Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

The most interesting things on the web, handpicked each day. Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

New York, New York

New York, April 1968. Credit: John VanderHaagen.

The Night New York Avoided a Riot

In the days following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, more than 100 cities experienced significant civil disturbance. In New York, everyone expected riots. What happened next.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis a little after 6 p.m., Central Standard Time, on April 4, 1968. As the news spread around the country, angry and grieving inner-city residents poured into the streets. In many places, marches and protests broke out; in some, the crowds turned violent. Scores of shops and restaurants along Washington’s 14th Street were looted that night, and several were set on fire, some only a few minutes’ drive from the White House.

Over the following few days, more than 100 cities would experience significant civil disturbance. In many cases it took National Guard troops to bring peace, and in three—Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington—it took thousands of active Army and Marine units. Strangely, however, New York City almost completely avoided violence, despite widespread expectation during the previous year that the city was due for a massive riot. This is the story of how the city avoided conflagration on that first, tense night.

The following is excerpted from Clay Risen’s book, A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination.

 

The nation’s capital wasn’t the only place teetering on the edge of violence. Memphis remained surprisingly calm, but in the middle of the state, four thousand Tennessee National Guardsmen deployed in northern Nashville after reports of vandalism and looting began pouring into police headquarters. Farther east, in Raleigh, North Carolina, a march near predominantly black Shaw University descended into a window-smashing spree, and police sealed off the area. Cops used tear gas in Jackson, Mississippi, after a mob started breaking car windows and set a reporter’s car on fire. Molotov cocktails ignited a furniture store in Houston. Hartford, Connecticut, and Tallahassee, Florida, experienced minor riots, while police battled with youths throwing bottles and rocks in two separate sections of Newark.

But with Memphis intact, the real concern shifted to New York. Ever since the 1965 Watts riot, the media, the public, and the city and federal governments had assumed that the Big Apple was in for a major conflagration—“the mother of confrontations between black youths and the police force,” as New York magazine later characterized it. Almost as soon as the news of King’s death hit the airwaves, Harlem residents were out in the streets. Music-store owners pointed speakers out their front doors, playing recordings of King’s speeches. Like the crowds in Washington, most people were looking for comfort, conversation, and more news. But others were expressing their anger in more direct ways, harassing motorists and roughing up pedestrians.

When H. Rap Brown came to town talking about violent revolution, a drug dealer and his crew jumped him, saying, “If you ever come back here talking that sort of shit, we’ll kill you.”

In midtown Manhattan, Mayor John Lindsay was at the Alvin Theater, sitting through the first act of a new Broadway musical, The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n, starring his friend Tom Bosley. Lindsay was a liberal Republican, one of the most liberal in national politics. It was he who, as deputy chair, had pushed the Kerner Riot Commission to blame “white racism” for the riots, and it was he who had urged its members to call for massive new federal spending efforts.

First elected in 1965, Lindsay had spent most of the previous summer dealing with minor and not-so-minor outbreaks of violence around northern Manhattan and Brooklyn, a few of which would have been classified as full-scale riots in other cities. A July 1967 disturbance involving several hundred people in East Harlem resulted in the looting of 25 stores and three deaths. But Lindsay ruled this merely an “anti-police demonstration,” while the gasoline-filled bottles with flaming wicks were not Molotov cocktails but “unidentified objects.” He was determined not to have riots in New York, even if he had to alter the very meaning of the term.

If Lindsay was wary of admitting the frequency of riots to the press, however, he was more than willing to recognize their existence to himself and his staff. He may have come across as an out-of-touch, Ivy League-educated dandy to some, but he possessed an acute sense of how the city worked, particularly its lower-income areas. During the summer of 1967, he poured money into summer jobs and activity programs to keep kids occupied and out of trouble. Then he created a city task force to maintain constant communication with ghetto leaders. And these leaders weren’t the ministers, businessmen, and other middle-class blacks that whites typically assumed “led” the ghetto, either. Lindsay opened lines of communication with militants, gang leaders, and youth organizers, the people who truly understood and spoke for the concerns of Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and East New York. Lindsay didn’t try to co-opt them, nor did he try to win them over to “his” side. “They could be pro-police, they could be anti-police. They could hate John Lindsay. But these were people whom we could call on if something happened,” recalled mayoral aide Sid Davidoff.

What Lindsay understood was that there were natural divisions between truly violent radicals and Harlem’s run-of-the-mill gang leaders and activists; the former were often from out of town with few real ties in the community, while the latter, regardless of their legal standing, were usually local dudes who had an investment in community stability. And he counted on that investment to keep the peace. (It may be apocryphal, but a popular story going around Harlem had it that when H. Rap Brown came to town talking about violent revolution, a drug dealer and his crew jumped him, saying, “If you ever come back here talking that sort of shit, we’ll kill you.”) These were the real ghetto peacekeepers, and Lindsay treated them almost as a shadow government. In turn, he earned their grudging respect. That may have been a bad way to run a city, but Lindsay felt it was his only hope for avoiding mass destruction.

At about 8:30 p.m., during the song “Spring in the City,” a plainclothes detective came to the mayor’s seat and handed him a note about King. Lindsay immediately went to the lobby and called the police commissioner’s office. No violence yet, they said. But things are getting hairy in Harlem. Lindsay got into a waiting sedan and sped uptown to Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence on the far Upper East Side, not far from Harlem.

