Lyndon Johnson got the call a few minutes after 7 p.m.: "Mr. President, Martin Luther King has been shot." Within hours, rioting had engulfed Washington, D.C. Before the violence was over, the U.S. Army occupied three major American cities, and National Guard units patrolled a dozen more. The riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, delivered a death blow to the liberal dream of the 1960s, gave new life to the faltering conservative political movement, and launched urban America into a downward spiral from which much of it has never recovered.
In A Nation on Fire, journalist Clay Risen relies on dozens of interviews and reams of newly declassified documents to offer a sweeping day-by-day, city-by-city account of the riots, from the looting and burning in Washington to explosions of violence in Chicago, Baltimore, Kansas City, and 117 other cities, large and small. Taking readers inside the Oval Office, the Pentagon, and city halls across the country, he introduces them to key players at every levelfrom the first army soldier to enter Washington to the crack team of Johnson aides who managed the crisis from inside the White House to the civil rights leaders who helped avert violence in Memphis, where King was shot.
In an epic narrative, Risen shows how a mere ten daysbetween Lyndon Johnson's withdrawal from the 1968 campaign on March 31 to King's death on April 4 to Johnson's signature of the 1968 Civil Rights Act on April 11literally rewrote the course of American history, from race relations to urban decline to presidential politics.
When the fires died down and the troops decamped, dozens of American cities were in ruins: three hundred square blocks on Chicago's West Side were damaged, one thousand in Baltimore. And despite promises of renewal from the Nixon White House, what took their place were weed-filled lots, drug corners, and iron-barred liquor stores watched over by militarized police units, cut off from the rest of America. The riots of 1968 weren't the beginning of the country's urban crisis, but they set the tone for the slow-burning human catastrophe that has beset millions in the forty years since.
A Nation on Fire is more than a powerful recreation of an American tragedy. It is history in the best sense: a compelling narrative that provides a new understanding of the complexities of urban America.
Risen's city-by-city reconstruction of the riots, tucked into his larger analysis about the Civil Rights era, offers a useful evocation of those times.