[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]
Very little gets said about the riot that raged after the murder of Martin Luther King. Yet this history is ever-present, written large in the vacant lots and boarded up buildings along once-busy West Side business districts.
The point of this project has been to speak with those who were most impacted by the riot, but whose voices we have not heard: the residents of communities that experienced violence and disorder. In the earliest stages of the project I realized that the “official story” contains errors and biases; and the voices that compose it are heard from only selectively.
A caption in a colorful, two-page spread on the year 1968 in the Encyclopedia of Chicago reads, “Some two miles of the commercial heart of Lawndale on West Madison were little more than charred rubble.” Madison Street, as any West Sider can tell you, does not run through Lawndale. A harmless typographical error, but indicative of how those on “the outside” often fail to consult the knowledge of those most intimately connected to the events they study.
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Diane Gardner: We had reports in school about Martin Luther King. We had to learn some of his speeches, that he was a Civil Rights leader. Just the basics.
Geraldine Haracz: Martin Luther King wasn’t a big a deal to a lot of people at the time. He was just another protester, so to speak. Somebody else to listen to, another voice. Although his was more of a reasonable one, the peaceable person. Others were more violent in their behavior, but they wanted to be heard.
Mary Ann Alexander: I wasn’t looking for the Great Black Hope. He didn’t change anything too much ‘cause we still had housing problems.
Joan Green: He was the voice for a lot of Blacks back then. We felt that we finally had someone that could voice their opinion in a way people, Black or white, could understand.
Al Johnson, Sr.: By me being a child I used to think that he was a troublemaker. It seemed that every time I would see the news he would be in these marches and there would always be trouble. I figured he was the one that was inciting it. I didn’t understand at the time. But then once it was explained to me what he was doing and why, then I got a clearer understanding of what the peace movement was all about.
Clarence Langworthy: Everything he said and did was for the benefit of the Black man. I wouldn’t say he was no saint or nothing like that, but I respected him because I knew how it felt to be segregated. I was born in 1927 in Eudora, Arkansas, thirteen miles north of the Louisiana line, right across the Mississippi River. It was ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir.’ If I was walking down the road I would have to get out of the way otherwise that white man would run me down.
Barbara Townsend: I didn’t know anything about him until his death.
Mercedes Williams: You could feel something was going to happen. The way he talked, looked like he knew something was going to happen to him. It seemed like he preached his own funeral.
Mary Gordon-Dixon: My brother was wounded in the Vietnam War that day. I was still at school. My mother then sent for us to come from school and then she told us what had happened to my brother. They would be shipping him back stateside, to the Great Lakes Medical Base. His wound was in his stomach area and his leg, he had a lot of shrapnel. They had to put a metal rod in his left leg.
Al Johnson, Sr.: My family and I were sitting at home watching the news. At that time Vietnam was the topic because every time you turned on the TV you saw something concerning the war. There was breaking news that Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee.
Barbara Townsend: My mom was getting my hair done so when we went to church on Sunday morning she wouldn’t have to do anything but just brush over it. We had the radio on because we didn’t have a television, and when it came across that Martin Luther King was killed there was silence.
Al Johnson, Sr.: My mom, I can remember her screaming and crying. My father, he was really upset. He grabbed her, to try to calm her down. I just dropped my head and started to cry.
My siblings, by them being young, didn’t have any understanding of what was going on or who Martin Luther King was. It was a disturbing moment for me, a very disturbing moment.
Barbara Townsend: I don’t know how much my mother knew about Martin Luther King and the things he was doing, because I didn’t know anything about him. It was quiet. I didn’t know what questions to ask.
Diane Gardner: We were watching television and it was interrupted and the house got quiet. My mom said, “Lord have mercy.” I remember sadness, crying. Shortly after that was when people started pouring out of their houses.
Al Johnson, Sr.: People came out of their apartments screaming, “They killed him! They killed him! They finally killed him!” It wasn’t a riot, but people were really angry.
Our apartment faced the corner, Maypole and Lake. We stood out in front of the apartment, I could see people running up and down the street, some holding their heads, saying “I can’t believe this.” Cars had stopped in the streets. People were losing their dag-blamed minds.
