The Fires of April 1968

Revolutionary Worker #958, May 24, 1998

Thirty years ago, on April 4, 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King had been a major leader of the Civil Rights struggle and had increasingly opposed the Johnson administration's escalation of the war against Vietnam.

"They killed Dr. King!" The shocking news passed from person to person. Business-as-usual stopped cold. People immediately suspected that some high-level racist conspiracy was behind this killing. Dr. King was a man who preached that the system would listen to reason and moral arguments. That even such a figure should be murdered in cold blood was a profound lesson to millions.

Outrage swept the inner-city streets. Black people rose up in an unprecedented nationwide rebellion that lit up 160 urban areas in 28 states. The masses tore the cores of several major cities from the control of authorities. Hated symbols of greed and oppression were targeted and burned. People took goods that capitalism denied them. Police were driven out of one community after another by the stones of young streetfighters and the sniper fire of Vietnam veterans.

Intense debate raged everywhere. High schools and even grade schools emptied out. College campuses were filled with protests and building takeovers. Many college students made special efforts to hook up with proletarians and support the fighting in the streets. Over a thousand fires were reported in Washington, DC, and heavy smoke rose only blocks from the White House. Even the opening of baseball season had to be postponed.

News of this April 1968 uprising gave new courage to people across the planet: Suddenly everyone could see there were intense class contradictions and revolutionary potential--even here!--deep inside the world's top superpower.

A War at Home

President Johnson immediately mobilized armed force to attack the people. He canceled a Hawaii war conference about Vietnam and focused instead on "the war at home."

A "riot control" headquarters was set up within the Pentagon, headed by a top general. Federal troops were sent into city after city--when both police and National Guard looked incapable of containing the masses. All told, over 50,000 Army and National Guard troops were deployed. For the first time since the Civil War, troops were sent to guard the national seats of power. Machine guns were mounted on the Capitol balcony and the White House lawn.

Officers were sent secret orders to watch for conspiracies among their Black troops--including in the U.S.-occupied warzones of Vietnam. At Maryland's Ft. Meade, the mechanized 6th Cavalry Regiment polarized as orders came to occupy Washington DC. There was intense debate among Black soldiers over whether to obey.

As 11,000 troops took up positions in Chicago, Mayor Daley issued his infamous orders to "shoot to kill" any so-called looters. For the Chicago police it was a license to murder.

The uprising in Baltimore was one of the most powerful in the country. Maryland's Governor Spiro Agnew declared a state of emergency backed up by 9,000 Army and National Guard troops. The masses bravely fought to hold their communities--facing off with both troops and police in the streets. Agnew publicly denounced a cop who refused to shoot down a kid over a pair of shoes. He denounced this as "insidious relativism." For this bloody stand, Agnew was soon chosen by Nixon to be the next vice president of the United States.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress rushed to pass a new "Civil Rights Bill" on April 10--hoping that people would believe the system was open to reform. This law banned racial discrimination in housing--but it also contained new police-state measures to suppress the revolutionary movement. It became a federal felony to cross state lines to "incite a riot," and that provision was immediately used against Black revolutionaries.

No one knows how many people the authorities killed as they tried to suppress the rebellions. The media later claimed that 46 people died during these rebellions, 41 of them Black people, including 14 teenagers. It is estimated that 20,000 people were seized in mass arrests.

Deep Lesson

As he mobilized armed violence against the people, President Johnson went on TV to demand that the masses should honor King's memory by sticking to his philosophy of nonviolence.

The authorities insisted that they were doing all they could to capture whoever had killed King. And when they arrested the small-time thief James Earl Ray, they announced that this man was the "lone assassin." They insisted there was no evidence of any conspiracy to kill King.

However, the people had drawn a very different lesson from these events. The masses of people saw that they faced a heartless enemy--and many more started to seriously think about taking the road of revolution.

April 1968 was a historic turning point for the struggle within the United States. There was a change of mood, of expectations, of tactics and of politics. April 1968 marked the end of the civil rights movement and the explosive growth of the new Black Liberation Movement. People wanted to struggle--open, fierce and hard --against the system.

This 1968 uprising fanned radical and revolutionary ideas broadly among other oppressed nationalities and among progressive sections of white people. People increasingly started talking about revolution. In the period that followed, new revolutionary pro-Maoist organizations like the Black Panther Party and the Revolutionary Union, led by Bob Avakian, attracted new fighters.

The April 1968 Rebellion was the greatest uprising in modern U.S. history. Nothing even came close, until the L.A. rebellion of 1992.

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