Between the years 1964 and 1972, more than 750 riots blazed in cities throughout the country, leaving hundreds dead, thousands injured, and many homes and businesses destroyed. These often violent, spontaneous acts of civil disobedience were sparked by a number of problems facing people living in the nation's poorest neighborhoods, particularly in the urban North.
Despite the efforts of civil rights activists in the South to register voters, integrate schools, and do away with Jim Crow restrictions, discrimination in employment, housing, and schooling remained a significant obstacle for African Americans living in urban ghettos in the North and the West. For them, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights struggle had done little to improve their quality of life. And as many observed on a day to day basis, white racial attitudes had not changed much at all. As blacks migrated to city centers, whites fled to the suburbs, taking their tax dollars and services with them. "White flight," a term coined in the 1960s, left behind a growing concentration of poor non-white residents and, with few local businesses, jobs, and little local funding, urban neighborhoods deteriorated.
Police confrontations also fueled the despair spreading throughout the inner-city. Residents of impoverished neighborhoods often had little or no interaction with local authorities, except law enforcement officers. These largely white officers personified the oppression and hostility many African-Americans endured within their communities. Consequently, police brutality sparked many of the most explosive riots of the late sixties. In Harlem in July 1964, the catalyst for a violent clash was the fatal shooting of a fifteen-year-old African-American boy by a white police officer; in Rochester, in the same month, the arrest of a nineteen-year-old black man at a block party ignited to a two-day riot; in August 1965, in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, a traffic stop and three arrests triggered a six-day uprising; and in Detroit in July 1967, a police raid of an illegal drinking establishment led people to burn and loot the city.
The news of escalating white-on-black violence only exacerbated the frustrations felt by many black Americans. On the morning of 15 September 1963, a bomb exploded in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing 4 young girls and injuring several other children attending Sunday school. The incident led many black Americans, even those espousing Dr. King's nonviolent message, to contemplate violent retaliation, destruction, even murder. "What I saw at Sixteenth Street," Abraham Wood, the son of an SCLC minister remembers, "was the forerunner of what happened. Later it was 'Burn, baby, burn,' and Carmichael. That came later and I saw it coming. I saw it coming."8
The following summer, three civil rights workers were discovered dead in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi, murdered by Klansmen who sought to send a message to the Freedom Summer activists. David Dennis, a leader in the 1964 Freedom Summer, expressed the animosity felt by many. "I've got vengeance in my heart tonight," he stated in a eulogy for one of the fallen, the only black man of the three, "and I ask you to feel angry with me. I'm sick and tired, and I ask you to be sick and tired with me. The white men who murdered James Chaney are never going to be punished. I ask you to be sick and tired of that. I'm tired of the people of this country allowing this thing to continue to happen.... If you go back home and sit down and take what these white men in Mississippi are doing to us... if you take it and don't do something about it... then God d--n your souls!"9
The murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968 was perhaps the most devastating loss for the movement and it crystallized a growing sense of disillusion and despair.
The last years of King's life were difficult ones. By the time of his assassination, the triumphant March on Washington—site of King's legendary "I Have A Dream" speech—was more than five years in the past. The passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 had seemingly brought a successful conclusion to the first phase of the Civil Rights Movement—the struggle against blatant de jure discrimination against blacks in the South. But King and other black leaders immediately discovered that even profound changes to the law didn't necessarily translate into real improvements in black lives. Racial oppression hadn't been completely eliminated by the stroke of President Johnson's pen. The struggle continued.
After 1965, King sought to broaden the scope of the Civil Rights Movement, both geographically and philosophically. He took the struggle beyond the South, targeting the unofficial but still powerful forms of racial discrimination and segregation that afflicted blacks in the North and West. And he began to couch his analysis of racism within a much broader critique of American culture and society, becoming an early and vocal critic of the Vietnam War while also seeking to organize a multiracial "Poor People's Campaign" to take on what he had come to see as the fundamentally class-based inequities of American society.
King's attempt to open up these aggressive new fronts in the freedom struggle shattered much of his support. Many northern whites who had backed his earlier efforts to overturn the worst forms of overt discrimination in the South turned against King when he targeted their own communities, seeking to integrate their own suburban cul-de-sacs or to desegregate their own children's schools. At the same time, King's early and forceful criticism of the Vietnam War—at a time when the vast majority of the American people still backed U.S. intervention there—led many to denounce him as unpatriotic or even anti-American. And his efforts to organize a Poor People's Campaign around class unity rather than racial grievance struck some of his foes as downright communistic. By the last years of his life, King had become more controversial than ever.
At the same time, King's position within the Civil Rights Movement was being challenged by a younger generation of leaders who had begun to question King's vision of nonviolent integration. King's strategy had required civil rights activists to passively endure years of violence and intimidation at the hands of raging white supremacists in order to demonstrate the moral superiority of the antiracist cause. But by the mid-1960s, many young people within the movement were no longer willing or able to turn the other cheek. A new generation of civil-rights militants—Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers—advocated self-defense over nonviolence and sought "Black Power" more than integration with a white community they had come to see as unalterably racist and hateful.
By the mid-1960s, Martin Luther King thus found himself under attack from all sides. Heightening the siege atmosphere were uncountable death threats against King and constant harassment from unfriendly government agencies. Local sheriffs and southern state officials had been using the criminal justice system to target King since 1955; he had been arrested and jailed many times for violating Jim Crow statutes and even put on trial under bogus charges of falsifying his tax forms. But as time went on, the federal government also began taking increasingly forceful measures against King.
J. Edgar Hoover, the dangerously powerful head of the FBI, hated Martin Luther King and sought to use the bureau to infiltrate and disrupt the Civil Rights Movement. Hoover kept King and his associates under constant surveillance, hoping to collect information that could be used to sow discord within the movement or even to blackmail King himself. (In 1964, the FBI sent King a tape recording of a sexual encounter he had had with a woman who was not his wife, along with a note suggesting that he kill himself to avoid public exposure and humiliation; King ignored the threat and, for reasons that that remain unclear, the bureau never released the tape.) The constant attacks against him from enemies both within and without the government left King feeling increasingly fatalistic about his own life, even as he somehow maintained his hopeful faith in the power of nonviolent social change.
This was the context in the spring of 1968 when King decided to intervene on behalf of the mostly African-American sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee, who had gone out on strike against the city garbage department in hopes of winning better wages. On 28 March, a King-led march collapsed into violence and disorder; it was the first and only time in his long career that a demonstration led by King failed to maintain its nonviolent discipline. King, discouraged, left Memphis but vowed to return soon to lead a better-organized campaign. On 3 April, he flew back to the city and gave a powerful, if eerily fatalistic, sermon at the Memphis Temple church. "I've been to the mountaintop," King preached. "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."
The next evening, as Martin Luther King stepped out onto the balcony of his motel room, a single rifle shot rang out from a nearby building. King collapsed to the ground in a heap. He had survived attacks against his life before—a bombing in 1956, a stabbing in 1958—but not this time. The gunshot shattered King's jaw and severed his spinal cord; the great advocate of nonviolent social change would never regain consciousness, and despite being rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery he would be pronounced dead within the hour.
A white ex-convict named James Earl Ray was eventually arrested and charged with King's murder. Given a plea bargain that allowed him to avoid the death penalty, Ray signed a confession admitting to have acted alone in King's assassination. But he soon recanted, claiming for the rest of his life that there had been a broader conspiracy to murder Martin Luther King and that he had been set up as a "patsy" to cover up the truth. Most historians discount Ray's claims and continue to believe he acted as a lone gunman. But many of King's own associates—including, most notably, his widow Coretta Scott King and her children—have long believed that there was indeed a broader conspiracy against King's life, likely involving J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. In 1999, a civil lawsuit filed by the King family surprisingly ended with a jury finding that there had indeed been a government conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King. James Earl Ray died in prison in 1998; the historical record on the King assassination may always remain murky.
But the immediate effects of King's death in 1968 were devastatingly clear. Martin Luther King's assassination, the brutal murder of a lifelong advocate of peace, convinced many young blacks that America had no moral conscience. Nonviolence, many resolved, had failed. As news of King's death spread throughout the country on that horrible night of 4 April 1968, America's inner-cities began to burn as enraged blacks took to the streets in rage and anguish. Riots erupted in more than 100 cities. By the time the uprisings ended a week later, 46 people nationwide lay dead, 35,000 injured, 20,000 jailed. Dr. King himself would have surely disapproved of this unrestrained and self-destructive spasm of anger and violence. But Dr. King was gone. "It may be that looting, rioting and burning," one observer noted, "are really nothing more than a radical form of urban renewal, a response not only to the frustrations of the ghetto but to the collapse of all ordinary modes of change. As if a body, despairing of the indifference of doctors, sought to rip a cancer out of itself."10