Hartford After Dr. King
Hartford residents reacted in various and sometimes violent ways to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who died 50 years ago in Memphis. By 10 p.m. on April 4, 1968, a few hours after his murder, a group of about 100 young African-Americans had gathered at the corner of Main and Pavilion streets in the city’s North End.
Hartford Police in full riot gear arrived within the hour and used teargas to break up the crowd, which had grown to 150 people, according to The Hartford Courant. The police, however, couldn’t prevent smaller groups of protesters, many of them teenagers, from rampaging around their neighborhood — firebombing buildings and cars, looting businesses, pulling fire alarms, and throwing stones and bottles at police and emergency personnel.
Denton L. Watson, then 32, was in the thick of it. In 1965 he had become The Courant’s first black reporter, and three years later he was still the paper’s only one. He had worked his way up from the composing room, where he also had been the inaugural black employee.
Watson wrote the lead story for the next day’s paper — although he didn’t get a byline. Sending a white reporter into the North End had not been an option.
Even Watson had a tense moment, which he later recounted in a column he wrote about covering the story.
Now a professor at SUNY at Old Westbury on Long Island, Watson recalled that night: “It was very, very violent. It started at dusk with the stoning of white commuters driving along Main Street. There was a Goodyear tire store on Albany Avenue and I watched them burn it down. Fires were all around after that.”
John Payne was a senior at Hartford High School, whose enrollment in 1968 was overwhelmingly white. He and fellow black students, including many from Weaver High School, reacted strongly but peacefully to Dr. King’s death. The day after the assassination, some 400 of them marched in protest.
“We went downtown to city hall and in front of the library on Main Street,” he said. “We marched down Albany Avenue. The police mostly stood and watched. We didn’t have any problems; there was no confrontation.”
The marchers met with Hartford Mayor Ann Uccello and aired their grievances about discrimination both at school and in employment opportunities. She promised to investigate their complaints.
That same day, as many as 500 Weaver students attended a memorial service for Dr. King at a local church, The Courant reported.
Though he wasn’t tossing bottles, John Payne shared the frustrations of his peers who were. Like many of them, his family had been part of the great migration of African-Americans, starting in the 1940s, from the Jim Crow South to northern destinations like Hartford. King himself had traveled from Georgia to Connecticut in 1944 and again in 1947. As a teenager, he worked during the summer in the tobacco fields and had been impressed by the racial tolerance he experienced.
Payne’s family had come north from Alabama to settle in Hartford for good, arriving with high hopes. The city’s black population more than doubled between 1950 and 1960, from about 12,000 to 25,000 residents.
What they found up north was racism of a different, subtler hue: There were no nightriders wearing white hoods, but housing was segregated and local employers, large and small, from insurance giants and restaurants to cab companies, didn’t hire blacks — or if they did, only in minuscule numbers or for the most menial jobs. They could be dishwashers, for example, but not waiters and waitresses, Payne said.
John’s brother, Les Payne, an author and award-winning journalist who died this past March 19, described it this way: “We came north looking for better job opportunities, escaping the racist apartheid system and the brutality in the South … We had rising expectations for places like Hartford and were, in fact, disappointed, if not outright thwarted in some cases, particularly by the criminal justice system. The police were kind of like an occupying army.”
Racism took many forms. When Les Payne entered Hartford High School in 1954, the school wanted to hold him back a year. His mother objected, however, and insisted that he be given a test. He passed and proceeded to earn straight As, he said. When he informed his curriculum counselor that he wanted to be an engineer, Payne said the advice he got startled him: He was told that as a black person he should concentrate on an area of study where he could get a job.
Lew Brown, a 1960 Hartford High graduate and a resident of the North End, reported on the disturbances for WKND, a local black radio station. Brown, who later had a long career as a reporter for WVIT Channel 30, recalled that the police established a cordon around his neighborhood to contain the protesters.
“The police literally said, or implied, that you can burn down what you want inside that perimeter, but you better not come past the line,” he said. “We were on a reservation and we didn’t even realize it; we could only go so far. I can walk any part of the North End today and see the vacant lots where buildings were burned down.”
