A day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 45 years ago, a 4-year-old girl, abandoned and crying, stood in front of a burning building a few blocks from the West Side apartment where the civil rights leader had lived during his open-housing crusade. She was soaked from one of the hose lines firemen were directing at blazes up and down Roosevelt Road. Even as they burned, stores were being looted of groceries, clothing, liquor and television sets.
"All the people were just running past her," Theophilas Love, 20, told a Tribune reporter on April 5, 1968. "They either didn't see her or they just simply ignored her," added Jesse LeSure, 19, who with Love brought the child to the Fillmore police station. When officers couldn't coax a name out of her, Love and LeSure volunteered to take the girl home for the night and return her to the station the next morning. The cops agreed, hoping a family member would come by to report her missing.
Despite the city descending into chaos around them, Love and LeSure stopped to help. Their act is a poignant reminder that human kindness doesn't vanish even amid overwhelming violence and lawless greed.
Though the Tribune's clips were silent on the child's fate, Flashback was able to fill in some blanks. LeSure, now 64 and living in Potomac, about 30 miles northeast of Champaign, said Friday that they took the girl to Love's house because he had a daughter about the same age. The little girl, whose name eluded LeSure after so many years, was reunited with her mother the next day with the help of WVON radio.
"It was really touching," LeSure said of the reunion at the radio station. "The mother ran to her and got on her knees to hug her."
For LeSure, it was a bright spot in a dark period: His neighborhood was in ruins. "Most of the stores we used were destroyed for blocks. It was devastating for all of us."
After King, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was shot down on the balcony of a Memphis hotel on April, 4, 1968, America's cities were shaken to the core by "a spontaneous overflow of pent-up aggression," according to the Chicago Riot Study Committee, appointed by Mayor Richard J. Daley. In Washington, federal troops took up guard positions at the White House and the U.S. Capitol. Other Army units were dispatched to Baltimore, where rioters tossed Molotov cocktails. New York Mayor John Lindsay walked the streets of Harlem, expressing his sorrow at King's slaying, but had to retreat under a barrage of bricks and bottles. The National Guard also was called out in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Greensboro and Raleigh, N.C.
Chicago was no stranger to inner-city disorders. During King's housing campaign in 1966, there were riots in Puerto Rican and African-American neighborhoods. (For more on King's campaign in Chicago, see chicagotribune.com/flashback.) Yet it hadn't experienced the mass destruction other cities suffered. In 1968, however, Chicago's riots were among the most costly of those in 100 American cities.
"It was the crucifixion of a city, with Madison street the blackened, still smoldering nail that had been driven into its heart," wrote a Tribune reporter who witnessed the carnage along another West Side street where buildings were torched during three days of rioting. At the May Sons store, 4114 W. Madison, a policeman advised a Tribune photographer: "If you want pictures, look in back of the store." The accompanying reporter wrote: "The body of a looter was found in the store. At least 700 people — young and old were there. Many were pushing and shoving, trying to get into the store. Others were pushing their way out, their arms loaded with merchandise."
Nearby on Homan Avenue, another Tribune reporter saw "one boy, no more than 7 years old, staggering under his load of cartons of beer." A couple posed for a snapshot in front of a burning building, ignoring police orders to move on.
The entire Chicago Fire Department was engaged in a losing struggle to put out arson fires while ducking snipers' bullets. Reporting a completed assignment, fire companies were told to "take your pick" of another blaze.
After 10,500 police officers couldn't stem the violence, more than 6,000 Illinois National Guardsmen and 5,000 Army troops were sent in, most to the South and West sides.
Among the soldiers was Jeffrey Bates, 21, who'd grown up on the West Side and been wounded three times during the Vietnam War. "I hate to see this happening to Chicago," said Bates, a member of the 1st Armored Division, which was flown in from its base in Fort Hood, Texas. "I've heard that it's the younger kids, the kids in their early teens, who are causing the trouble."
Not all young people, of course. As troops marched down 63rd Street, a Tribune reporter observed "little children enthralled as ever by the sight of soldiers skipped and danced at their sides." But peaceful scenes were more than matched by violent encounters.
On Thursday evening, when news of King's murder arrived, Chicago remained quiet. "Behind thousands of slum doors, however, emotions were bubbling," the Tribune noted.
The next day, students poured out of schools in protest marches that escalated into stone throwing and window breaking. Soon their ranks were joined by looters of all ages, who "swarmed like locusts over the stores," as Police Superintendent James Conlisk said. Nine died, though the number of those shot by police and those killed by snipers and rioters is unclear. Thousands were arrested and dozens of police officers and civilians were injured.
It wasn't until after the uprising was suppressed that Daley made his infamous shoot-to-kill declaration. At a news conference April 15, Daley rebuked Conlisk, saying he thought he had given the police superintendent orders "to shoot to kill any arsonists" and "shoot to maim or cripple" looters. The mayor was outraged that his directives — plus another suggesting that chemical Mace be used on children caught looting — had been ignored.
By that point, 210 buildings had been destroyed, 1,000 people were homeless, and food was scarce in the riot zone. "We don't have nothin' left," a resident said. "Now we will have to walk all the way to the white neighborhoods to go shopping."
And all of this in response to the death of King, an apostle of nonviolence, as the Tribune noted in an April 7 special section devoted to his life and work. Sociological explanations of the unrest were already on the table, a federal commission headed by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner having recently filed an investigation of previous urban riots. But the Tribune didn't buy its conclusion that "white racism is essentially responsible." If poverty was the cause, the Trib asked, "Why, then, were 1,000 persons arrested in the disorders beginning last Friday found to be carrying $85,000 in cash on their persons?"
The Tribune had its own simplistic explanation: "We have spawned a generation raised on the maxims of Baby Doctor (Benjamin) Spock that permissiveness is beautiful." Yet whatever the cause, the consequences of the rioting were clear. Even today, whole blocks on the West Side are still empty, covered with rubble and ruin — a terrible memorial to King, who asked for a different obituary in a sermon shortly before his death:
"Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter."
Editor's note: Thanks to Maria S. Delvalle, of the Old Irving Park neighborhood, for suggesting this Flashback.