On Election Night 2008, a jangling, inter-ethnic mob in Washington, D.C. toasted Barack Obama’s presidential victory, stopping traffic at 14th and U streets—the same crossroads where, 40 years earlier, in April, Bobby Kennedy had signed autographs at a campaign rally, and where Stokely Carmichael and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had crouched, listening to the news spool over the radio: King is dead.
The week that followed brought some of the worst rioting that American cities had ever seen. Washington—where on April 5, 1968, some 200 fires raged—led the way; in Chicago, in Baltimore, in Raleigh, N.C., in Pittsburgh, in Hartford, Conn., the acts of thousands of anonymous mourners, thugs and opportunists eclipsed the spectacle of the 1965 Watts riots and sent white Americans scurrying for the hills—like the Israelites, not to return for 40 years. Barack Hussein Obama has taken Martin Luther King Jr.’s 45-year-old “arc of history” and bent it sharply toward justice. It seems an apt time for a fresh look backward.
In a new book, A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination, Clay Risen examines the days between April 4 and 11, 1968—an often ignored history—ruled by grief and by grim violence. Using newly declassified reports and with a journalist’s eye for historical detail, Risen recounts a moment of great schism in American life—between black and white, urban and suburban, before and after. As Washington sent up smoke signals to the suburbs and King’s body was flown from Memphis, Tenn., to Atlanta, Risen asks: “As surely as this was the end of something, it was the start of something, too. But what?”
In one sense, it was the beginning of a civil war, a shot to the stomach that has yet to bleed out, pitting American majority culture against a devolving inner city. Risen’s work suggests this was as much a matter of explicit government policy as the seismic cultural change that nostalgia names “the sixties.”
That week, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? played at a movie house on U Street; civil rights leaders met President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House; thousands of troops were deployed to major cities; Palm Sunday came; a television audience of 120 million watched King’s funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. At the same time, Risen reports, people of color battled “poverty, jobs discrimination, poor schools—all this in cities where blacks were supposedly free, where city leaders flatly denied the existence of squalid conditions or de facto segregation.” The need for social programs for vulnerable members of inner cities ground against job insecurity, anticommunism and intense fear of disorder—cleaving the nation as handily as did the Vietnam War (recall that King was killed in the midst of his unpopular “Poor People’s Campaign”).
The whole affair proved, in another sense, the end of innocence for the many Americans who had wholeheartedly supported the cause of civil rights up to and through King’s assassination. As Rick Perlstein also documents in his excellent Nixonland, 1968 was a turning of the cultural tides, during which the shiny luster of Johnson’s Great Society began to fade, and a politics of grievance took root in America. Though there were signs of mediation—the Chicago gang members who preached nonviolence in the days after the slaying, the 1968 Kerner Commission report that called out “white racism” as a cause of inner-city strife—Risen argues that the riots signified the public fall of the noble Negro cause, a reason for even liberals to question that equal rights and social justice were possible or necessary.
Defending the Tennessee governor for his crackdown in Memphis the weekend before King was shot, the hidebound Southern Regional Council was explicit about its antipathy toward black rioters: “The city fathers of Memphis were faithfully reflecting the temper of whites in their city. By many indications they were reflecting, as well, the mood of the nation.” After the riots began in earnest, letters to the Chicago Tribune read: “What are people to do? Put up with this sort of thing or run from the neighborhood we worked so hard to maintain?” For the vast majority of whites and for small businesses, that last question quickly became a no-brainer.
But perhaps more than the newly skittish public, it was the government—local and federal—that feared mass black action and the property damage and political repercussions that a loss of “law and order” might suggest. The book describes the Pentagon’s planning for the worst in dozens of American cities:
"They covered the locations and contact information for vulnerable retail outlets such as liquor and gun stores; the location of critical infrastructure such as bridges, dams, water sanitation plants, and electrical facilities; the demographic and economic layout of the city; and background information on local militants, community activists, and business leaders. The plans were so detailed that every company knew in advance which precinct it would deploy to, and which police officers it would work with once there."
Risen’s reporting reveals that in addition to monitoring King, the FBI ran an extensive domestic spying operation on groups from the NAACP to the Daughters of the American Revolution. In other words, 1960s planning for the fight against fellow Americans was executed with greater competence than was the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Of course, the advent of black militancy met the man halfway. Having heard enough on King’s death from his radio, the bombastic Carmichael made a phone call:
“Well, if we must die, we better die fighting back,” he told the person on the other end. “Now they’ve taken Dr. King off . . . it’s time to end this nonviolence bullshit.”
The eerie parallels between Obama’s rise and King’s memorial recall the unthinkable. And the question of how Obama’s America would respond to an equivalent tragedy cannot be guessed at. In 1968, a mysterious collectivism allowed one woman to shuffle down U Street, clutching a stolen kettle and murmuring, “Got me something, got me something,” but more recent incarnations of mob law—in Los Angeles in 1991, Seattle in 1999, in the banlieues ringing Paris in 2005—teach that such violence is a placeholder for deeper wants.
And Carmichael’s formulation, in fact, was a direct echo of a stirring 1919 Claude McKay sonnet, in which the Jamaican writer’s “kinsmen” are “hunted and penned in an inglorious spot.” This spatial complaint—against a social order that, in the end, humiliates—remains the most apt lens through which to view what happened the week the dreamer died.
Thus Risen’s carefully researched history focuses not just on the fantastic blow by blows in each city, but also on the social architecture that inflamed the 1968 riots. As housing policy and employment trends slowly turned “urban” into a euphemism for “black,” a mutual delusion of bad intentions between races and classes poisoned the political discourse for the next 25 years. Today’s reader will note quickly the biting similarities between today’s America and that of 1963.
Yet with hindsight, one sees that the riots may have also masked black community organizing in disarray: “So much was achieved between the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” writes Risen, “that the leaders were taken unawares when confronted with the question ‘What next?’”
At long last, what happens next is happening tomorrow, as the nation’s first black president is sworn into office. A year ago, after Obama’s victory in the South Carolina primary, a mixed-race group of supporters stood and chanted, “Race doesn’t matter,” with exuberant sincerity. In the euphoria of this new moment, it is hard to imagine that Bobby Kennedy, in Indianapolis the night that King was slain, felt compelled to reiterate that “the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.”
But such was America then—and the America of today is not so distant from its former self that we can take these hymns for granted.
Dayo Olopade is a Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.