, until the looting subsided. But by the time I was back out the next day, the city was already in flames.
What was racing through your head? Had you even absorbed the news of King’s murder?
I was in shock, just absolutely stunned. Numb. The magnitude of the event didn't really hit me until I was near the White House, where they’d set up machine gun nests. [President] Johnson had called in the army. And then I saw tanks rolling down the streets in my mother's neighborhood, where I had grown up.
Did you fear what this might portend?
Many of the soldiers were Vietnam veterans, and a lot of them were black, and some were from Washington. So, oddly enough, the first real emotional reaction I had was gratitude that these particular troops were the ones who were there, because they weren't likely to just pop off like the National Guard had done in Newark [in the 1967 riots] and just start shooting random people. They knew the difference between real gunshots and a car backfire.
What kind of pressure did you feel—a black reporter documenting violence in black neighborhoods by black folk themselves?
I wanted to be as transparent as possible and accurately describe what I was seeing and not exaggerate it in any way. You’ve got to remember that in all those previous riots [in other cities] before Dr. King’s death, there were reports of snipers and a lot of loose talk like that. Well, I did see people throwing rocks at police, but I never saw anybody take a pistol or a rifle and shoot at them. I wanted to make sure there wasn’t any exaggeration.
At the same time, I identified emotionally with the people who were rioting. To me their anger and frustration, if not their actions, were perfectly understandable. They were lashing out at what was closest to them. Dr. King, America’s greatest apostle of nonviolence, had been shot down like a dog. And if you were black and conscious in any way during the 1960s, you had already been exposed to so much. Segregation was alive and well. [Alabama Governor] George Wallace was standing in the schoolhouse door. There were the conditions that affected every urban area around the country—lack of jobs, substandard housing, rundown schools, inadequate public facilities.
And above all, police brutality. All the other riots that happened started because of some act of police misconduct. Black America was a powderkeg.
Did mainstream journalists have even a clue?
The Post at that time was keen to the possibility something would happen in Washington. They had actually created a little group of black reporters whose job was to go out every night in these news cars to areas where tense racial situations were going on. Even before the riots, they had the idea that it was just a matter of time before it happened in Washington.
Still, this was your personal stomping ground. What was that like to watch?
The best analogy I can give is like when you learn that someone close to you dies, and it might be days or weeks before it actually hits you. But when it does, it changes you forever.
It really started to get to me when I would go up those streets months after the rioting was over, when there was still all this rubble. They had put up fences around these buildings that were once businesses. It was like a war zone.
What did the people who lived there do?
I had written stories prior to the riot—stories like the impact of freeway construction in carving up the black community. There was a lot of concern that “urban renewal” would mean “Negro removal.” And so I was very attuned to that and could see in the aftermath of the riots another kind of removal—thousands of people having to move because neighborhoods had been obliterated. Lots of them moved to Anacostia, to towns in Prince George’s County, Maryland, along the southeastern border of the city. It changed the demography of the city. And there was no rebuilding. Not for decades.
That meant your own family was affected.
Well, this was my home. And many of the areas that were destroyed were places I had personal feelings about. When I was a kid my mother used to take us every weekend to do her shopping on 14th Street, and that was a big deal. There were all kinds of cool stores, but there was this one five and dime store. My mother used to give us a quarter, and we could go in and buy anything we wanted. My dad was a big consumer of newspapers, and every Saturday night he’d load us into his car to go to this newsstand at 14th and Park Road. There was the Wonder Bread factory down near the Howard campus—we’d go there when the bread was coming out of the oven, just for the aroma! All these places had memories attached to them of happy times. And they were gone.
Was there ever a point when you just broke down in despair?
I didn't break down, but I did quit the paper.
In the aftermath of Dr. King’s murder, the unresolved feelings I had about whether I should try to be an activist, as many of my friends and heroes were, or whether I should continue my life as a journalist really became much more pointed. By this time I was 22 and one of the two Prince George’s County reporters for the Post, which was a great beat.
But as the numbness I’d felt after Dr. King was killed wore off, I was arguing with myself about whether I should do like my older friends and become part of the black power movement. It was a very emotional time. I couldn’t figure it out and eventually just stopped going to work. And I lost my job. I mean, can you imagine being dumb enough to just walk away from being a staff reporter at a great newspaper like the Washington Post at age 22?
You weren’t sure you could be a dispassionate observer?
Well, exactly. I identified strongly not just with black people but specifically with the young militant activists who were speaking up against the system in a way I admired. It’s hard for people to remember that in 1968 the Civil Rights Act was only four years old. There were still institutions that didn’t want to let you come in the front door. The Voting Rights Act was only three years old, and there were places in the South where black people still couldn't vote.
Also, people were really paranoid. We knew that there was pressure on black reporters to become sources and informants for the police, which we resisted, so it was it was a crazy period. Crazy. And if you were as young and callow as I was at the time, a lot of this was confusing.
Sounds like you were having a real personal reckoning.
Up until Dr. King’s death I thought of the civil rights movement as being an inevitably successful thing—that there was no way it could lose, because the cause was so right. But when things started getting violent—and especially those events in my own hometown with troops in the street, everything burning, thousands of people being arrested, and then in the aftermath parts of the city left a smoldering ruin—it wasn‘t so much despair as bewilderment. What did we do? Where are we? What happens now?
But black reporters were needed in newsrooms. You didn’t feel that pull?
The Kerner Commission report had been issued just a few weeks before Dr. King was killed, and it complained—accurately—about how much of the frustration in the black community was because the news media was not telling their story. A lot of white reporters couldn’t get the story because black people wouldn’t talk to them—they didn’t trust them. So newspapers and television stations started hiring black journalists to get what was becoming the biggest story of them all.
How did you ultimately resolve this internal conflict?
In college I had participated in [civil rights] protests and had been arrested. I didn’t like being in jail and figured I was less likely to go to jail as a reporter than as an activist. So I ended up going to Nashville, Tennessee in 1969 to write for an organization called the Race Relations Information Center, which covered racial issues in the South. My ambition became to write about black people from a distinctly black point of view and have it respected. And that became the underlying mission of my life and my whole career.
Did your plan work?
I was lucky. I was a good writer, so I landed at Time, where I worked for 30 years, and I stayed focused on that goal. Of course, I had to cover stories that weren’t about race to get credibility as a newsman. But I never forgot my calling, and I eventually became a columnist who could write about racial issues the way I wanted to. Black readers—and importantly, other black journalists—were surprised that I could write so candidly in a big, mainstream, conservative magazine like Time. But I didn’t pull any punches. And it all goes back to those few days when Washington went up in flames. It changed my life.