It was as stunning as anything that had previously happened in the nation’s capital or any government building around the country.
Most remember it as one of the first acts of domestic terrorism when 40 years ago, armed terrorists stormed three District buildings taking about 150 hostages.
Then-D.C. Councilman Marion Barry narrowly avoided life-threatening injuries after being struck by a stray bullet landing just inches above his heart. However, a different fate awaited one young, WHUR reporter, Maurice Williams, 24, who would tragically lose his life.
Jim Bohannon, now a syndicated radio talk show host, had been employed as an anchor on WTOP on March 9, 1977, when word came of trouble at three buildings, including what has since become the Wilson Building.
“It quickly became apparent that these were three interconnected incidents, three hostage-takings, by a group known as Hanafi Muslims,” Bohannon told WTOP.
The group’s leader, Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, had left the Nation of Islam to found the Hanafi Movement. A few years prior to the siege, seven members of Khaalis’ family had been murdered at his D.C. home and demands issued during the siege included the convicted killers being handed over to him.
During the hostage crisis, Khaalis seems to have listened to Bohannon’s on-air reports.
“I referred to them as ‘apparently, a black Muslim group,’ not realizing that the term ‘black Muslims’ referred to the main body of black Muslims who were in literal war with the Hanafi Muslim sect,” Bohannon said.
Khaalis called the station and demanded that Bohannon apologize on TV or face retaliation.
“He said if not, he would ‘start cutting off heads, putting them in paper bags and tossing them out the window,’” Bohannon said.
Bohannon made his apology on WTOP-TV (now known as Channel 9).
In those days, the radio and TV stations both occupied the same building, so Bohannon simply had to go down a few stairs.
Williams, a WHUR reporter, was shot and killed during the siege while another gunshot victim, Special Police Office Mack Cantrell, succumbed to his injuries several days later.
“I anchored that first day the longest stint of my life continuously on air, from 10 a.m. the day it started until 7 a.m. the following morning — 21 consecutive hours,” Bohannon said.
Eventually, ambassadors from three countries, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan, helped bring the siege to an end.
“We should remember it because it was one of the first acts of serious domestic terrorism,” said Bohannon, who can still be heard on D.C. airwaves from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. weeknights on WFED.
During the month of March, an exhibit of nearly 40 photos can be seen on display at the Wilson Building.
Meanwhile, friends and family members of D.C.-born and raised Williams continue to remember and honor him in ways that include an annual pilgrimage to his gravesite in nearby Fort Lincoln Cemetery.
“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,” said Kojo Nnamdi, then WHUR’s news editor.
Williams had begun to evolve as a poet and a dreamer, a young man who drew a comic strip about a planet called Eltar-6 and who grew up both loving his city and seeing its potential during those early days of self-rule.
He 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 he found his request denied.
“He was not allowed to hang with the big boys,” Nnamdi told WHUR a 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. As he exited an elevator, a terrorist wielding a shotgun blew holes in his red sweater.
Wlliams died instantly.
It’s said that time heals all wounds, but the WHUR family and the District’s news community still honor and mourn the loss of the young reporter, Williams — killed as he went about his job of reporting on the city government.
That honor became permanent nine years ago with a special ceremony held outside the Press Room on the 5th floor of the Wilson Building.
Then-mayor Adrian Fenty, along with the city council, city officials, journalists, WHUR’s current General Manager Jim Watkins, and family members of Williams including his mother and two nephews, assembled to rename the Press Room in Maurice Williams’ honor.
A plaque remains outside of the room recalling Williams’ sacrifice and his contributions to WHUR.