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King assassination riots
Leffler - 1968 Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. riots.jpg
Soldiers stand near ruined buildings in Washington, D.C.
LocationUnited States
CausesAssassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Racial inequality

The King assassination riots, also known as the Holy Week Uprising,[1] was a wave of civil disturbance which swept the United States following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968.

Some of the biggest riots took place in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Louisville, Kansas City, and Chicago.

Inciting incident and riot

The immediate cause of the rioting was the assassination of Dr. King. Not only was King a beloved leader in the civil rights movement, but also a major advocate for nonviolence. He was a symbol of direct engagement with the political system (as opposed to the separatist idea of black nationalism). His death led some people to feel angry and disillusioned, as though now only violent resistance to white racism could be effective.[2][3]

The rioters were mostly black, but they were not all poor. Middle-class blacks joined in, wanting to demonstrate against systemic inequality more than they wanted to steal for their own benefit.[4]

City by city

In New York City, mayor John Lindsay traveled directly into Harlem, telling black residents that he regretted King's death and was working against poverty. He is credited for averting riots in New York with this direct response.[5] In Indianapolis, Robert F. Kennedy's speech on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. is credited with preventing a riot there. In Boston, rioting may have been averted by a James Brown concert taking place on the night of April 5.[6]

In Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Police Department and community activists may have averted rioting in the city. Several memorials were held in tribute to King throughout the Los Angeles area on the days leading into his funeral service.

Washington, D.C.

Damage to a Washington store following the riots.

The Washington, D.C. riots of April 4–8, 1968, resulted in Washington, along with Chicago and Baltimore, receiving the heaviest impact of the 110 cities to see unrest following the King assassination.

The ready availability of jobs in the growing federal government attracted many to Washington in the 1960s, and middle class African-American neighborhoods prospered. Despite the end of legally mandated racial segregation, the historic neighborhoods of Shaw, the H Street Northeast corridor, and Columbia Heights, centered at the intersection of 14th and U Streets Northwest, remained the centers of African-American commercial life in the city.

As word of King's murder by James Earl Ray in Memphis spread on the evening of Thursday, April 4, crowds began to gather at 14th and U. Stokely Carmichael led members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to stores in the neighborhood demanding that they close out of respect. Although polite at first, the crowd fell out of control and began breaking windows. By 11pm, widespread looting had begun.

Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington ordered the damage cleaned up immediately the next morning. However, anger was still evident on Friday morning when Carmichael addressed a rally at Howard, warning of violence. After the close of the rally, crowds walking down 7th Street NW and in the H Street NE corridor came into violent confrontations with police. By midday, numerous buildings were on fire, and firefighters were prevented from responding by crowds attacking with bottles and rocks.

Crowds of as many as 20,000 overwhelmed the District's 3,100-member police force, and President Lyndon B. Johnson dispatched some 13,600 federal troops, including 1,750 federalized D.C. National Guard troops, to assist them. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol and Army troops from the 3rd Infantry guarded the White House. At one point, on April 5, rioting reached within two blocks of the White House before rioters retreated. The occupation of Washington was the largest of any American city since the Civil War. Mayor Washington imposed a curfew and banned the sale of alcohol and guns in the city. By the time the city was considered pacified on Sunday, April 8, some 1,200 buildings had been burned, including over 900 stores. Damages reached $27 million.

The riots utterly devastated Washington's inner city economy. With the destruction or closing of businesses, thousands of jobs were lost, and insurance rates soared. Made uneasy by the violence, city residents of all races accelerated their departure for suburban areas, depressing property values. Crime in the burned out neighborhoods rose sharply, further discouraging investment.

On some blocks, only rubble remained for decades. Columbia Heights and the U Street corridor did not begin to recover economically until the opening of the U Street and Columbia Heights Metro stations in 1991 and 1999, respectively, while the H Street NE corridor remained depressed for several years longer.

Mayor-Commissioner Washington went on to become the city's first elected mayor.


The Baltimore Riot of 1968 began the day after the murder. On Saturday, April 6, the Governor of Maryland, Spiro T. Agnew, called out thousands of National Guard troops and 500 Maryland State Police to quell the disturbance. When it was determined that the state forces could not control the riot, Agnew requested Federal troops from President Lyndon B. Johnson. The riot was precipitated by King's assassination, but was also evidence of larger frustrations among the city's African-American population.