My dad told people to calm down because doing that is not gonna bring him back, it’s just going to make things worse for people in the neighborhood. Some people listened but some cursed at him, you know, “F-you, they killed our leader.”
Prentiss Alexander: I was working a second shift. I got home, man, there was no lights in the neighborhood and my street was black, over on Jackson, near Pulaski. Just black. No street lights, no lights in the house because the electricity was off. I barely got out of the car, man, I looked out the window and people are turning cars over. And then the stuff hit the fan, man.
Delores Williams: I was working as a nurse in the burn unit at Cook County Hospital. I was working a 3 to 11 shift that day. We all just stopped. It was just maybe a minute. My thoughts were, how could this be? What’s next?
After we got over the initial shock we all met up in the lobby, downstairs on the first floor, and the unit administrator, Ms. Hunt, said we would be starting a disaster plan. One nurse asked, “Do you think we will have trouble?” and Ms. Hunt said, “I am willing to bet it’s going to be a riot, because Dr. King is dead.” We knew that he had got shot, but we did not know he had died until she came over.
The riot actually started on the fourth. The backload of people coming in started between seven p.m. and eight p.m.. Many of these people had been assaulted, some of them had been taken out of their cars. Some people stated that they had been hit by bats. One man, his nose was broken in two places. The jaw was fractured. We had one lady, she had went into labor and she had been hit with some object and apparently some person had kicked her in the head with a heavy shoe. She lost that baby. She almost bled to death.
I worked until three o’clock the next day. In the p.m.. 24 hours.
Mary Gordon-Dixon: Most people’s parents was just getting off of work, and some of the older people were out. It was April, it was nice, it was the beginning of spring. People was running through the streets yelling, “Dr. King’s just been killed! Dr. King’s been assassinated!”
I saw people that was just getting off the bus, walking into the building and somebody said, “Did you just hear? Dr. King got assassinated!” And they would breakdown and cry right then and there where they were at. People were crying on the elevators.
Malcolm Smith: I see everybody out on the streets, I mean, the whole neighborhood out in the streets, people just runnin’ around crazy. A whole crowd of people runnin’ around the streets yelling, “Martin Luther King got killed!” I saw all the bigger guys, older than me, grown-up people, they tearin’ down things, pullin’ down things, bendin’ up things, all this kinda stuff.
All down 35th, all down 39th, all down 43rd, all down 47th, Michigan, Indiana, South Parkway, anywhere there were stores at, things were hit. The owners were out there saying, “You can have everything.” They was like throwin’ their hands up, “You can have everything, just let us go.”
Jamesetta Mixon: In our neighborhood people began to gather outside, across the street, and some were talking about tearing things down. There was a lot of cursing, people saying things like: “Those MF’s killed the only man who didn’t do anything to them.” “Let’s retaliate, we got all these white people in our neighborhood selling us bad food.” All kinds of things like that.
My friends and I, there were probably eight of us, all in our late teens; we were gunned up and on the roof of the church across the street. We sat on that roof for maybe two, three, maybe four hours. We were going to shoot at the police or anything white that came into our neighborhood. That was the plan. Nobody could see us but we could see everything.
We had a grocery store called Red Rooster on State Street. I never had any bad experiences there but it used to smell sometimes. The food was just not the same quality you would find in a white neighborhood store, and it was much more expensive. The Red Rooster burned down that night, which I later thought was a dumb move because now we didn’t have a grocery store. But at the time it seemed right, get Whitey out of the neighborhood.
Another store on the corner burned. People even burned down the little newspaper stand on 51st and State. There was looting down 47th street. People were breaking into stores; televisions, jewelry was being stolen, a cleaners on 47th was broken in to, owned by a white person. It was a mess. But it was all in retaliation because of King’s death.
The police did not show up until the fires started. They let us destroy things in our neighborhood before they showed up.
When the police did arrive none of us fired a shot. We were afraid to; none of us had taken anybody’s life. We still had the violence in our heart to do something, but to take a life; we just couldn’t take that step. I do believe if push had come to shove some people up there probably would have. If there had been a point that they were facing The Man, the pigs, as we called them then, I think some of the guys might have because they had those tendencies.
