How the West Side burned

On April 4, 1968, an assassin's bullet hit King, then all hell broke loose

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By Michael Romain

Editor

The following chronology of events is primarily based on the reporting of Hank de Zutter, who covered the riots for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News and published a much fuller account of his reporting in the Chicago Reader in 1988; Janet L. Abu-Lughod's Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles; and the Report of the Chicago Riot Study Committee to the Hon. Richard J. Daley, published when the riots were over. 

 

Thursday, April 4, 1968

6:01 p.m. (CST) | Martin Luther King Jr. is shot and fatally wounded at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. He's rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he's pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. All three TV networks interrupted their regular programming with the news. 

Within minutes of the nationwide news, James M. Rochford, Chicago police deputy superintendent, is meeting with his top aides at police headquarters, 1121 S. State. They decide to cancel days off for the city's 11,500 police officers in order to preempt retaliatory violence.

The riot study committee report states that during the "early morning hours of April 4 and 5, the citizens residing in the near north Cabrini-Green housing complex, the west side areas surrounding West Madison Street and West Roosevelt Road, and the south side area including 63rd Street from Stony Island Avenue to Halsted Street were off the streets watching television, listening to the radio or discussing Dr. King's death quietly among themselves."

Young people in the city's ghettos, particularly on the South and West Sides, meet to plot various collective courses of action. At one meeting on the West Side, "a few older militants" speak of revenge, de Zutter writes. Rev. Virgil Patterson, of the Lawndale Presbyterian Church, 1908 S. Millard, tells the reporter later on that an "eerie silence" permeated the streets. 

 A gasoline bomb thrown into Calvary Presbyterian church, 4201 W. Jackson, interrupts the silence. The church is destroyed. Police later arrest five blacks, some of whom were at those meetings, and charge them with firebombing the church and four buildings. 

 Outside of the church fire, police would later say, Thursday night and early Friday morning were without incident. 

 

Friday, April 5, 1968

Before 9 a.m. | Black children arrive at school carrying pictures of King pinned to their clothes. Many students, however, simply stay home. 

 At predominantly black Marshall High School, 3250 W. Adams, students print out fliers urging their peers throughout the city to "show your respect" for King's assassination by "staying out of school." The students, with the help of some adults, circulate the flyers to nearby schools. 

 9 a.m. | Students start to leave Marshall and walk through the streets. According to one young worker, the students gestured to some of the white shop owners along Madison and Kedzie. Many of the shop owners, sensing violence and vandalism, close their stores. By noon, many would be gone.  

 At Marshall, school officials discuss holding memorial assemblies, but teachers can't even hold class. 

 10 a.m. | By this point, Marshall has been mostly emptied of students. It was an orderly exit, for the most part, school officials say. No violence other than a few garbage fires. Students from Farragut and Harrison high schools merge with Marshall students and march orderly up Kedzie before turning west on Madison. 

 Some stones are thrown, but most of the roughly 1,500 marchers — among them children as young as 7 years old — are peaceful. As they head toward Austin High, 231 N. Pine, the marchers sing "We Shall Overcome" and chant "King is dead." On the way to Austin High, the demonstrators encounter police resistance.

 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. | The marchers stop in Garfield Park, where some among them make angry speeches. By the time they arrive at Austin High, the group is met by police officers, who decide to take some control of the situation. 

 Warner Saunders, the director of the Better Boys Foundation and a witness to the demonstration, says this is the point "where nonviolence turned into violence." Scuffles between the youths and the police breakout.

 One Farragut junior recalls that "it was a swell march until then," but that "some of the militant souls decided they wanted more. They said the whites had killed nonviolence so they must want violence." Saunders, among others, said that the police overreacted. 

 Amid the confusion, police fire shots in the air. The demonstrators then leave Austin High and head east on Madison, where they do "considerable damage to stores and shops." 

 Some people, formerly part of the mass demonstration, head to the Loop, where they make "considerable noise" and cause "some minor property damage." By early afternoon, however, a heavy police presence puts an end to the downtown malaise.  

 Janet L. Abu-Lughod later writes, "Perhaps partly as a result of this show of force, few arrests were made downtown; instead, window breakage, looting, and eventually arson were reported principally back along unguarded West Madison Street within the ghetto. 

 2 p.m. | The vandalism having begun in earnest, Chicago Police Superintendent James B. Conlisk calls Mayor Daley and requests that he call out the National Guard. The police are "spread much too thin," de Zutter reports. "Within minutes, Acting Governor Samuel Shapiro, called by the mayor, mobilized the Guard." 

 "Fear gripped the city." Workers carried guns to their places of employment, whites were "pulled from their cars, from buses, from stores they were trying to close." West Side streets were "impassable." 

 4 p.m. | The first fire breaks out on the West Side at a furniture store — located at 2235 W. Madison (blocks from the current site of the United Center) — that had already been looted.

 More firebombs follow in quick succession. "As quickly as a store was looted, it was firebombed," de Zutter writes. Suburban fire departments are dispatched "to man outlying stations," Streets and Sanitation workers are "pressed into serve as auxiliary fire fighters," half of the city's firefighting equipment is in use in "an area bounded roughly by Damen, Madison, Kildare, and 16th." 

 7:15 p.m. | The riot has by now claimed its first victim — Ponowel Holloway, a 16-year-old Marshall sophomore who lived at 3946 W. Maypole. He was reportedly shot dead while looting a store at 4135 W. Madison. 

 Not long after Holloway is killed, Cyrus Hartfield, a 32-year-old who lived at 4113 W. Van Buren, was found at 4113 W. Madison with a gunshot wound to the chest. 

 11 p.m. | The first units of the Illinois National Guard, tear gas at the ready to disperse rioters and looters, rolled into the streets "in jeeps like American gunboats in the China seas," de Zutter writes. 

 

Saturday, April 6, 1968

 

3 a.m. | The National Guard troops restore some semblance of order back to the streets, although the "fires crackled on." The police and National Guard make many arrests. 

 7 a.m. | The looters return, with Daily News reporter Ed Rooney describing the rioting on Roosevelt, Kedzie, Madison and Western as "crucial." The police, Rooney reported, "were obviously overwhelmed and the National Guard troops were inexperienced and outmaneuvered by the rioters, who seemed to be toying with them." 

 12 p.m. | Daley announces a curfew on all residents younger than 21 years old each night from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next day and bans sales of liquor and gas-by-the-can. 

 4 p.m. | Upon the request of Conlisk and Daley, federal troops, deployed by President Lyndon Johnson, are en route to Chicago from bases in Texas and Colorado.

 Sunday, April 7, 1968

 Federal troops arrive in Chicago as cleanup and demolition of unsafe structures begins. Daley extends the city curfew for the second night. 

 

Monday, April 8 - Wednesday, April 10 1968

 Schools reopen and memorial services scheduled to take place on April 5 are held, but attendance is still low. Many national guardsmen remain on the West Side as the courts process 2,000 to 3,000 riot-related arrests. 

 On Tuesday, Chicago public schools are "finally closed in memory of King," [XXX] writes, and many shops in areas where riots took place are closed for the day. Mayor Daley declares "the official emergency terminated" as the national guard begins to demobilize. The mayor also lifts the curfew. 

 

Monday, April 15

Mayor Daley holds a press conference to announce the creation of his riot study committee. The mayor take the opportunity to rail against Police Superintendent Conlisk, who Daley said had not followed his orders to "shoot to kill arsonists and maim and detain looters" at the beginning of the riots.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com   

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