Early Evening, April 4

[from Reservoir / April 4, 2007]

On this date in 1968, a man stepped out onto the balcony of his motel room at 6:01 p.m. He had come to this city to help settle a racially-based labor dispute, but would never live to see its resolution, because as he stood outside he was shot dead at the age of 39.

The city was Memphis; the motel the Lorraine; the man, of course, was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the wake of King’s death, riots erupted in 60 cities across the nation including Chicago, where the West Side burned from April 5 to April 8.

“We’d had enough,” says lifelong Garfield Park resident James Young, 66. “You gotta understand, black folks had been pushed around, held down, whatever you want to call it, for just too long, and Dr. King was hope for us. People hear that hope just got shot by a white man in Memphis, what do you think’s going to happen?”

Young, like many other longtime residents, remembers watching the city become “a war zone” in the days that followed.

“I remember I heard what sounded like a bottle breaking outside,” he says, “and then it was just a week of trying to get the hell out of town.”

“It was awful,” says Dorothy Kennedy, 72. “Just so many people in the streets, people fighting each other, people fighting the police, police coming in here with their guns and clubs and people still going after them. There were buildings on fire, windows smashed, cars getting busted up. You didn’t like seeing this happen right there, right on the street you lived on, but people were mad. Mad as hell.”

Mayor Richard J. Daley, hoping to avoid the large-scale destruction and chaos that befell Detroit, Cambridge and Newark the year before, wasted no time in calling in the National Guard and gave his police force the green-light to use any means necessary in controlling the crowds.

“I have conferred with the superintendent of police this morning,” Daley said famously at an April 6 press conference, “and gave him the following instructions: I said to him very emphatically and very definitely that an order be issued by him immediately and under his signature to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand because they are potential murderers, and issue a police order to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city. Above all, the crime of arson is to me the most hideous and worst crime of any and should be dealt with in this fashion.”

“I was most disappointed,” he added, “to learn that every policeman out on his beat was to use his own discretion. In my opinion they should have had instructions to shoot arsonists to kill and looters to maim and detain.”

As the days went on, the tensions heightened and the situation worsened. Firefighters would go to battle blazes and would be greeted under fire from snipers. Men and women were being detained and left immobile in the streets. Curfews were imposed, and Daley eventually called in the U.S. Army to impose order with 1,200 troops patrolling the West and South Sides.

In all, eight civilians and one firefighter were killed. One-hundred seventy buildings were destroyed by fire alone, 1,250 arrests were made and damage to property was estimated at $10 million. Order was restored, but the city’s tensions were far from eased, as proven later that year when the Democratic National Convention came to town.