April 5, 1968 – Dr. Martin Luther King Assassination – The Day After – CBS Radio – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
April 5, 1968 – A day of sadness, confusion and rage. Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot and killed in Memphis on the evening of April 4th. News traveled fast, but reaction took a bit longer. What was first met with shock and disbelief soon turned into anger and then rage. Overnight and into the next day, cities erupted in a wave of violence that swept over the country like a tsunami. Civil Rights and civic leaders took to the air to plead for calm, not to resort to violence and destruction that would only hurt those communities that would need it the least.
Though the riots were incited by King’s death, they had other causes. Segregation had been outlawed, but discriminatory housing policies, white flight to the suburbs, and income disparities pushed many Black urban residents into largely African American, low-income areas. These areas were often poorly maintained, and African Americans there were hassled by local police and underemployed.
Starting April 4, civil disturbances broke out in places like Los Angeles, Trenton, New Jersey, Baltimore, and Chicago. Many cities had been taken aback by the violence of the “long, hot summer” of 1967, in which nearly 160 riots broke out nationwide and Detroit became a war zone during five days of rioting. In response, city officials had spent a year preparing for more unrest. So had the military, and as soon as riots broke out the U.S. Army began to mobilize using plans they’d developed in 1967.
President Lyndon Johnson was worried that leaders would respond with unnecessary force. After meeting with Black leaders in his office the night of the assassination, he contacted governors and mayors to ask them not to respond with too much force. Privately, though, Smithsonian notes, he bemoaned their reactions. “I’m not getting through,” Johnson told aides. “They’re all holing up like generals in a dugout getting ready to watch a war.”
Though Johnson spoke on national television asking the public to deny violence a victory, riots had already begun. Then, cities and states began to crack down. In Cincinnati, a curfew was established and 1,500 National Guardsmen flooded city streets. In Pittsburgh and Detroit, even more National Guard members headed in. In places like Baltimore, troops used bayonets and tear gas to keep protesters at bay. And in Washington, D.C., Johnson eventually sent in nearly 14,000 federal troops to subdue the violence.
Here is a special report from CBS Radio, narrated by Douglas Edwards, the day after the assassination. The recording is missing the last sentence and the credits, otherwise it is all there.