By Sunday evening, 5000 paratroopers, combat engineers, and artillerymen from the XVIII Airborne Corps in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, specially trained in tactics, including sniper school, were on the streets of Baltimore with fixed bayonets, and equipped with chemical (CS) disperser backpacks. Two days later, they were joined by a Light Infantry Brigade from Fort Benning, Georgia. With all the police and troops on the streets, the situation began to calm down. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that H. Rap Brown was in Baltimore driving a Ford Mustang with Broward County, Florida tags, and was assembling large groups of angry protesters and agitating them to escalate the rioting. In several instances, these disturbances were rapidly quelled through the use of bayonets and chemical dispersers by the XVIII Airborne units. That unit arrested more than 3,000 detainees, who were turned over to the Baltimore Police. A general curfew was set at 6 p.m. in the city limits and martial law was enforced. As rioting continued, African American plainclothes police officers and community leaders were sent to the worst areas to prevent further violence.

By the time the riot was over, 6 people were dead, 700 injured, 4,500 arrested and over 1,000 fires set. More than a thousand businesses had been looted or burned, many of which never reopened. Total property damage was estimated at $13.5 million (1968$).

One of the major outcomes of the riot was the attention Spiro Agnew received when he criticized local black leaders for not doing enough to help stop the disturbance. While this angered blacks and white liberals, it caught the attention of Richard Nixon who was looking for someone on his ticket who could counter George Wallace’s American Independent Party campaign. Agnew became Nixon’s Vice Presidential running mate in 1968.


The Louisville riots of 1968 refers to riots in Louisville, Kentucky in May 1968. As in many other cities around the country, there were unrest and riots partially in response to the assassination. On May 27, 1968, a group of 400 people, mostly blacks, gathered at Twenty-Eight and Greenwood Streets, in the Parkland neighborhood. The intersection, and Parkland in general, had recently become an important location for Louisville's black community, as the local NAACP branch had moved its office there.

The crowd was protesting the possible reinstatement of a white officer who had been suspended for beating an African-American man some weeks earlier. Several community leaders arrived and told the crowd that no decision had been reached, and alluded to disturbances in the future if the officer was reinstated. By 8:30, the crowd began to disperse.

However, rumors (which turned out to be untrue) were spread that Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee speaker Stokely Carmichael's plane to Louisville was being intentionally delayed by whites. After bottles were thrown by the crowd, the crowd became unruly and police were called. However the small and unprepared police response simply upset the crowd more, which continued to grow. The police, including a captain who was hit in the face by a bottle, retreated, leaving behind a patrol car, which was turned over and burned.

By midnight, rioters had looted stores as far east as Fourth Street, overturned cars and started fires.

Within an hour, Mayor Kenneth A. Schmied requested 700 Kentucky National Guard troops and established a city-wide curfew. Violence and vandalism continued to rage the next day, but had subdued somewhat by May 29. Business owners began to return, although troops remained until June 4. Police made 472 arrests related to the riots. Two African-American teenagers had died, and $200,000 in damage had been done.[7]

The disturbances had a longer-lasting effect. Most white business owners quickly pulled out or were forced out of Parkland and surrounding areas. Most white residents also left the West End, which had been almost entirely white north of Broadway, from subdivision until the 1960s. The riot would have effects that shaped the image which whites would hold of Louisville's West End, that it was predominantly black and crime-ridden.[8]

Kansas City

The rioting in Kansas City did not erupt on April 4, like other cities of the United States affected directly by the assassination of King, but rather on April 9 after local events within the city.[9][10] The riot was sparked when Kansas City Police Department deployed tear gas against student protesters when they staged their performances outside City Hall.[9][10] The deployment of tear gas dispersed the protesters from the area, but other citizens of the city began to riot as a result of the Police action on the student protesters. The resulting effects of the riot resulted in the arrest of over one hundred adults, and left five dead and at least twenty admitted to hospitals.[11]


In Chicago, more than 48 hours of rioting left 11 Chicago citizens dead, 48 wounded by police gunfire, 90 policemen injured, and 2,150 people arrested.[12] Two miles of Lawndale on West Madison Street were left in a state of rubble.

Wilmington, Delaware

The two-day riot that occurred after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination was small compared with riots in other cities, but its aftermath -- a nine and a half month occupation by the National Guard -- highlighted the depth of Wilmington’s racial problem. During the riot, which occurred on April 9-10, 1968, the mayor asked for a small number of National Guardsmen to help restore order. Democratic Governor Charles L. Terry (a southern-style Democrat) sent in the entire state National Guard and refused to remove them after the rioting was brought under control. Republican Russell W. Peterson defeated Governor Terry, and upon his inauguration in January 1969, Governor Peterson ended the National Guard’s occupation in Wilmington. [13]

The Occupation of Wilmington caused scars on the city and its people that have lasted to this day. Some suburbanites grew fearful of traveling into Wilmington in broad daylight, even to attend church on Sunday morning. Over the next few years businesses relocated, taking their employees, customers and tax payments with them. [1]

Federal Response

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Joe Califano chart riot outbreaks in Washington, DC.

