April 4: Hartford Riots After MLK Assassination

 

On this day, fifty years ago, the streets of Hartford, Connecticut exploded with anger upon hearing the news of the assassination of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. Dozens of residents in Hartford’s North End took to the streets — most of them young, black men — and took out their frustration and anger by breaking storefront windows, overturning cars, looting, and setting white-owned businesses on fire. Police in riot gear responded with tear gas and round-the-clock patrols as the unrest continued for well over a week.

A Hartford Courant photo of the aftermath of the 1968 riots in the North End of Hartford. For more photos, visit their photo gallery: “The Late 1960s: Unrest in Hartford.

Racial tensions had been running high in Hartford for years, with street demonstrations and protests against issues like polic brutality becoming an almost annual occurrence during the 1960s.  However, the brutal and sudden assassination of King, a nationally beloved figure who preached the virtues of racial unity, nonviolence, and love, unleashed a powerful shock wave of frustration among black urban neighborhoods all over the United States.  In Hartford, like many other cities, the post-assassination riots that began on April 4, 1968 resulted in more property destruction, injuries, and regional anxiety than anything else that had come before.  After nine days of unrest, 47 civilians and 3 police officers were injured, and the amount of property damage exceeded $4 million.

While Hartford escaped the large-scale violence that completely engulfed other cities like Chicago, Washington D.C., and Baltimore, the city is still dealing with the aftermath of its own 1968 riots.  Fifty years later, the same neighborhoods that endured the brunt of the damage in 1968 are still struggling to revitalize their shuttered storefronts and homes. The riots exacerbated the mid-century trend of white, middle-class families and business owners fleeing urban Hartford for the low-crime suburban enclaves of West Hartford, Wethersfield, Glastonbury, and other nearby towns, permanently altering the demography of the greater Hartford region.

This 2011 Google Maps screenshot shows blight on Barbour Street, one of the most heavily-damaged neighborhoods during the 1968 Hartford riots.

Further Reading

Jeffrey B. Cohen, “Anger After King’s Death Left Lasting Mark on Hartford’s North End,Hartford Courant via hartfordinfo.org

Cynthia Reik, “What Would Dr. King Want You To Do?”, Connecticut Explored, Fall 2011

The Late 1960s: Unrest in Hartford,Hartford Courant photo gallery.

Steve Thornton, “The Language of the Unheard: Racial Unrest in 20th Century Hartford,connecticuthistory.org