On March 14, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking at Grosse Point High School in suburban Detroit, described “two Americas.” The citizens of the beautiful version of America “have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them.” They have “food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits.” But, King warned, there was another America, one in which segregation and discrimination compelled African Americans to “walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist” and “live in vermin-filled, distressing housing conditions.” In this other America, black children were relegated to overcrowded, underfunded schools that remained segregated despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education fourteen years earlier. King reiterated his commitment to non-violence, but refused to condemn the riots that had shaken American cities each summer since 1964. King told his audience that “a riot is the language of the unheard” spoken by those left “with no other alternative” but “violent rebellions” to draw attention to injustice and inhumanity. It would be “morally irresponsible” to refuse to listen.
Three weeks later, on April 4, 1968, while King was in Memphis to support the city’s striking sanitation workers, King fell to an assassin’s bullet. That night, riots erupted in over 100 cities across the nation in grief over King’s murder, and in anger at being relegated to that “other America,” in neighborhoods ravaged by disinvestment and deindustrialization.The riots in Washington, DC raged for five days and were only quelled when President Lyndon B. Johnson mobilized nearly 14,000 federal troops.
In the aftermath of the 1968 riots, when the Smithsonian debated whether to restrict access to the museums on the Mall, they rejected this option. That they instead opted to make the Smithsonian more accessible is testament to Secretary Ripley’s commitment to democratic Smithsonian and Kinard’s commitment to black life and culture.