On April 4, President Lyndon B. Johnson denounced King's murder. He also began to communicate with a host of mayors and governors preparing for a reaction from black America. He cautioned against unnecessary force, but felt like local governments would ignore his advice, saying to aides: "I'm not getting through. They're all holing up like generals in a dugout getting ready to watch a war." [14]

On April 5, at 11AM, Johnson met with an array of leaders in the Cabinet Room. These included federal justices Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, and Leon Higginbotham; government officials such as secretary Robert Weaver and D.C. Mayor Walter Washington; legislators Mike Mansfield, Hubert Humphrey (who was the vice president), Everett Dirksen, William McCulloch; and civil rights leaders Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, Clarence Mitchell, Dorothy Height, and Walter Fauntroy. Notably absent were representatives of more radical groups such as SNCC and CORE. At the meeting, Mayor Washington asked President Johnson to deploy troops to the District of Columbia. Richard Hatcher, the newly elected black mayor of Gary, Indiana, spoke to the group about white racism and his fears of racially-motivated violence in the future. Many of these leaders told Johnson that socially progressive legislation would be the best response to the crisis.[15] The meeting concluded with prayers at the Washington National Cathedral.[16]

According to press secretary George Christian, Johnson was not surprised by the riots that followed: "What did you expect? I don't know why we're so surprised. When you put your foot on a man's neck and hold him down for three hundred years, and then you let him up, what's he going to do? He's going to knock your block off."[16]

Military deployment

After the Watts Riots in 1965 and the Detroit riot of 1967, the military began preparing heavily for black insurrection. The Pentagon's Army Operations Center thus quickly began its response to the assassination on the night of April 4, directing air force transport planes to prepare for an occupation of Washington, D.C. The army also dispatched undercover agents to gather information.[17]

On April 5, Johnson ordered mobilization of the army and national guard, particularly for D.C.[18]

Legislative Response

Some responded to the riots with suggestions for improving the conditions that engendered them. Many White House aides took the opportunity to push their preferred programs for urban improvement. At the same time, some members of Congress criticized Johnson. Senator Richard Russell felt Johnson was not going far enough to suppress the violence. Senator Robert Byrd suggested that Washington, D.C. ought to be occupied indefinitely by the army.[19]

Johnson chose to focus his political capital on a fair housing bill proposed by Senator Sam Ervin. He urged Congress to pass the bill, starting with an April 5 letter addressed to the Speaker of the House.[16][19][20] These events led to the rapid passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, Title VIII of which is known as the "Fair Housing Act".

Communication with city and state governments

Audio records reveal a tense and variable relationship between Johnson and local officials. In conversations with Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, Johnson describes the complications with ordering federal troops before local governments have exhausted all options.[21] Later, Johnson would describe the domestic unrest as another front in the global war, criticizing Daley for not requesting troops sooner.[22] From the transcript:[23]

President Johnson: [Unclear] . . . Goddammit, I don't know how we handle these things. But I know one thing: that we've got to handle them with muscle and with toughness. And we put troops in every place they asked me to, and we came after it [in] reasonably good shape.

Daley: But the thing is, is there's just so much of this destruction takes place before we're able to--that was my observation. We have all these things destroyed before we ever--

President Johnson: Well, that's right. Now, Mayor, if you want my judgment what's wrong, it's wrong with your not asking for it.

In the same call, Johnson told Daley he wanted to use a strategy of pre-emption: "I'd rather move them and not need them than need them and not have them."

Connection to local issues

The assassinations triggered active unrest in communities that were already discontented. For example, the Memphis Sanitation Strike, which was already underway, took on a new level of urgency. It was to these striking workers that King delivered his final speech, and in Memphis that he was killed. Negotiations on April 16 brought an end to the strike and a promise of better wages.[24][25]

In Oakland, increasing friction between Black Panthers and the police led to the death of Bobby Hutton.


Dozens of people were killed, and thousands of people injured, in the rioting over April 4 to 5.


