Story originally published in 2008 in honor of the 40th anniversary of King’s death
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 on a late 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 was 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,” says longtime Austin activist 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 for more than 25 years, 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.”