After the fires had started, we climbed down from the roof and the guys loaded the guns into a truck parked off in the alley, before the fire engines arrived. The guys took off and we went back to our homes. We felt like we had lost because we didn’t do anything, but now that I think about it we won because we could have lost our lives.
Joan Green: We was in the house. We lived on the nineteenth floor of Cabrini. 1119 N. Cleveland. Those were the red projects. 1906, in 1119. It was just panic all through the building. I cried because I saw the older people crying. They was telling us, “They killed Martin Luther King because they didn’t like that fact that he was speaking out about prejudice.”
Clarence Langworthy: I was working at 3700 North Lincoln, the Green Mills Corporation. When I started in 1965 there were only three Black people working there.
I had to go through Belmont, the people there they’d roll their eyes or keep an eye on me, see what I was doing, stuff like that. I knew I was being watched. At a place on Lincoln and Grace, I used to have lunch there, there was a few people who said some things I didn’t like, pertaining to my race and what went on over on the West Side. I got into a little scuffle, just words. But I had no fear of traveling over in there.
Diane Gardner: Mobs of people destroyed everything, I remember a lot of broken glass. We lived right by a jewelry store so jewelry was on the ground, but my parents had put the fear of God in us, so we wouldn’t touch anything.
Mary Ann Alexander: My mom was watching my kids, she lived on Karlov. I had to go right into the heart of the looting. I remember a guy with a TV, people with alcohol. And they weren’t trying to get out the way, they were walking just like you and me would, with the stuff! No fear.
Al Johnson, Sr.: Anything people needed for the home they went out and got. Some were church members, and they went out and did this stuff. My future-wife’s uncle went out and got him a lot of suits and clothing. I still see him often, we were discussing that. He regrets that he did that.
Some people who had looted a clothing store offered my dad some suits but he refused to take them. He said nothing good would come out of this. A guy told him, “You’re foolish, you got a family, I know you need this.” My dad said, “Yeah I need it, but I don’t need it this way.”
Janice Rolling: My father, he did loot, cause he came home with a lot of stuff, he and my brother.
Mercedes Williams: Oh Lord! It was terrible!
Janice Rolling: He always provided for us.
Mercedes Williams: Oh Lord! Oh! I don’t want to talk about that.
Malcolm Smith: People were going into stores, taking everything. Clothing stores, food stores, shoe stores. You’d see people with all kind of big bags. Every drunk on the corner had a new pair of shoes, new clothes. (Laugh) People was fighting over shoes, pushing each other down, trying to snatch stuff. Some people didn’t even go into the stores; they’d wait until you came out and snatch it then. It was a riot. People had so many shoes and clothes, so, I seen them start doing it, we start doing it too.
My friends egged me on. “You might as well go in; everybody else is getting something…” I kept on hesitating, I was standing there holding out, saying, “Ah, I don’t wanna go and do all that.” I was too scared to go in the store. So I just said “I might as well go on in there and (smiling) get a couple bags of shoes.” (Now quiet and serious) I got a couple bags.
How’d them shoes fit?
None of ‘em! I didn’t know what I was doin’, shoot. I think I ended up with more women’s shoes than I did men’s shoes. You didn’t have time to look at nothing! You had to grab cause everybody grabbin’. Just grab whatever; grab, put it in the bag, and get out the door!
Prentiss Alexander: My uncle got killed on Madison. He told his sister, my auntie, that he was going to get him a TV. She tried to warn him, you know, don’t go out there cause Mayor Daley put out a “shoot to kill” order. But he went anyway. And they never found his body. He probably got shot in one of them burning buildings and got burned up. He was around the 4200 block, around Karlov there.
Joan Green: The police didn’t stop anyone. They stood there and let a lot of it happen. Pioneer and Del Farms (two grocery stores near Larrabee) were burnt down and after that they never rebuilt.
Jamesetta Mixon: My friend Evelyn’s boyfriend lived on the West Side, and he came to visit her that weekend and told her that a lot of stuff got burnt up. He was glad about it, and he felt people should have done more. He said he wasn’t in on the arson but he did loot two television sets. He gave one to Evelyn, so she had a television in her own bedroom, something nobody had in those days. Many black people could not even afford one television.
