April 1968

April 1968

President Johnson faces another crisis when America is rocked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Jump to entry for April 4, 6

April 4

Ivan Allen Jr. in front of microphone
Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. on WKLS-Radio, 1965. Photo: Georgia State University Library

On the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, President Johnson recorded only one telephone conversation, with Atlanta Mayor Ivan E. Allen Jr. The mayor reported that he had been with Coretta Scott King when she received the news that her husband had died of his wounds. The two discussed what would become the most pressing concern for the president in the days that followed: the upsurge of violent unrest in numerous American cities.

Tape: WH6804-01-12812-12908, Lyndon Johnson and Ivan E. Allen Jr.


Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1964
Allen: I want to thank you for your very fine statement that you made so promptly, sir.
President Johnson: Thank you, Mayor.
Allen: We're doing everything we can. We have a very heavy rainstorm here in Atlanta. It's preventing any disorder at the present time. We've been through these situations before. And I think we can cope with them. I'll do everything I can to hold the house in order here, sir. President Johnson: Well, you're mighty, mighty good, and I have great confidence in you, and I know that [coughs] you're right on top of it. I called Mrs. [Coretta Scott] King and—
Allen: I was with Mrs. King when you called.
President Johnson: Well, I—
Allen: I accompanied her to the airport, where we heard of Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.]’s death, and then went home with her. And Mrs. [Louise Richardson] Allen was with me, and we've done everything we possibly could, sir. Martin was my close personal friend. I had great respect and admiration for him, sir.
President Johnson: Uh-huh. Well, you've done a—you done a great job there, and I hope you'll let me know anything—any suggestions you have. [Allen acknowledges throughout.] We had a little problem in Durham, [North Carolina], and we have one here in Washington, [D.C.]. They're moving around. We don't know the extent of it, don't know how serious it's going to be, but they have 2[000] or 3,000 people gathered.
Allen: Yes, sir.
[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]

April 6

Senator John C. Stennis
Senator John C. Stennis

Violent uprisings spread through American cities two days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and President Johnson attempted to reach Mississippi Senator John C. Stennis [D–MS]. In a remarkable exchange, the segregationist senator indicated that he had been unreachable because he had been out on the streets of Washington, “just to get the feel of things” as violence roiled only blocks away from the U.S. Capitol.

Tape: WH6804-01-12909, Lyndon Johnson and John C. Stennis


wrecked building
This April 16, 1968 photo shows the aftermath of violence in Washington DC following the King assassination. Photo: Library of Congress
President Johnson: By God, you're a hard man to find.
Stennis: Oh, well—
President Johnson: Have to get the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] after you.
Stennis: Yeah, I took a little trip through town [Washington, D.C.] down there. Just to get the feel of things. [President Johnson acknowledges.] God bless you in all your efforts everywhere. I wrote you a note.
President Johnson: Where are you?
Stennis: I'm at my office.
President Johnson: Would you—
Stennis: I'm here alone.
President Johnson: Would you mind riding down here and visiting with me a little bit with General [William C.] Westmoreland?
Stennis: Oh, I'd be delighted to, of course.
[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]

Richard Daley in conversation with Lyndon Johnson
Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley with President Johnson, April 1966

Late in the afternoon of April 6, Chicago Mayor Richard J. "Dick" Daley called the president to ask that federal troops be sent to his city. Although 6,000 Illinois National Guardsmen had been in Chicago since the previous day, they could no longer contain the situation. Johnson agreed, and the two discussed the process for implementing such a request. Illinois Governor Otto Kerner was out of the state, so Lieutenant Governor Samuel H. Shapiro would have to make the official request for troops. The president worried about negative press coverage of the uprisings, particularly in Washington, DC.

Tape: WH6804-01-12910, Lyndon Johnson and Richard J. Daley


President Johnson: Yes, Dick.
Daley: We're in trouble. We need some help.
President Johnson: Yes? I was afraid of that.
Daley: Yes. It's starting to break down in different places.
President Johnson: Yeah.
Daley: And we just met with our people, and they felt that we should try to get some federal assistance. I’ve talked to Governor [Samuel H.] Shapiro, and he's ready to do anything and everything.4 So we’re needing help as soon as we can get it.
President Johnson: All right. First thing you ought to do is talk to the Attorney General [W. Ramsey Clark] and see what kind of a finding his legislature's got to make.5 In the meantime, we'll—I’ve talked to the Attorney General. I told him I'd called early this morning and told you, because they have to move from California, [Daley acknowledges] you see? They won't do any good tonight.
Daley: Mm-hmm. Well, we—
President Johnson: That's why—
Daley: —hope to get them in tonight, if we can.
President Johnson: Well, we—
Daley: Where is Ramsey tonight?
President Johnson: [Daley acknowledges throughout.] He's right here at the Department of Justice, and I'll switch you over there now, and you can talk to him, but the Governor has to for[mally]—you know the finding they have to make? They have to make a finding in the state that you've used all your Guard, that you've used all your facilities, that you're unable to take care of the situation, and therefore, you ask for federal troops. Then he has to make a finding for the president, and the president has to issue an order. That is to keep a president from doing it except for the . . . at the instance of local officials.
Daley: I see.
President Johnson: Now, that's what I anticipated this morning, [Daley acknowledges throughout] and I knew dark was coming, and I knew if we thought we'd better have them, they ought to be moving.
Daley: Well, these fellows kept saying to you, you know, which they will. But now this—we had a meeting—
President Johnson: [Daley acknowledges throughout.] That's what they did to me all day yesterday, and I just cried. I [unclear]—I ate my fingernails off, and I finally ordered them in on my own while the mayor [Walter E. Washington] couldn't make up his mind.6 And we got them in, but they got big headlines here today.7 Here's the—"Too Little, Too Late? Long Stretches of the Capital Laid to Waste; What It Cost: 690 Injured, 299 Fires." So, what we'll do is we'll—we will . . . have Governor Shapiro call Ramsey, and I'll have Ramsey alert to the call. He'll be waiting for it.
Daley: All right.
[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]