Fifty years ago, at about 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while standing on the second-floor balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee.
About an hour later, President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was just wrapping up a White House meeting with the governor of Georgia and the president of Coca-Cola, learned that the iconic civil rights leader had been killed.
Tapes at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center can help the public piece together exactly what Johnson did in the ensuing days.
“You can really see crisis management in action at this harrowing moment in American history,” said Guian McKee, a professor of presidential studies at the Miller Center, who has extensively studied the Johnson White House tapes.
Johnson and King had a strong relationship; even if they did not entirely trust each other, they had worked together on landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The president knew that King’s loss would be widely and deeply felt, and he also knew that it brought risks of widespread protest and civil unrest. America in 1968 was already combustible, as divisions around the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War deepened. King’s assassination, Johnson realized, would likely ignite all of that simmering tension.
He was correct: riots erupted and continued in about 100 American cities for about a week as angry, frustrated civilians took to the streets.
It was one of the toughest weeks of a tumultuous year, and one that McKee says holds many lessons for our time. That’s why the Miller Center has launched “Remembering 1968: A Cataclysmic Year,” a project sharing White House recordings from pivotal moments that year that helped reshape civil rights and civil discourse. The recordings, released through the Presidential Recordings Digital Editions of UVA Press’s Rotunda digital imprint, offer a window into a year that would dramatically change the country.
“Some of the divisions that came to a peak and emerged so clearly in 1968 have never really healed. They persist today in our partisanship and our inability to talk across lines, whether they are political, cultural or regional,” McKee said. “This moment, in a way, is still our moment.”
Listen in to see how Johnson handled this particular crisis moment by moment.
April 4, 1968: President Johnson with Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen
Once he heard of King’s death, the president faced three immediate tasks, according to McKee.
First, he needed to directly address the sorrow that came with the sudden, violent death of such a prominent and respected civil rights leader. Johnson quickly made a public statement and, as he recounts to Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen here, called King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, to convey his condolences. Allen had accompanied Coretta King home from the airport after she learned of her husband’s death and was with her when Johnson called.
Check out the conversation in the audio clip and transcript below.
Ivan E. Allen, Jr.: 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.
President Johnson: 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 or 3,000 people gathered.
Johnson also needed to contain the protests and riots that were already erupting. You can hear the worry in the president’s voice as he tells Allen that there are 2,000 or 3,000 people massed in the streets of Washington, D.C. Allen, a Southern Democrat, is also focused on preventing riots in his city.
“Allen represents the Atlanta business community, and though many there did not necessarily want integration, they did not want any problems or riots,” McKee said. That is partly why Allen went to accompany Mrs. King. He wanted to immediately convey the city’s sympathy and hopefully calm some of the anger in the streets.
“Both Allen and Johnson are already well aware of the stakes,” McKee said. “They know there is going to be trouble.”
Because this is politics and 1968 was a presidential election year, Johnson also knows he needs to shield his administration and the Democratic Party from the fallout.
Even on this call, Allen and Johnson allude to the political climate. Allen expresses his disappointment that Johnson had chosen not to seek reelection, a shocking decision that the president had announced the Sunday before King’s assassination. Like many Southern politicians, Allen did not favor the other Democratic candidates at the time, Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy.
“All of the politics of the election are still there,” McKee says. “How Johnson handles this crisis will figure into all of those political situations, whether it’s Johnson’s own possible reentry in the race, his support of future nominee Hubert Humphrey, or his desire to block Bobby Kennedy.”
April 6, 1968: President Johnson with Sen. John C. Stennis
Two days after the assassination, the riots have not tapered off; they have escalated. A worried Johnson tracks down another Southern politician, Democratic Sen. John C. Stennis of Mississippi.
Unlike Allen, Stennis is an outspoken segregationist. He tells the president he has been out on the streets of the capitol, scoping out the riots.
“I took a little trip through town down there. Just to get the feel of things,” Stennis says.
President Johnson: Senator?
John C. Stennis: Yeah, good morning, Mr. President.
President Johnson: How are you?
Stennis: Oh —
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.
It’s a small moment in the scheme of the crisis, McKee said, but a fascinating vignette nonetheless.
“This is someone who is a hard-core segregationist, who has not accepted that they can’t reverse the Civil Rights Act,” McKee said. “The rioting is in full swing at this point, and we get this picture of the senator from Mississippi out there checking it out. That is a fascinating detail.”
In the tape, Johnson also mentions an upcoming meeting with Stennis and U.S. Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland, likely about the Vietnam War. It’s a reminder that Johnson still has many other problems on his hands.
“The tapes really capture the nature of the presidency. You don’t get to focus – you just have to hit the next ball that is pitched,” McKee said. “It’s inevitable, but it’s also more reactionary than we would like.”
April 6, 1968: President Johnson With Chicago Mayor Richard Daley
In this phone call with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, the true scope of the nationwide riots begins to emerge.
Daley, a Democrat and one of Johnson’s political allies, tells Johnson point-blank, “We’re in trouble. We need some help.” He urgently asks Johnson for 5,000 federal troops to supplement the National Guard units already in Chicago.
“Washington is already in flames, and now Johnson gets the call from Daley that Chicago is losing control,” McKee said.
Richard J. “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: [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. And we got them in, but they got big headlines here today. Here’s the — "Too Little, Too Late? Long Stretches of the Capital Laid to Waste; What It Cost: 690 Injured, 299 Fires."
