That's what happened on the night of Thursday, April 4, 1968, when more than 150 people — most of them young, most of them black men — learned that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead, felled by an assassin's bullet.
They left their homes, frustrated and fearful, and made their way to the glass-shattered intersection, burning some white-owned stores and looting many more as they went.
Police with tear gas tried to disperse the crowd. By 1 a.m. Friday morning, Mayor Antonina "Ann" Uccello — sporting a navy blue coat and a strand of pearls, and holding a riot helmet — stood just a block away and pleaded for calm.
Later that day, civic and religious leaders took to the city's streets from Clay-Arsenal to Upper Albany to Northeast, working to ease tensions.
These were neither the first, nor the last, civil disturbances to roil the city during the turbulent 1960s and early '70s. As those April days passed, and the immediate shock of King's murder subsided, it became clear that Hartford had averted the worst of the bloodshed and rioting that broke in over 100 U.S. cities.
The message, though, had been clear.
"I believe King did the right thing," said Clarke King who, in 1968, was an angry 21-year-old and today heads the city's municipal employees' union and the African-American Alliance. "But what moved America to say something was wrong were the riots and kids saying, 'We're not taking it anymore.' ... It changed the way that we, as black people, were respected."
It also changed the landscape of the Clay-Arsenal neighborhood and left scars still visible today. The riots exacerbated trends that were already in motion — businesses closed and never reopened, the white middle class fled and investment stalled in this North End neighborhood that is in sight, but out of reach, of downtown's wealth. The physical isolation that Constitution Plaza and I-84 ushered in during the middle of the decade now had a profound economic and psychological dimension.
Former city Councilman Steven Harris, who was fighting in the jungles of Vietnam when he learned of King's assassination, returned home in May 1968 to a different Hartford from the one he had left.
"When I got back from 'Nam, it was almost as if whites had left north Hartford overnight," Harris said. "The drugstores were gone, they were burned. The bakeries were gone, they were burned.
"Overnight we went from a kind of community that had drugstores, supermarkets, bakeries — to a neighborhood that had nothing. Including white folks," Harris said. "They all left."
Forty years later, amid the vacant lots and boarded-up buildings, there is a slow germination of retail returning to Clay-Arsenal. Near the location of Parrish's filling station stands a new shopping plaza with a grocery store, and the corner boasts a plaque with Thomas Parrish's name.
But it's nothing like it was in its heyday.
"All of that thriving stuff, the little candy stores as well as the mid-sized markets that people depended on — that shopping left the neighborhood and you only ended up with the small convenience stuff that's there now, which is not as attractive," said Mayor Eddie A. Perez, who came to Hartford in 1969 and grew up near Main and Pavilion. "I think the riots triggered the white flight and white flight triggered long-term disinvestment and government was late in responding to that trend."
Former Hartford Fire Chief and city Councilman John B. Stewart Jr. was a fire lieutenant when King was killed, and it was his job and that of his fellow firefighters to get into areas where the police could not.
"We just couldn't stand by and let the buildings burn down. … As soon as you get one fire down, another one started," Stewart said.
He said he and others in the community tried to persuade the angry young men that burning and looting the white-owned business wasn't in their best interests.
"One of the things we tried to say to people was, 'Who are you going to work for now? We don't have the expertise, we don't have the money to open up,'" Stewart recalled.
And, like that approach or not, the reality is that very little has come to fill the void that the riots left.
That's the effect that is still there. We don't have a supermarket, not one supermarket, in north Hartford," he said. "If you look at Albany Avenue, that's the effect of the riots of '68. Emptiness."
"That's 40 years ago," Stewart said. "We have not recovered from that."
Clarke King was one of those angry young people Stewart was trying to reach.
"I was a militant," King said. "My father used to say, 'You gotta be like [Martin Luther] King, you gotta be peaceful.' But we said, 'If you hit me, I'm hitting you back.'"
In part, as a result of the riots, the city's black community became more mobile, King said. Those who could started buying homes that white people sold in middle-class neighborhoods like Blue Hills. His father was one of them.
But he also remembers that everything on Barbour Street burned but a popular grinder shop.
"Everybody just moved out. They were moving out in droves," King said. "It never recovered. It never recovered. And if you look at it now, it ain't recovered."
"You could see the frustration just by looking at the damage that was done, the burning of the buildings, the overturning of cars and trucks, and just the frustration in the eyes of the people," said Thirman L. Milner, who 13 years later would make a triumphal entrance to city hall as Hartford's, and New England's, first popularly elected African American mayor.
"It really changed the whole community because there were small shops and stores, and it was replaced mainly by vacant lots.
"It's not necessarily solely because of the riots," Milner said. "The riots, I guess, were the climax of all the frustration that had been building up."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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