On March 9, 1977, the District of Columbia was caught up in a siege of public buildings that still sends chills down the spine of residents, today. That day, a dozen gunmen seized control of the then District Building, now known as the John A. Wilson Building. The building houses government offices and is the international headquarters of B’nai B’rith and the Islamic Center in Washington. On that day, gunmen took hostages, killed WHUR journalist Maurice Williams, shot and almost killed then D.C. Council member At-large Marion Barry, and shot security guard Mack Cantrell.
Picture of interior damage of the John A. Wilson Building. (Courtesy Photo-D.C. Council)
“It was shocking news,” Anise Jenkins, a D.C. statehood activist, told the AFRO. “There was a lot of tension in the city during that time. People must remember that this took place before the era of terrorism that we live in now. This incident was totally out of place and not the norm in D.C.”
Forty years later, on March 9, a panel discussion on the incident was moderated by NewsChannel 4 reporter Pat Collins at the Wilson building. Panelists included, former Ward 4 D.C. Council member Arrington Dixon, the D.C. police chief at that time Maurice Cullinane, former U.S. Attorney for D.C. Earl Silbert, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Tuohey.
The leader of the perpetrators was Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, a former national secretary of the Nation of Islam who broke away from that group to form the Hanafi Muslims earlier in the decade. Tuohey told an audience of 30 people that Khaalis lived, with his family, in a house bought by NBA star Kareem Abdul Jabbar on the northern part of 16th Street. N.W. The family was generally a good neighbor before Khaalis spoke out against the NOI. “Khaalis published statements critical of the Nation of Islam in 1972 and in 1973, gunmen came into his house and killed his family, including five of his children and his nine-year-old grandson,” Tuohey said. “I don’t think he ever recovered from that.”
The killers were caught and convicted of murder and were sentenced to long prison terms.
During the 1977 siege, Khaalis demanded the killers of his family be turned over to him and he wanted the film, “Mohammed, Messenger of God” pulled from theaters because he considered it sacrilegious. He also sought reimbursement of a $750 contempt of court fine assessed against him during the trial of his family’s killers.
The saga ended when ambassadors from Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan helped negotiate the eventual surrender of the Hanafis. They were later tried, convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Khaalis died in 2003.
Dixon, who would go on to become chairman of the council and serve a brief term as an at-large member in the 1990s, said the Hanafi siege is indicative of what is going on presently. “This incident is symbolic of what is happening today and how we deal with religious groups,” he said. “There are a lot of things that we can take from this incident. The availability of guns was a large part of this.”
“I was blessed,” Dixon continued. “There were people in Sterling’s office and they never got over the experience. There was a lot of stress on staffers.”
Jenkins remembers the round-the-clock news coverage and noticed, like many Washingtonians, that the focus was on the status of Barry. “We were concerned with Barry’s condition,” he said. “There was a lot of sympathy for the journalist, Maurice Williams and the security guard, but we were wondering what was going on with Barry.”
In his book “Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry Jr,” Barry talked about the siege and his near-death experience. He noted that the well-wishers and sympathy that he got from District residents played a role in his decision to run for mayor in 1978.
The press room in the Wilson Building is named after Williams.
Myron Williams, the younger brother of Maurice Williams, told the AFRO he misses his brother. “I sometimes wonder how my life would have been had he lived,” Myron said. “He was my mentor. I think I would have been better off.”