When America Burned After the King Assassination: An Interview With Author Clay Risen


The topic below was originally posted on my blog, the Intrepid Liberal Journal.

Tomorrow, America honors the birthday of heroic civil rights activist Martin Luther King. Americans revere King across the political and ethnic spectrum for his wisdom, idealism, courage and practice of non-violent civil disobedience against the forces of racial oppression. Thanks in large part to the trailblazing efforts of King and his followers; America inaugurates its first black president the very next day when Barack Obama takes the oath of office on January 20th. Yet even as Americans celebrate the historical arc from Martin Luther King to Barack Obama, the scars of racial injustice remain woven into our country's fabric.

Understandably, historians have overlooked the immediate aftermath of King's assassination in a Memphis, Tennessee hotel on April 4th, 1968. The meaning of King's life as well as the tragedy his loss represented has received considerable attention from historians and the body politic. Yet the immediate aftermath of King's death was dwarfed by his iconic life as well as the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the violence that took place during the Democratic National Convention later that year.

Clay Risen, author of A Nation On Fire: America In the Wake of the King Assassination (John Wiley & Sons) argues that what transpired immediately after April 4th impacted America as intensely as King's death itself. Within hours, there was rioting in Washington D.C. and before the violence subsided, the U.S. Army occupied three major American cities while National Guard units patrolled a dozen more. Overall, there were disturbances in nearly 120 cities. Ultimately, the riots helped facilitate forty years of conservative hegemony as urban America reaped the whirlwind of white resentment and indifference.

Risen specifically chronicles the period covering President Lyndon Johnson's withdrawal from the 1968 campaign on March 31st, to King's assassination on April 4th and culminates with Johnson's signing of the 1968 Civil Rights Act on April 11th. The author relies on dozens of interviews as well as newly declassified documents to provide a dramatic day-by-day, city-by-city narrative of the riots, from the looting in Washington to violence in Chicago, Baltimore and other cities following King's death in Memphis.

Indeed, Risen skillfully takes the reader on a historical tour with larger than life personalities like the militant Stokely Carmichael to white racist vigilantes in Baltimore and political figures such as New York City Mayor John Lindsey, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, New York Senator Robert Kennedy and Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew. Perhaps the book's most dramatic anecdote was when a young Deputy Attorney General named Warren Christopher, joined General Ralph Haines, and Public Safety Commissioner Patrick Murphy at a Washington DC gas station pay-phone to recommend to President Johnson that he deploy federal troops in the nation's capitol.

George Pelecanos, author of The Turnaround and The Night Gardner issued the following praise for Risen's book:

"Clay Risen's A Nation on Fire is the long-awaited definitive account of one of the most important, underreported events of the 1960s. As important for its historical aspect as it is for understanding where we are today, it is an exciting, important document, excitingly told."

Risen, was formerly an editor at The New Republic and is the founding Managing Editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He has also contributed to Smithsonian, Slate, the Atlantic, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Risen agreed to a telephone interview with me in a podcast format about his book as well as the fateful days following King's death. Our conversation was just over forty-seven minutes. Please refer to the flash media player below.

This interview can also be accessed at no cost via the Itunes Store by either searching for the "Intrepid Liberal Journal" or "Robert Ellman."

Tags: Barack Obama, Clay Risen, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King (all tags)



Re: When America Burned After the King Assassinati
I wonder what Dr. King would be thinking if he could see  our new
President take the oath of office? Here's to you Dr. King it's because of people like you that we can celebrate this historic moment. REC
by canadian 2009-01-18 02:56PM | 0 recs
Re: When America Burned

To the extent one wants to argue that white America turned towards the GOP because they wanted protection from scary black rioters, I think the die was already cast by 1968.  You had the Watts riot in 1965, the Detroit and Newark riots in 1967, and so forth.  In fact this is one reason why MLK's message of nonviolent resistance was so urgent.

MLK's assassination was, of course, a tragic moment in our nation's history, but I hope the author isn't trying to oversell the reaction to that assassination as some kind of seminal turning point.  Given the events that had already transpired, it's hard for me to imagine that history would look much different if only folks had reacted differently at that particular moment.

by Steve M 2009-01-19 04:32AM | 0 recs
Re: When America Burned

He doesn't and I ask him about that specically. Nor does he claim it to be. He does argue however that the immediate afermath of King's death was as critical as anything else that happened that year and overlooked. Spiro Agnew for example emerged as a national political personality after the crisis and helped Nixon win the suburbs.

Otherwise, the author views those ten days as important historical window into what was happening overall during that time. It's a window that has been largely overlooked compared to the previous riots you referenced and other events in 1968.

by Intrepid Liberal Journal 2009-01-19 06:09AM | 0 recs


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