Prentiss Alexander: They wanted any excuse. They were poor, poverty-stricken. The white man killed King, the white man suppressing us in the ghetto, and now we retaliate. Go out there… take a suit, don’t buy it, you can steal it. Take the TV. Most of those people probably didn’t even know who King was. Any excuse to go out and loot and take the things they wanted.
Clarence Langworthy: If he would not have been killed I don’t think there would have been a riot.
Malcolm Smith: I don’t think I went into a second store. After that, that’s when it really started sinking in, when people started snatching folks off the bus it just turned me upside down.
I’m seein’ the city buses stop, and people are snatching people off buses, just beatin’ people off the bus and I thinking, ‘Oh Lord now they’re taking it to a whole new different level.’ People were breakin’ car windows with bats, oh Lord have mercy, people just snapped, they was fed up. They didn’t care if they lived or died no more. They was just out there, takin’ it to the killing floor.
Al Johnson, Sr.: One Caucasian instructor, Mr. Don Orton, we feared for his safety so a couple guys and I escorted him to the El so he could make it home safely. I had to catch the bus from Damen all the way to Maypole, and that’s when I got firsthand what was actually happening.
On the Roosevelt bus I saw fires, people running everywhere, busting out windows, some people even fighting amongst themselves. I saw people coming out of stores with TVs. A grocery store, Big B’s, was attacked. A restaurant next door was vandalized. The only place that they didn’t touch, which was crazy, was the liquor store.
Geraldine Haracz: Teachers usually had to leave the building by four o’clock. This particular Friday they had us all leave by three.
I was thinking, “Just get me home, just get me past this street. I’m on Central Avenue now, let me get to the Expressway. Let me get to Pulaski.” As I was driving I could see the police closing off streets, parking their cars across certain streets. They were directing traffic towards different routes.
I saw people going in and out of buildings, but they weren’t carrying anything. They could have just been hurrying home themselves. I saw storekeepers closing buildings, putting up their wire fences. I did see some bricks being thrown, I could see smoke in certain places. I knew better than to stop.
Al Johnson, Sr.: When I got to Pulaski, thank God there was a bus waiting right there. There was a white guy on the bus and a gang of people tried to attack him. He’s just sitting on the bus, minding his own business, and he’s in a predominantly black neighborhood heading north, so I imagine he was trying to get home. He got off the bus and ran, which I think was a bad idea.
Mercedes Williams: We had to go through an area they were tearing up. Them young boys, all you had to do was snap your finger and somebody would go off. It didn’t take much to start something.
Janice Rolling: She made us get on the floor of the car. She didn’t want us to see anything that was going on.
Mercedes Williams: I seen the water, but I didn’t see the fires. There was water everywhere.
Clarence Langworthy: I lived at 4300 West End, just two blocks north of Madison Street. While the riot was burning I could stand on my back porch and could look out and see the flames. That’s how close it was, I could see the flames up and down Madison. I never did go over there and get involved.
Barbara Townsend: We could see the fire light up the sky, the redness in the background.
Prentiss Alexander: You couldn’t go downtown to the Loop, you couldn’t go down North Avenue. Or into Oak Park, the Oak Park Police had it blocked off. I had to go to work, I couldn’t call my boss and say, “King is dead, I can’t come to work.” I had to make it to my car and be at work by four o’clock.
Joan Green: We wasn’t supposed to go out, but I snuck out. That was the first time I had ever seen Army trucks, other than from the TV! The National Guard had guns, I had never seen anything like it. And you didn’t see not one Black face amongst the troops. When they was patrolling the area, you didn’t see any Black. I was like, how is that? I remember people throwing rocks at the Guards, because I guess they were invading our space, our community.
Shoot to Kill
Prentiss Alexander: I was at my house on 4009 Jackson, and I walked over to Madison to go to a restaurant. The police were out and a little boy threw a rock at them. He threw it right over my head. I looked and about six, seven police pointed guns at me, I had to dive on the ground. I yelled, “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!” That little boy thought it was funny. I wanted to kill him. If I had caught that little boy I would have killed him.
Jamesetta Mixon: I do remember the “shoot to kill” order, but I can’t remember the day or time I heard about it. But I was terrified. To me it was like a Hitler thing, a mass genocide, only instead of putting people in gas chambers the police could shoot them down in cold blood on the street. Nobody said outright that the mayor had issued that at the time, that came out later.