Along the way, he talked over options with David Garth, his press aide. Lindsay wanted to get to Harlem immediately. “That’s a really bad idea,” Garth said. But Lindsay persisted. “Somebody just has to go up there,” he said. “Somebody white just has to face that emotion and say that we’re sorry.”

From the mansion, which he declared his emergency headquarters, Lindsay began calling neighborhood leaders. He set up four secretaries on shifts, manning a phone bank—if one of his contacts had to get in touch with him, he wanted to talk to them immediately. He also had Barry Gottehrer, another close aide, activate the task force, which would get gang leaders and other influential Harlemites out on the street calling for calm. The news coming in was gloomy; Harlem was “really uptight; bad,” Lindsay was told. Police and fire units were on the way. Soon, so was Lindsay, riding in an unmarked black Plymouth.

As Lindsay moved on, scattered looting took place in his wake. But the peace held.

The mayor first went to the 25th Police Precinct in central Harlem, where he got a briefing on the situation. Then, with Garth at the wheel, he went to the center of the neighborhood, at 8th Avenue and 125th Street. Hundreds of people were milling about, young and old. “There was a mob that was so large that it went across 125th Street from storefront to storefront,” Garth recalled. “My life is over,” he said to himself.

Suddenly Lindsay got out of the car—and walked toward the crowd. Garth stared in shock.

But this wasn’t Lindsay’s first stroll through Harlem, and people recognized him immediately. “That’s they mayor,” said one kid. What’s the latest on King? they asked. How could this happen? Others complained about the heavy police presence, despite the absence of any real violence. Why was there a barricade on 125th? someone asked. Lindsay turned to a nearby officer. “Better keep them moving, don’t you think, officer?” And so the barriers came down. Lindsay told the crowd how much he regretted King’s death. He told them how important it was for the city to now make real progress in alleviating poverty and discrimination. “He had no written speech. No prepared remarks. He just held up his hand and said, ‘this is a terrible thing.’ He just calmed people,” recalled Garth. “And then this gigantic wave started marching down 125th Street, and somehow Lindsay was leading it.”

Though tensions appeared to drop, they didn’t dissolve completely—one boy in the procession said, to no one in particular, “Man, there’s gonna be white blood in the streets tonight.” As Lindsay moved on, scattered looting took place in his wake. But the peace held.

Lindsay walked over to Frank’s, a popular 125th Street restaurant, where he met with labor leader Joe Overton and a few other Harlem notables. As he left, 40 minutes later, a local tough, who called himself Bobby, fell in behind the mayor. “Don’t worry,” the bulky black kid told Lindsay. “Nobody can get to you while Bobby’s here.”

At Convent Avenue and 125th Street, Lindsay and company encountered three hundred students marching from the City University of New York, several blocks north. He called on them to stop. There was plenty of time for memorial demonstrations during daylight hours. As Lindsay later recalled, “I kept moving, but finally I was hemmed in from all sides. Occasionally, I could hear my name shouted, and at other times I could hear men and women weeping or moaning... We edged to a clearing in the crowd, where another group of men moved close—also men I knew. The group began arguing about which was the better route for me to take.”

Bobby’s presence next to the mayor was a problem, too. Why did he get to play bodyguard? Members of a rival gang demanded that they be allowed to provide the mayor protection instead. A shouting match erupted, with Lindsay in the middle, suddenly helpless to calm things down. Just as things were getting nasty, Manhattan Borough president Percy Sutton, who had been quietly tailing the mayor, pulled up in his car and yelled for Lindsay and Bobby to jump in. They did, gladly. Without their object of competition, the rival crowds eased back, and the streets stayed peaceful.

Harlem wasn’t out of the woods yet, so to speak, but everyone agreed that Lindsay had made a huge difference by showing up at a time when many mayors across the country were hiding out in bunkerlike emergency operations centers. Jimmy Breslin, the city’s leading columnist, wrote, “He looked straight at the people on the streets and he told them he was sick and he was sorry about Martin Luther King. And the poor he spoke to who are so much more real than the rest of us, understood the truth of John Lindsay. And there was no riot in New York.” Garth later called him “the most courageous man I’ve ever seen.” Even historian Vincent Cannato, who wrote an excellent but highly critical biography of Lindsay, admitted that “in some ways, Lindsay’s reaction to the King riots represented a high point in his administration.”

“He looked straight at the people on the streets and he told them he was sick and he was sorry about Martin Luther King. And the poor he spoke to who are so much more real than the rest of us, understood the truth of John Lindsay.”

The mayor got back to Gracie Mansion at 11:30 p.m. There he found an entire wing of the house buzzing with people: mayor’s office, police, fire, emergency services. His children had to double up in a spare bedroom to make space for weary staffers in need of a few minutes’ sleep.

That night five thousand cops and firemen were deployed in and around Harlem and in scattered parts of Brooklyn. There had been minor damage, 12 arrests—10 in Harlem, two in Brooklyn—and even a few fires. But nothing concentrated, and nothing sustained. At 1:00 a.m. Lindsay hopped back in the city Plymouth and visited Harlem again. Things had died down significantly; glass and debris littered some of the streets, but nothing uncontrollable.

Lindsay ordered the sanitation department out in force, so that the streets would be clean come daylight—better not to remind people of what had just happened. He went back to the mansion once more, this time to sleep. The mayor was in bed by 3:00 a.m.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen