StMU Research Scholars

The End of an Era: The Riots After the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

When news broke that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, people couldn’t help but feel anger and outrage. King, who had started a revolution to end social injustice, had just been killed, and many people were left wondering if they would forever be stuck in a never-changing world.1

Soldiers pass Scurlock at 900 Street NW, Washington D.C. after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When black citizens in Washington D.C found out King had been killed, they wanted local stores to close out of respect for this civil rights leader. When stores did not close, this lack of respect sparked a dispute between citizens and the police. What started off as a peaceful mourning ended up a four-day violent riot where people were smashing windows, breaking into stores and hurting each other. Store owners wrote “Soul Brother” on their windows to let rioters know they were black-owned and also mourned King’s death. Because Dr. King didn’t believe violence was the answer, it’s ironic that rioters used violence to show their anger about his assassination.2

 The rioters seemed ready for war and had no plans on stopping, which caused 13,600 troops, along with the National Guard, to try to end the riots. They gave the citizens a curfew and stopped selling alcohol and guns in hopes they would give up on rioting. Although the mayor instructed them not to fire at anyone, troops shot two people and injured many more. In total there was 12 deaths and 1,098 injuries in Washington D.C alone. Throughout the nation, cities such as Chicago, Kansas City, and Baltimore were having their own riots related to the assassination, and the nation accumulated more than 2,500 injuries and 40 deaths. Each city seemed handle the riots in similar ways, but Washington had the most damage and the hardest time getting back to normal after the riots.3

Police continued monitoring the streets, and on April 8, 1968, the city seemed to be done with the riots. The city of Washington D.C started rebuilding after accumulating $25 million in damages during the riot. Some areas were fixed right away, while other areas such as Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW took more than thirty years to return to normal. Due to this rebuilding process, the economy tanked, causing “white flight,” where many white residents moved away from Washington D.C because of the violence occurring in the neighborhoods.4

Lyndon Baines Johnson signing Civil Rights Bill, April 11, 1968 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The riots may have ended, but people across the nation were still hurting and angry. On April 11, 1968 Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act Of 1968, which prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or gender. Many believe that President Johnson signed this act in attempt to prevent any more riots and outbreaks that may have occurred in the nation. Although signing this act didn’t cure racism and didn’t heal the broken hearts of the many people mourning, it was a step in the right direction and the last major act of the Civil Rights Movement.5

  1. Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner, Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, and K. Lee Lerner, City of Memphis v. Martin Luther King Jr. (Detroit: Gale, 2006), 345-348.
  2. Meggin Condino, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination Shocks the Nation (The Arts, Business and Industry: UXL, 2010), 42-44.
  3. Meggin Condino, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination Shocks the Nation (The Arts, Business and Industry: UXL, 2010), 42-44.
  4. Encyclopedia of Social Problems, 2008, s.v. “White Flight.”
  5. Encyclopedia of African American History, 2010, s.v. “Civil Rights Act of 1968.”

51 Responses

  1. This article was well written and covered the aftermath of the association of one of the greatest men in history. When learning history we rarely cover the reality of the aftermath of MLK’s assassination, at most we are taught of his funeral and how America moved forward. But we are rarely taught of what really happened and the pain that Americans felt at the time. This article did a good job of presenting the information relating to the riots and actions taken by the government and President LBJ to prevent further riots.

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