Some areas were heavily damaged by the riots, and recovered slowly if at all.[26]


For some liberals and civil rights advocates, the riots were a turning point. They increased an already-strong trend toward racial segregation and white flight in America's cities, strengthening racial barriers that looked as though they might weaken.[19] The riots were political fodder for the Republican party, which used fears of black urban crime to garner support for "law and order", especially in the 1968 presidential campaign.

See also

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  1. Levy, Peter B. (2011). "The Dream Deferred: The Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Holy Week Uprisings of 1968". In Jessica I. Elfenbein; Thomas L. Hollowak; Elizabeth M. Nix (ed.). Baltimore '68 : riots and rebirth in an American city. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 978-1-4399-0662-0.CS1 maint: multiple names: editors list (link)
  2. Dyson, Michael Eric (2008). "Facing Death". April 4, 1968 : Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death and how it changed America. New York: Basic Civitas Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00212-2.
  3. "McKissick Says Nonviolence Has Become Dead Philosophy". New York Times. 5 April 1968. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  4. Risen, Clay (2009). "April 5: 'Official Disorder on Top of Civil Disorder'". A nation on fire : America in the wake of the King assassination. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-17710-5. There was no 'typical' rioter, but the statistically average profile was better educated and more likely to be employed than most people in the riot area (though, despite claims later made on the Senate floor, only a handful of rioters were government employees). Such results underscore an alternative theory of ghetto rioting: that it was at least as much an expression of protopolitical anger as it was of opportunism and common criminality.
  5. Risen, Clay (2009). "April 4: U and Fourteenth". A nation on fire : America in the wake of the King assassination. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-17710-5.
  6. Risen, Clay (2009). "April 5: 'There are no ghettos in Chicago'". A nation on fire : America in the wake of the King assassination. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-17710-5.
  7. Williams, Kenneth H. (1988). "Oh…It's Really Happening:" The Louisville Race Riot of 1968". Kentucky History Journal. 3: 57–58.
  8. Louisville Survey:West Report. pp. 37–38.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Rhodes, Joel P. The Voice of Violence: Performative Violence as Protest in the Vietnam Era. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 21. ISBN 0-275-97055-8.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Lua error in ...ribunto/includes/engines/LuaCommon/lualib/mwInit.lua at line 17: bad argument #1 to 'old_pairs' (table expected, got nil).
  11. "Kansas City riots, April 1968". Kansas City Star. January 16, 2006. Retrieved 2008-04-12. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)
  12. "West Madison Street 1968". Associated Press. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  13. Jennifer Alice Delton, Racial Integration in Corporate America, 1940-1990 p. 262.
  14. Risen, Clay (April 2008). "The Unmaking of the President: Lyndon Johnson believed that his withdrawal from the 1968 presidential campaign would free him to solidify his legacy". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 18 July 2012.
  15. Risen, Clay (2009). "April 5: 'Any Man's Death Diminishes Me'". A nation on fire : America in the wake of the King assassination. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-17710-5.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Kotz, Nick (2005). "14. Another Martyr". Judgment days : Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the laws that changed America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 417. ISBN 0-618-08825-3.
  17. Risen, Clay (2009). "April 5: Midnight Interlude". A nation on fire : America in the wake of the King assassination. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-17710-5.
  18. "Civil rights during the Johnson administration". LBJ Library. Retrieved 18 July 2012.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Risen, Clay (2009). A nation on fire : America in the wake of the King assassination. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-17710-5.
  20. Johnson, Lyndon Baines (5 April 1968). "182 - Letter to the Speaker of the House Urging Enactment of the Fair Housing Bill". American Presidency Project. Retrieved 19 July 2012. We should pass the Fair Housing law when the Congress convenes next week.
  21. Presidential Recordings Program. "WH6804-01-12910". Johnson Tapes Transcripts. Retrieved 18 July 2012.
  22. Jacob, Mark (30 March 2010). "Recordings show Daley, LBJ worked to stem 1968 riots: President scolded mayor for not asking for help sooner". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 18 July 2012.
  23. Presidential Recordings Program. "WH6804-01-12919". Johnson Tapes Transcripts. Retrieved 18 July 2012.
  24. "Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike (1968)". King Institute Encyclopedia. Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. Retrieved 18 July 2012.
  25. Michael Garofalo; Selly Thiam; Steven Thrasher (4 April 2008). "Sanitation Workers Remember King's Last Stand". NPR. Retrieved 18 July 2012.
  26. Koch, Kathleen (4 April 1998). "Nation's capital still recovering from 1968 riots". CNN. Retrieved 18 July 2012.

External links

  • Letter to Maj. Gen. Thomas G. Wells authorizing him to command national guard and military forces for riot control in Memphis.