Johnson is clearly agitated, both about the riots themselves and the political implications. He reads off a press headline accusing him of doing “Too Little, Too Late” and citing 690 injuries and 299 fires in Washington.
The president is also concerned, however, about following correct protocols for states requesting federal troops. His administration had enforced those protocols during 1967 riots in Detroit. Johnson wants to avoid any appearance of fast-tracking things for Daley, a Democrat, when he did not do that for Michigan’s Republican governor, George W. Romney.
“He doesn’t yet mention Romney by name, but he is already thinking about that process,” McKee said. “That is why he is making sure that Daley takes all of the proper steps.”
April 6, 1968: President Johnson with Attorney General W. Ramsey Clark
Johnson gets U.S. Attorney General W. Ramsey Clark on the phone after Clark has talked with Daley about sending troops to Chicago. Again, both men emphasize protecting themselves from any accusations of political favoritism.
“We need to reconnoiter and make the judgment, like we did in Detroit, to keep Romney from saying, ‘Well, he takes care of his buddies like Daley, but he doesn’t take care of his political enemies like Romney,” Clark tells the president.
W. Ramsey Clark: In addition, we’ve got to protect ourselves from Governor [George W.] Romney, and we can do it without losing any time. [President Johnson acknowledges.] But, to do it, we’ve got to hold off signing this thing—
President Johnson: Yeah, we’re not—I’m going to—not going to act on it till we get his request, as you dictate it to him, if we get it, and then we’ll talk about it after you get it.
Clark: Yeah, but you’re going to have to … you’re going to — we need to reconnoiter and make the judgment, like we did in Detroit, to keep Romney from saying, "Well, he takes care of his buddies like Daley, but he doesn’t take care of his political enemies like Romney."
“This is where the politics becomes explicit,” McKee said. “There is a lot of playing defense against any political charges, even as they are trying to prevent the crisis from getting worse.”
Johnson and Clark discuss the logistics of getting troops to Chicago and, importantly, decide to go ahead and start mobilizing the troops even as they wait for Daley and Illinois Lt. Gov. Samuel H. Shapiro to complete the formal steps necessary to request aid from the federal government.
April 6, 1968: President Johnson With Richard Daley
In a second phone call to the president, Daley is seeking reassurance that more troops will be in Chicago that night, not the next day. The city was struggling with looting, arson and violence that would eventually lead to 11 deaths and destroy wide swaths of buildings and he does not want to go another night without more military power.
Johnson tells the mayor that his attorney general has already mobilized the troops and the planes will be on the runway with “the motors running” so that they can take off as soon as the formal request comes in. He knows he is walking a fine line by effectively setting the order for more troops in motion before it was officially given.
President Johnson: I told Ramsey to go ahead, even before he got the call. We won’t make a record of it, but just —
Richard J. “Dick” Daley: All right.
President Johnson: — to tell him — tell them to put the planes in the air just as soon as he can. [Daley acknowledges throughout.] Now, it looks like that you won’t get much help until a pretty late hour, midnight till daylight, and it’s hard to get them deployed, but they’ll be moved. I told them this morning, just keep them with the [unclear] the motors running until we got the request.
“It does not sound like they are actually violating the formal process, but they are getting everything ready to go,” McKee said.
The president’s willingness to walk back, even slightly, on his earlier determination to follow protocol to the letter shows the growing pressure he was under, McKee said.
“They know they need to get the troops there as quickly as possible,” he said.
April 6, 1968: President Johnson With Cyrus Vance
After dealing with Chicago, Johnson is still trying to contain the unrest in his own backyard. He reaches out to Cyrus Vance, his former deputy secretary of defense, to learn more about the situation in Washington.
Though Vance had stepped down as deputy secretary at this point, he had played a key role in addressing the 1967 riots in Detroit, and Johnson is eager for his expertise.
Cyrus R. "Cy" Vance: The 2nd Precinct, which is the one I mentioned to you this afternoon, is a troublesome one. The 13th Precinct, to the north of that. These are in the 7th Street area, and going over towards 14th Street. I have expected trouble in the 9th Precinct, although General [Charles S.] O’Malley [Jr.] comes in and says that the situation is now better there than it has been at any other time. However, my own guess is that it may prove fairly hot there during the night.
“This one is interesting because of Vance’s on-the-ground reporting,” McKee said.
Vance tells the president about riots in Washington’s 2nd and 13th precincts, as well as on 7th Street and 14th Street, which runs near the White House and the U.S. Capitol.
“The riots got very close to the White House, and you could see the smoke from the Capitol,” McKee said.
It’s a brief clip, but it gives the listener a good idea of the tensions and logistical concerns that would occupy the White House for several more days.
All told, the riots continued nationwide for about a week. Around 39 people died in cities across the country, many more were injured and many businesses were damaged or destroyed. More than 21,000 federal troops were deployed, in addition to local and state police.
Difficult as the week was, it was far from the end of 1968’s turmoil. As Miller Center recordings released later this year will show, tensions continued to build and erupt around several more pivotal events, including the June 6, 1968 assassination of Bobby Kennedy and riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which again drew thousands of protestors into the streets.
“It was an extraordinary moment of division in the country,” McKee said. “That is one of the legacies, of this moment and of 1968 as a whole, that we still carry today.”