April 5, 1968
Riots follow killing of Martin Luther King Jr.
The city erupts.
During the riots after Martin Luther King Jr.'s killing, 350 people were arrested for looting and published accounts say nine to 11 people died. Chicago police, shown here with rifles at the ready, crouch behind a patrol car to take cover from a sniper. (Tribune photo by Don Casper)
On Friday evening, at the beginning of what would become a hellish weekend, commuters jammed Lake Shore Drive in an effort to avoid the chaos along the Eisenhower Expressway.
Many U.S. cities--including Detroit; Newark, N.J.; and Los Angeles--were convulsed by riots in the mid-1960s. Chicago had not escaped unscathed; riots in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in 1966 had seemed major when they happened. Yet the city had been spared the kind of devastation left in the wake of Los Angeles' Watts riots of 1965. With the assassination of King, the city's luck ran out.
Throughout the weekend, police in the Lawndale and Austin neighborhoods on the West Side and in the Woodlawn neighborhood on the South Side rushed from emergency call to emergency call as mobs of men, women and children moved from store to store, breaking plate-glass windows and taking what they found. Television sets, clothing, food and liquor were carted away from largely white-owned businesses that lined Madison Street and Homan and Kedzie Avenues. Fires blazed out of control across the West Side.
Not long after sunset Friday, Army units and the first of 3,000 Illinois National Guard troops arrived to back up police, who had no training for such a civic catastrophe. Military units and fire department crews were greeted by sniper fire, but no soldiers, police or firefighters were killed or seriously hurt. By Saturday afternoon, soldiers in Jeeps bristling with machine guns had secured the overpasses along the Eisenhower from downtown almost to the city's western edge. The fires, shootings and looting continued through Sunday night, but by Monday morning relative quiet had returned.
Mayor Richard J. Daley later told reporters that he had ordered police "to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand . . . and . . . to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city." In the first two days of rioting, police reported numerous civilian deaths but were unable to determine whether they were caused by the riots or other crimes. No official death toll was given for the tragedy, although published accounts say nine to 11 people died during the rioting. Three hundred fifty people were arrested for looting, and 162 buildings were destroyed by arson. Bulldozers moved in to clean up after the rioters, leaving behind vacant lots that remained empty three decades later.