Melvin Thomas was 27 and living on Waverly Street in the North End in 1968. “I remember there being anger that people were destroying their own neighborhood,” he said. “There was a drug store on Barber Street that got hit and this was the only one for miles. Now instead of walking a block or so, people had to practically go downtown to get their prescriptions filled.” He added that a nearby grocery store that was firebombed also never reopened.
A Courant story four months after the riots, headlined “North End Disorders Shove Area Deeper Into Blight,” recounted that surviving businesses were having difficulty getting insurance and had lost customers from other parts of the city who didn’t want to enter the North End. Many stores closed or moved elsewhere, creating both a shopping and food desert in the North End that continues to this day.
Remarkably, no one died that first April night or in the sporadic violence that continued for the next nine days in Hartford. Nationwide more than 45 deaths occurred in disturbances that rocked 110 American cities. The Courant reported that from April 4 to April 13, police made 46 arrests, 180 fire alarms were pulled, 122 store windows were broken, 25 cars were burned or damaged, 13 robberies were reported, and 27 police and firemen were injured. Property damaged was pegged at $595,000, the equivalent of $4.2 million today.
But arguably the biggest impact on Hartford from the unrest of 1968 — when combined with similar disturbances that took place in 1967 and 1969 — evolved over time. The riots served to accelerate white flight, of residents and business owners alike, from Hartford — and not simply from the North End. Urban renewal already was taking a toll on city neighborhoods, and the demographic shift to the suburbs was well underway.
The city’s population peaked in 1950, and despite the arrival of some 13,000 African-Americans in the decade that followed, Hartford overall would lose more than 15,000 residents by 1960. In the 1970s its population would drop by another 21,000.
The riots hastened such trends, according to Thirman Milner, who was Hartford’s first African- American mayor, serving from 1981 to 1987 (and the first popularly elected in New England). “The downtown area wasn’t affected by the riots, but after them the department stores started moving to the suburbs,” he said.
“Businesses in the Windsor and Main Street area, which was a marketplace for Hartford, all moved out. Constitution Plaza [built between 1962 and 1964] destroyed the whole downtown of the city as a marketplace. People from the South End and the North End used to come together there on Saturdays. The destruction of our downtown part of the city, that was worse than what happened during the riots.”
Milner and others also pointed to positive change that emerged from the disturbances of the 1960s, specifically in employment. Businesses, many for the first time, began actively seeking out and hiring black employees.
Les Payne said he considered himself a beneficiary of the riots, which he believes inspired affirmative action initiatives, both public and private, for African-Americans. Newsday on Long Island, one of the nation’s largest daily newspapers, had a single black reporter in 1968, but the following year it hired Payne, a Vietnam veteran and UConn grad, as well as five other black journalists. He pointed to the impact of the 1968 report by the Kerner Commission, which had placed the blame for urban unrest squarely on racism and pervasive discrimination against African-Americans in employment and housing.
King himself had characterized the cause of the civil disturbances of the 1960s most eloquently and concisely: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
“Tragic though they were, the disturbances inspired industry and businesses and newspapers to hire black people,” Payne said. In 1974, five years into his long and distinguished career at the newspaper as an investigative reporter, editor and syndicated columnist, Payne would be part of a Newsday team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
But the riots were, without question, tragic for the North End of Hartford. In April 2015, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development designated it as a “Promise Zone,” which confers priority consideration for future federal funding for community development projects.
A HUD handout announcing the designation, one of 20 nationwide, stated that the North Hartford Promise Zone “has alarmingly high rates of unemployment, violent crime, and food insecurity.” It went on to report that nearly half a century after the disturbances of 1968, the poverty rate there was nearly 50 percent and unemployment stood at 27 percent. Fewer than 2 in 5 residents were high school graduates.
Thirman Milner, who is 84, still lives in Hartford and has a great-grandson who will soon be a kindergartner in the city’s school system.
“I think the education system is key to the future of Hartford,” he said. “If you don’t stabilize education, what does the future of young people look like?”
There has been progress, of course. When Les Payne was growing up in Hartford in the 1950s, the notion that a black man or woman would become the city’s mayor was “unthinkable,” he said. But if the riots of the 1960s raised the consciousness of many Americans, black and white, of the urgent need for change, the resulting progress clearly has been uneven.
Denton L. Watson pondered the question of whether the riots woke America up to the struggles of the nation’s inner cities. He replied that they did. But he added, “For a while only, only for a while, because look at them now.”