Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 45 Years Later

Stacy M. Brown | 4/3/2013, 10:04 a.m.

Forty-five years ago, the most famous - or infamous - shots rang out in Memphis, Tenn., and reverberated around the world.

Civil Rights Champion Martin Luther King Jr., lie dead, struck by an assassin's bullet and no other place in the country proved to be more adversely affected by the devastation and despair caused by his death than Washington, D.C.

"I was 20 years old and a sophomore at Howard University when King was killed," said Wade Henderson, former president of the Washington Bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and current president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Northwest.

"It is hard to believe it's been 45 years. We were gathered inside Cramton Auditorium at Howard for the announcement that King had been shot and the grief was palpable," said Henderson, 64, a lifelong resident of the District.

Virginia Ali, who along with her husband, Ben, opened Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street in 1958, said the riots began just one block away from her restaurant. Ali said a brick was thrown through the window of the Peoples Drug at 14th and U Street in Northwest, but Ben's Chili Bowl remained open for business and unscathed.

"I remember the sadness more than anything else. The radio stations were playing hymns, and people were coming in crying," Ali, 79, told the Public Broadcasting Service earlier this month.

"People were out of control with anger and sadness and frustration. They broke into the liquor store across the street and were coming out with bottles of Courvoisier. They had no money, these youngsters. They were coming into the Chili Bowl saying, 'Could you just give us a chili dog or a chili half smoke? We'll give you this," she said.

Silver Spring resident George Pelecanos recalled returning to his Maryland home from the District after the riots erupted.

He said smoke could be seen as far away as Silver Spring.

"I've met National Guard guys who have told me how incredibly scared they were," said Pelecanos, 56, who was 11 when King was killed.

"They had chicken wire on the fire trucks because they were being pelted with bottles and rocks while trying to get to the fires," he said.

King's son, Martin Luther King III, said his father's death naturally devastated his family. "It'll be challenging going back to where it happened," said King, 55. "It's where my father lost his life, it was the most traumatic event in our lives."

That dark day in Memphis, Tenn., struck a nerve in African-American neighborhoods around the country.

Three days of rioting in the District, which began on April 4, would leave 13 people dead and thousands injured. More than 6,000 people were arrested and 2,100 stores and buildings burned.

"When I left school at Howard that day to go to the clothing store where I worked at 7th and Q Street in Northwest, someone threw a rock and broke a window and that's when I knew there was a big problem," Henderson said.