The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

April 4 to 8, 1968: Secret White House recordings after the death of the civil rights leader

Martin Luther King Jr. with Lyndon Johnson in the background
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with President Lyndon Johnson

President Lyndon Johnson's secret White House tapes provide a remarkable inside look at city, state, and federal government officials struggling to establish control over the civil unrest in large cities such as Detroit, Washington, DC, and Chicago in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. As the streets erupted, Johnson struggled to provide local officials with the federal resources they needed to help restore peace.

In Washington, 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 mobilize 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 protecting the White House and Capitol, and machine gun posts overlooked the Mall.1

Walter Washington takes a tour
DC Mayor Walter E. Washington (right) tours the King assassination riot areas

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 veterans' benefits.2

DC Mayor Walter E. Washington instituted a curfew and put a temporary ban on the selling of liquor and possession of firearms or incendiary devices. Thousands of tourists, in town for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, were encouraged to leave the city, and the festival’s events were cancelled. Federal government workers were asked to close their offices early and head home.3

Demonstrators outside White House
Demonstrators outside the White House following the King assassination

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

Casualties, most of whom were African-American, mounted as dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries were reported. To cope with the deluge of arrests, courts operated in three shifts around the clock. With many of the accused unable to raise bail, the jails filled to overflowing.5

By April 7, the situation in Chicago had settled somewhat, leaving about 210 of the city’s buildings smoldering and in ruins. Heavily armed federal troops patrolled 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


Secret White House recordings from April 4, the day of the assassination, to April 8, 1968

 

Martin was my close personal friend. I had great respect and admiration for him.

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

 

Oval office with televisions on
President Johnson and his staff listen to reports about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 


 

I took a little trip through town down there just to get the feel of things.

Mississippi Senator John Stennis to President Johnson | April 6, 1968

 


 

We're in trouble. We need some help.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to President Johnson | April 6, 1968

 


 

They've already been called and told to go.

President Johnson to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley | April 6, 1968

 


 

We know that we're going to decide to send them in. We know we're sending them in. But we want to give the appearance of reconnoitering and having a fact basis to make our own judgment.

Ramsey Clark to President Johnson | April 6, 1968

 


 

It may prove fairly hot there during the night.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance to President Johnson | April 8, 1968

 


  • 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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