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1968 - King Assassination Riots

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. spent the day at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis working and meeting with local leaders on plans for his Poor People's March on Washington to take place late in the month. At 6pm, as he greets the car and friends in the courtyard, King is shot with one round from a 30.06 rifle. He will be declared dead just an hour later at St. Joseph's hospital. He was 39 years old.

On 4 April 1968 the news that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been felled by an assassin's bullet in Memphis, Tennessee, spread across the nation like wildfire, sparking some of the most severe episodes of violence in American history. According to reporter Edward Kosner, "it was Pandora's box flung open -- an apocalyptic act that loosed the furies brooding in the shadows of America's sullen ghettos." Robert Kennedy, hearing of the murder just before he is to give a speech in Indianapolis, IN, delivers a powerful extemporaneous eulogy in which he pleads with the audience "to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."

Even before the tragic event, the movement seemed to be undergoing a transformation that many of King's closest associates had watched with apprehension. As Martin Luther King's "nonviolent" philosophy began to lose its fervor to Stokley Carmichael's "black power" philosophy, the struggle for black equality became increasingly more aggressive. By 1968, leaders like Carmichael and H. Rap Brown openly scorned nonviolence and challenged King's leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. Adding to the national controversy over nonviolence were the riots in urban black ghettos that began in the Watts section of Los Angeles in the summer of 1965 and continued in Chicago in 1966, Detroit and Newark in 1967, and dozens of other cities. Increasingly in 1967 and 1968, King was attempting to guide a movement deeply divided over philosophy and tactics.

At the White House, Johnson later wrote, "a jumble of anxious thoughts ran through my mind, including fear, confusion, and outrage." Johnson's thoughts quickly turned to the King family, and he telephoned Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King's widow, to express his condolences. A few moments later, Johnson went on national television from the West Lobby and asked "every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by nonviolence. . . . It is only by joining together and only by working together that we can continue to move toward equality and fulfillment for all people." Groups of people across the nation failed to heed his words. The ramifications of the assassination were instantaneous and immense; riots broke out in at least 125 U.S. cities, and in the African American sections of a number of American cities, turmoil followed. The murder of Martin Luther King sparked riots in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark, Washington, D.C., and more than 100 other American cities, threatening to turn a peaceful struggle of African Americans into a violent racial confrontation. Rioting left 39 to 46 dead in the days following King's death.

Washington, D.C., home to a large African American population, experienced considerable violence. More than seven hundred fires lit the night sky. By the next evening, the White House had become, in Lady Bird Johnson's words, "a fortress." As the rioting in the nation's capital became worse, Lyndon Johnson ordered four thousand National Guard troops into the capital to restore order. Within two days, the riots in Washington, D.C., ended, leaving at least 6 dead and as many as 350 injured.

The news of King's death resulted in the mobilization of National Guard troops across eighteen states and thirty-six cities. A total of 14,811 Guardsmen were federalized in two states and the District of Columbia.

  • 5-16 April 1968; authorized by EO 11403 of 5 April 1968 (1,854 DC National Guard)
  • 7-11 April 1968; authorized by EO 11404 of 7 April 1968 (7,174 Illinois National Guard in Chicago)
  • 7-12 April 1968; authorized by EO 11405 of 7 April 1968 (5,783 Maryland National Guard in Baltimore).

Popular psychological explanations of political violence are based on theories of rising expectations, deprivation, and resulting frustration that leads to violence. These theories suffer from both definitional and methodological problems and fail to explain the progression from individual expectations or frustration to collective action. Moreover, numerous studies by experimental psychologists indicate that frustration does not necessarily lead to aggression, that much aggression occurs in the absence of a frustrating situation, and that learning can either inhibit or reinforce aggression. The psychological explanation of political violence has been widely accepted by social scientists both because it appears plausible and because it is partly true. In contrast, an explanation which links political violence to a rational calculation based on a sense of indignation is equally plausible and provides a closer link between psychological and political theory. Analysis of the 1919 Chicago race riot, the Watts Riot, the 1968 Riots following Martin Luther King's assassination, and radical student violence indicates that violence is based on moral outrage resulting from unjust or unworthy treatment. The concept of indignation involves norms as well as psychological mechanisms and is based on learned standards. Violence, therefore, can be a rational political response to many forms of government action, especially government violence and is not necessarily based on psychological deprivation or expectations.

Johnson had close ties with the Civil Rights Movement, and in the aftermath of King's assassination he invited its leaders to the White House. On the advice of the Secret Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the president did not attend King's funeral, a decision that was widely criticized. "Once again," Johnson said, "the strange mixture of public and private capacities inherent in the Presidency prevented free action." As a private citizen, Johnson would have attended; as president, following the recommendations of his security staff, he could not. By bringing the civil rights leaders to the White House and seeking accommodation, however, Johnson could obviate criticism and avoid appearing insensitive in the aftermath of the tragic episode.

After the King assassination, Johnson felt that there was a small window during which the legislation could be passed, and he pressed for rapid action. The assassination generated tremendous sympathy for the Civil Rights Movement. For all of the efforts of J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to discredit King, he remained a monumental figure, the only person in the nation who had the stature to rely on moral suasion. His commitment to nonviolence and the clear and precise nature of the words he spoke resonated with the public. Johnson believed rapid action was essential to passage of the open housing bill, before a backlash from the rioting could turn sympathy into contempt, "normal compassion," as he said, "into bitterness, retaliation, and anger." Johnson seized the opportunity and channeled all his efforts into passage of open housing legislation. "He just put everything aside," recalled Robert C. Weaver. "This is it. This is the time. And he knew how to take advantage of the cards he had." On April 10, the House voted on the bill. In the final tally, 250 voted for the measure, while 171 opposed it. The next day, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 in the East Room of the White House, dedicating it to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The assassination of King was a thunderous blow to the nation as well as a tragedy of immense proportions. King was perhaps the only person in the nation who could straddle the racial fissures of 1968, often the most reasonable voice in a nation seemingly gone mad. Johnson had had a volatile relationship with King. The two men, both dominant personalities, had trouble establishing a rapport. Both favored social change, but in different ways: Johnson was a tactician, using legislation and maintaining social order, while King favored direct, nonviolent action that disrupted social conventions. The two men needed each other, and for a time they worked together well, acquiring mutual respect if not always understanding. Even though Johnson remained closer to three other African American leaders-Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; Whitney Young of the Urban League; and A. Philip Randolph, the seventy-four-year-old venerated leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters who had merged the role of labor leader with that of independent civil rights advocate-and even though King's opposition to the war in Vietnam had strained their relations badly, the president recognized King's heroic qualities and retained tremendous respect for the slain civil rights leader.

After an international man-hunt James Earl Ray was arrested on June 27 in England, and convicted of the murder. Ray died in prison in 1998.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:30:08 Zulu