When Terrorism Hit Home: Remembering Maurice Williams
In the stories told about the early years of home rule in the District of Columbia, the Hanafi Muslims' 1977 assault on the District Building, the B'nai B'rith headquarters and the Islamic Center has somehow morphed into little more than a chapter in the remarkable political ascent of Marion Barry, who was shot in the chest by a Hanafi gunman.
But when dozens of politicians, journalists and others gathered this morning to recall that awful March day 30 years ago, the emphasis was where it should be: On Maurice Williams, the 24-year-old journalist for WHUR radio who was shot and killed by the terrorists as he went about his job of reporting on the city government.
The tiny press room in the Wilson Building was renamed for Williams today, and a plaque recalling his sacrifice was mounted on the wall, and speeches were made and families consoled, but the day was really about the sense of pride and purpose that Williams and other journalists, as well as Barry and other politicians, brought to the then-new concept that Washington would be governed not by federal overseers, but by the people who live here.
Maurice Williams was a D.C. kid, born and raised. He was a reporter for what was then one of the first black-owned radio stations in the country, a little corner of the media landscape that was experimenting with a new approach to covering the news, "trying to cover the city, nation and world as no African-American radio station had before," as Kojo Nnamdi, then the station's news editor, put it today. But Williams, at 24, was also a poet and a dreamer, a kid who drew a comic strip about a planet called Eltar-6.
The kid wanted to join Nnamdi and WHUR alumnus Milton Coleman, by then a City Hall reporter for The Washington Post, for lunch on that fateful day, but the kid was not allowed "to hang with the big boys," Nnamdi said, the regret still evident in the timbre of his voice. While Coleman and Nnamdi went off for Chinese food on 13th Street, Maurice Williams returned to his post, where a terrorist wielding a shotgun blew holes in his red sweater. Williams died instantly.
"We were all new and we were all young," Channel 9 reporter Bruce Johnson said of that moment. (See great 1977 footage from 9's original coverage of the siege here.) "We didn't know what terrorism meant." Inside the District Building, he said, "it looked like a war zone--windows shot out, tables overturned."
When Johnson went over to the Washington Hospital Center to see Barry, the reporter was stunned to be permitted to enter with his camera. "Then again," Johnson reflected, "it was Marion Barry. He wasn't going to miss an opportunity--'I'm alive, get the cameras in.'" Johnson noted that it was just a matter of days before Barry, then an at-large council member, announced he would run for mayor.
Barry took some good-natured ribbing about his political ambition at the ceremonies, but he also showed yet again that he can still muster some of the old magic. A parade of politicians spoke, some movingly, but no one captured the attention and hearts of those assembled like Barry. He knows how to work a room better than almost anyone else in this city, which is saying something. He started by noting that "my stomach is turning, listening to all that"--the other speakers' accounts of the day on which he was shot. He called for a moment of silence in memory of the two men--Williams and security guard Mack Cantrell--who died as a result of the attack. He paid tribute to God: "Had it not been for His mercies, graces, power, I would not be standing here today." He called up the relatives of the two fallen men to stand by him--something no other speaker had thought to do. And then Barry told his story:
"I came off the elevator and walked across the hall and shots rang out. I was hit right here, right where my heart is. I managed to stumble into the council chambers and sat in a chair. Everybody was ducking. I was fighting. I was afraid not to breathe, afraid to breathe. I prayed to God to save me from all of this. Two police officers got a stretcher, they ran upstairs and put me on the stretcher and took me out to the ambulance. That was the longest ride I had in my life. And bumpy."
Struck by buckshot an inch from his heart, Barry went into surgery and emerged ready to push on. "God just save me," he said, "saved me to go on and do great things for the city." Barry tried halfheartedly to deny that his ambition was as powerful and evident as other speakers made it out to be, but he did add that the shooting "made me more impatient," and he turned to Mayor Adrian Fenty and said that Mayor Blackberry's dynamism demonstrates that same sense of Do it now that Barry ascribed to himself.
The crowd heard from former Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, who confirmed Johnson's account of Barry's ambition ("No one could top this--the lengths to which one would go to win election!") and from others who tried to draw lessons from the takeover: Council Chairman Vincent Gray framed the 1977 incident as a reminder why last week's federal court ruling tossing out the District's anti-gun law was "an awful decision" and B'nai B'rith executive vice president Dan Mariaschin noted that the hostage-taking "was a wake-up call that went largely ignored."
Kojo Nnamdi guided the focus back to Maurice Williams and the need to recall the heady days when home rule represented a giant step forward for black Washington and for black political power nationwide. Nnamdi credited WTOP reporter Mark Segraves for the relentless work it took to focus the city's political and journalistic circles on the failure to have recognized Williams properly. "Something deep inside drove Mark to make this a singular personal mission," Nnamdi said. Segraves enlisted Channel 7 anchor Maureen Bunyan, Channel 4 reporter Tom Sherwood and Nnamdi to make calls to bring the 70s political elite and the families of the fallen together for this moment.
In the press room, where several of the city's news organizations have desks for the reporters who still cover the D.C. government even in this time of cutbacks and layoffs and the dismantling of the newsgathering apparatus of a nation, there is now a plaque in Maurice Wiliams' name, as well as a collection of photos recalling those early years in the still-limited democratic experiment that is the District of Columbia.
By Marc Fisher |
March 12, 2007; 12:57 PM ET
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