On April 4, 1968, years of pent-up frustration over segregation and civil rights in the city came to a head following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King was killed late on a Friday afternoon. The shock and sadness on the West Side soon transformed into simmering anger in some as day turned to night.
Feelings eventually exploded into chaos, resulting in an uprising in cities throughout the country, including Chicago. The West Side in particular was impacted, especially within the 30-block stretch down Madison Street. Looting and arson were rampant throughout the Austin and East Garfield communities, the former of which was a business and industry hub at that time. The riots resulted in the deaths of 11 people with another 500 people injured. Some 3,000 people were arrested and nearly a thousand others were left homeless. More than 200 buildings were set ablaze.
The amount of damage that occurred during the two-day disturbances is estimated in the millions. The uprisings were also infamous for Mayor Richard J. Daley’s quote of how to handle rioters, reportedly telling police and national guardsmen to “shoot to kill.”
But while the riots were ignited by the death of King, some Austin residents who were here at the time believe they were also responsible for fueling a separate class system in the city and for driving industry out of the black community.
“I actually moved to the Austin community the year before the riots because there were so many jobs here at the time,” said 74-year-old Bennie Meeks, who began working at Westin Electric following his move to Austin. Meeks recalled that businesses such as Sunbeam, Goodman’s Furniture and Brach’s Candy, which then employed thousands on the West Side, were integral parts of Austin and the West Side. Shortly after the riots, most of those businesses were gone, as was much of Austin’s and West Side’s economic strength.
Blacks had been able to find work and to prosper, though Austin was made up of only 10 percent of people of color. But racial divisions still persisted, according to Meeks.
“Westin Electric was integrated but it was very divided,” he recalls. “Whites and blacks generally only spoke if it was necessary to business. I felt that the tension would prove troublesome.”
Meeks heard about King’s assassination on the radio while at work. He remembers the demeanor of some of his fellow employees fearing that a riot just might occur.
“People were definitely afraid,” Meeks said. “I had some co-workers ask to ride with me instead of driving, but that day, I did not drive. I can remember seeing the clouds of smoke as I rode the bus down Madison.
“I saw fires everywhere,” he added. “I saw the National Guard put the community on lockdown, and I saw military jeeps driving down my block. It was a scary scene.”
Meeks, who has worked with the South Austin Coalition (SACCC) for 25 years as chairman of its safety committee, maintains that the riots had the negative consequence of driving businesses out of Austin.
“Today, Austin has viable stores but nothing like it had before the riots,” he said. “After the jobs moved away, there was an influx of single families and the underachievement of schools. Austin changed completely.”
George Lawson, 69, who currently works as a lamp parts distributor also moved to Austin a year before the riots. In Lawson’s view, the riots were caused in large part by the lack of minority businesses in the East Garfield community. For example, on Madison and Pulaski, the residents were largely black although the business owners were mostly white.
Even then was there talk over whether money was being reinvested back into the community or was simply being filtered out into other areas. The impression by some blacks at the time, according to Lawson, was that Dr. King was targeted by the “racist white establishment.” The disenfranchisement felt throughout the West Side would stoke the passions of many who took to the streets in a violent uprising.
“Some people I have spoken to at the time felt it was justified while others argued strongly against it,” said Lawson, who’s also affiliated with SACCC as chairman of housing. “It was a scary moment in time for me, one that I can scarcely remember anything good coming from.”
Lawson does recall one remarkable positive incident.
When the disturbances were in full swing and rioters were burning down white-owned businesses and attacking white commuters, Lawson remembers an incident involving a white priest who was driving through the community.
Before a mob could advance on his car, a young girl, about 13 years old, stood between the car and the crowd, essentially shielding the priest from harm until he was able to pass through. In many ways, Lawson believes that one moment symbolized what Dr. King represented.
“It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen,” he said. “That level of self-sacrifice was just inspiring to me. I will never forget that moment.”