At that time my brother would just go out with his friends, go all over the city. We were afraid for him and his friends because we knew that “shoot to kill” was aimed at no one but black people. My mom had tried to convince my brother to stay home, but he wouldn’t do it.
Malcolm Smith: Monday or Tuesday, that’s when the National Guard came in. They had a loudspeaker, they even had tanks out there. “You are ordered to get off the street. Six o’clock is curfew. If you are caught on the street after six o’clock you will be arrested or you will be shot on site.”
That’s what the exact words were, I remember it so plainly, those words. It made me feel really scared. It made me feel helpless too.
Geraldine Haracz: I heard students talking about it that Friday; it was whispered that policemen had the order to “shoot to kill.”
Daley was never one to keep his temper. I think he said “shoot to kill” to keep the agitators from deciding to do more. You have to realize that with what happened in Detroit [in July 1967], it seemed to be the same thing happening here after Martin Luther King. It wasn’t planned, but it was expected. And yeah, the police said they had the order to shoot to kill.
The public’s knowing about the “shoot to kill” order came at the end, after everything had calmed down. The police knew it was an order that had been given, but the general public did not know. The only reason I knew was because policemen lived in my neighborhood, and they told me things like that.
Joan Green: You know how today adults will talk and children will just sit there and listen to the conversations? Back in those days if company came over for our parents, our parents asked us to get up and go in the back. We knew the rules of the house. You could not sit there and get in an adult conversation. So I wasn’t hearing what the adults said. Kids weren’t allowed to get into an adult conversation.
Mary Ann Alexander: A lot of times we don’t want to be the bearer of bad news to our children.
Barbara Townsend: Church was an uplift. We had teachers in the congregation, and in talking they gave us our history, a sense of who we are, and that we could still do things. They gave us a history of what Dr. Martin Luther King was about and how he had benefited us.
Diane Gardner: As a kid I thought, where were we going to live? I thought we had to move.
Clarence Langworthy: When I finally went over to Madison Street, I think it was a week later. The police was over there all the time, and there was nothing really to see. Stores burned, business gone. Nothing pretty to look at.
Janice Rolling: It looked like a ghost.
Mercedes Williams: It’s never been the same.
Janice Rolling: Madison and Pulaski never came back. And it had top stores up there.
Prentiss Alexander: I was just 26, 25 years old. I had a different perspective on Black people because I thought they had more going for them during that time, with Black Power, and different movements. I thought Black people had it together.
Malcolm Smith: Black people didn’t plan this. It’s not like a person got together and sit down and plan this, “We gon’ hit this, we gon’ hit this.” It just exploded, like an atom bomb went off. We wasn’t used to livin’ that way. We had a harmony, a peace.
Mary Ann Alexander: Nothing was any different with me. It was work as usual.
Barbara Townsend: The block I lived on, now that whole block, there’s only one building standing, one building standing from there on the side of the street I lived on.
Malcolm Smith: I think most of the people was saying, “Why did you tear up things in your own neighborhood? Why didn’t you go outside the neighborhood and tear up other stores? Why didn’t you go into Bridgeport and tear things up?”
How would you answer that question?
How would I answer that question? Why didn’t we go into Bridgeport? Basically, I think one reason is that when you frustrated sometimes you just get the closest thing to you. Just like when you come home from work and you got a bad job, you’ve had a bad day, and you take it out on your wife ‘cause she’s the closest one to you. Basically that’s what I think it was.
Diane Gardner: If you were to go on the West Side you’ll still see boarded up buildings, from ’68, to this day. They never redid the neighborhood. It’s still destitute.
Clarence Langworthy: I’ve seen progress. I’ve seen more Black people in businesses. Housing has improved since then, quite a bit. I’ve seen my neighborhood improve, although not as well as I want to see it. I’ve seen jobs hire more Blacks, male and female. Black people are in politics. Many new schools built, although we still need more. I don’t glorify the riots, but I say sometimes you have to do things to wake people up.
Delores Williams: The riot destroyed hope, it destroyed morale, I think it put a bigger separation between Black and white.
Diane Gardner: I remember waiting for help but help never came. To this day, help never came. ◊