Miller Center

The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King

LBJ and MLK | Courtesy of LBJ Library

President Johnson's tapes provide a remarkable inside look at city, state, and federal government officials struggling to establish control over the civil unrest in large, urban cities such as Detroit, Washington DC, and Chicago in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. As the streets erupted in Washington, DC., Chicago, Detroit, and Boston, Johnson struggled to provide local officials with the federal resources they needed to help restore peace to their cities.

In Washington, DC, bands of rioters were taking over streets in at least three predominantly African-American sections of the city. Concluding that “a condition of domestic violence and disorder” existed, at 4:02 P.M. on April 5 President Johnson signed the orders to mobilizing regular Army and National Guard troops in the nation’s capital. By the time the White House announced the order at 5 P.M., heavily armed troops were already protecting the White House and Capitol with a protective ring of troops and machinegun posts overlooking the Mall.1

Another 2,500 troops from the 82nd Airborne waited in reserve at Andrews Air Force Base. It was the first time regular Army troops had been ordered into the city to quell a civil disturbance since the Great Depression, when so-called Bonus Marchers had descended on Washington to protest veteran’s benefits.2

The District’s mayor, Walter E. Washington, instituted a curfew and put a temporary ban on the selling of liquor or possession of firearms or incendiary devices. Tourists, thousands of whom had streamed into town for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, were encouraged to leave the city and the festival’s events were cancelled. Federal government workers were encourage to close their offices early and head home.3

The next day, responding to Mayor Richard Daley’s formal plea for help, Johnson ordered about 5,000 troops to Chicago to help put down what Lieutenant Governor Samuel H. Shapiro called an insurrection on the streets of Chicago. Those troops joined 6,700 Illinois National Guardsmen and over 10,000 Chicago police.4

Casualties, most of whom were African-American, were mounting. Dozens of deaths were reported and hundreds were injured. To cope with the deluge of arrests, courts were operating in three shifts around-the-clock. With many of the accused unable to raise bail, the jails were overflowing.5

By April 7, the situation in Chicago had settled somewhat even as about 210 of the city’s buildings were reduced to smouldering ruins. Heavily armed federal troops patrolled the streets of the city’s South Side. Their commanding officer, Lieutenant General George R. Mather, told reporters that after a day of relative peace, he was “hopefully and cautiously” optimistic that the calm was returning.6

Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen and President Johnson | April 4, 1968

Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen calls President Johnson to update him on the situation in Dr. King's home town of Atlanta and to express his appreciation for President Johnson's statement.

Senator John Stennis and President Johnson | April 6, 1968

Richard Daley and President Johnson | April 6, 1968

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley asks for federal troops.

Richard Daley and President Johnson | April 6, 1968

LBJ tells Daley that the troops are on the way but that he still needs Daley to follow administrative protocol.

Ramsey Clark and President Johnson | April 6, 1968

Attorney General Ramsey Clark provides LBJ with an update on the situation, outlines the procedures that must be followed, and warns against creating the appearance of political favoritism.

Cyrus Vance and President Johnson | April 8, 1968

Deputy Secretary of Defense updates LBJ on the civil unrest in Washington, DC.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and President Johnson | April 19, 1968

Two weeks after Dr. King's assassination, Johnson scolds Richard Daley for the delay in the Chicago mayor in calling for federal troops to help control the unrest on the streets of the city and provides advice on how to to proceed should a similar situation arise in the future.

  • 1. Ben A. Franklins, “Army Troops in Capital as Negroes Riot; Guard Sent Into Chicago, Detroit, Boston,” New York Times, 6 April 1968, p. 1.
  • 2. Ben A. Franklins, “Army Troops in Capital as Negroes Riot; Guard Sent Into Chicago, Detroit, Boston,” New York Times, 6 April 1968, p. 1.
  • 3. Ben A. Franklins, “Army Troops in Capital as Negroes Riot; Guard Sent Into Chicago, Detroit, Boston,” New York Times, 6 April 1968, p. 1.
  • 4. Donald Janson, “G.I.’s on Patrol in Chicago,” New York Times, 8 April 1968, p.1.
  • 5. Donald Janson, “G.I.’s on Patrol in Chicago,” New York Times, 8 April 1968, p.1.
  • 6. Donald Janson, “G.I.’s on Patrol in Chicago,” New York Times, 8 April 1968, p.1.

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