This is a guest post by new GoDC contributor Jason Baum. A D.C.-area resident since 1967, Jason Baum now focuses on writing after a successful marketing career in telecom and on behalf of the Washington NFL team. Follow him on Twitter.
Hazy blue smoke surrounds the origins of the annual Fourth of July Smoke-In. Though it now takes place in Lafayette Square, across the barricaded street from the White House, it began on the Mall. While it may have begun in 1967 as many hold true, 1970 was the year the event was formally organized and promoted as a protest against the criminalization of cannabis.
In the Spring of 1970, the United States was a house divided by an endless war in Southeast Asia. President Nixon announced an escalation of fighting that spilled into Cambodia and Laos. A wave of protests. At Kent State in Ohio four students were gunned down by the National Guard exactly two months before Independence Day 1970. A week after the Kent State massacre, two more students were killed at Jackson State Mississippi.
A group of businessmen, led by J. Willard Marriott, formed a committee to host a non-political extravaganza on the Fourth. Co-chaired by Bob Hope, the goal, in Hope’s words, was to “show Americans can have a good time together despite their differences.” The event, “Honor America Day” began with a prayer session led by Billy Graham, in front of Mr. Lincoln’s memorial. Nearby, in the shadows of the Washington Monument, the committee brought in performers that included Lawrence Welk, Jack Benny and Kate Smith. A young Glenn Campbell was recruited to broaden the fete’s youth appeal.
Perhaps the esteemed Washington Post columnist, Art Buchwald summed it up best two days before the spectacle, when his column was published with the title, “Will Christmas Go the Way of July 4 as a GOP Holiday?”
A counter-protest was mobilized. The Yippies (Youth International Party) chose the legalization of marijuana as their rallying cry. Legalizing pot was an odd choice. It was not as galvanizing as anti-war sentiment, nor did it generate the passion of civil rights. Perhaps the kids needed a break from “serious” issues?
On the Fourth, around 10:30 AM, a Rabbi, a Roman Catholic priest, and a Protestant minister led a prayer service for a crowd of 10,000 to 20,000 spectators on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A couple hundred protesters proceeded to light up and frolic in the Reflecting pool, yelling obscenities, hoping to shock the staid crowd.
Over the course of the day, the crowd of hippies grew to a couple thousand kids and young adults. There were minor skirmishes with authorities some of which escalated. A truck was “liberated” and rolled into the Reflecting Pool. Over the course of the day, the hippies clashed with far-Right groups including John Birch Society members who had come to Honor America Day.
The MPD showed restraint, more focused on keeping the peace than arresting people. It is a testimony to the tolerance and wisdom of the MPD, that they overlooked public nudity, consumption of illegal drugs in public, etc. That being said, by the end of the day, there was tear gas. There were police who suffered minor injuries. There was property damage and arrests. Over three-dozen protesters were arrested on the Mall, or along the way to Dupont Circle after the fireworks concluded.
Honor America Day failed in its attempt to unify and only reminded the nation how divided it was. It did not become a tradition, though getting high in front of the White House did. With President Trump’s recent announcement of a Salute to America celebration in front of the Lincoln Memorial this Independence Day, one can only speculate what traditions may find their genesis a couple months from now. Until then, Happy 420 Day!