Fifty years ago today — on April 4, 1968 — Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Within roughly an hour he was dead and the whole country knew it. By Saturday, April 6, the West Side of Chicago was destroyed, leaving some residents in Oak Park fearing that their community would be next to lie in ruins.
Oak Park was not destroyed, but interviews with current residents who lived through that history and archival material, such as newspaper articles, books and government reports, show that the village was nonetheless deeply affected by the riots that happened in the wake of King’s death.
Wyanetta Johnson, a nearly 50-year resident of Oak Park, was living on the city’s North Side at the time. After learning of King’s death, she went to cash a check, but couldn’t remember her name.
“I was in such shock,” she recalled during a phone interview last week. “They kept looking at me and I kept asking myself, ‘What is my name?’ before I finally said what it was. The situation was mind-boggling.”
The next morning, Friday, April 5, students at Marshall High in East Garfield Park, arrived with King’s image taped to their coats. Many students stayed home, anticipating trouble.
School administrators scrambled to plan makeshift memorial assemblies in King’s honor, but by 11 a.m. most of the students who showed up that morning had marched out of the doors and into the streets.
Some stones were thrown, but most of the roughly 1,500 marchers — among them children as young as 7 years old — were peaceful. As they headed toward Austin High to meet likeminded peers, they sang “We Shall Overcome” and chanted “King is dead.”
Warner Saunders, the director of the Better Boys Foundation and a witness to the demonstration, told Hank de Zutter, who was reporting for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, that “nonviolence turned into violence” when the police attempted to exert some control over the demonstration somewhere between Garfield Park and Austin High.
Scuffles broke out between the youth and the police, who fired shots into the air, de Zutter reported. Saunders, among others, said the police overreacted.
One Farragut High junior told de Zutter 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.”
By 2 p.m., the vandalism had started in earnest. Chicago Police Superintendent James B. Conlisk called Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and requested 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,” de Zutter wrote. 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.”
The rioting was heaviest in the West Side area bordered by Damen, Madison, 16th Street and Kildare. By midnight many of the roughly 6,900 National Guardsmen and 5,000 federal troops authorized earlier by President Lyndon Johnson would be patrolling streets in that area as “weary firemen, unable to control the fires, with their hoses on fire or losing water pressure and their trucks running out of fuel, began to give up,” writes Janet L. Aub-Lughod in a 2007 book on urban riots.
Edward Muldrow, owner of Del-Kar Pharmacy in North Lawndale, had left his home in Markham to protect his business during the mayhem.
“My father being a black businessman in the community, the guys respected him for being straight up,” his son and Del-Kar’s current owner, Edwin Muldrow, said during a recent interview. Edward died last year at 88.
“It was a Jewish, white-owned drugstore on every corner, from Kedzie to Kostner, and each was torched,” Muldrow said. “My father’s was the only one to remain. He had come over that evening during the riots, but the Vice Lords told him, ‘Go home, we’re not going to let nothing happen to your store.'”
Muldrow had developed relationships with the Conservative Vice Lords street gang, whose headquarters were nearby.
By 1968, with the help of a white Dartmouth graduate, former Peace Corps volunteer and poverty researcher named David Dawley, the Conservative Vice Lords, seeking legitimacy, had gotten incorporated, started a string of small businesses and secured federal funding for various social outreach initiatives.
When King moved into the rundown apartment at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. in North Lawndale in 1966 — as part of his Chicago Campaign against housing segregation — he and his staff had ingratiated themselves with the gang’s leaders, hoping to steer them toward nonviolence. King hung out at the gang’s pool hall and bought his morning paper at Del-Kar.
Bobbie Raymond, the founder of the Oak Park Housing Center, recalled in a recent phone interview that King’s fair housing efforts in Chicago changed her life and informed her sense of purpose. She was a volunteer at Warren Avenue Congregational Church in Chicago during King’s northern campaign.
When he was assassinated in 1968, Raymond was enmeshed in efforts to get a fair housing ordinance passed in Oak Park.
“At that time, it was a very threatening atmosphere, a very hostile atmosphere in Oak Park,” Raymond recalled. “Everybody in the real estate industry was opposed to the ordinance. You’d have realtors saying, ‘If you open up the community, it will be just like the West Side of Chicago. There were a lot of families leaving.”
As smoke from the West Side fires bellowed in the distance, the rumors among Oak Park residents began to swirl, Raymond said.
“People were saying that the mob was going to come to Oak Park and break windows and all kinds of things,” she recalled. “People feared the riots would come here. When you’re at Oak Park and Lake, and you can see the smoke, you don’t know what will happen next. … They were very worried. And a lot of people had ties to the West Side.”
As with Muldrow — who could recall when 16th Street was bustling with laundromats, beauty salons, barbershops, restaurants, retailers and nightclubs — Raymond said she remembers when Oak Park residents would spend money on the other side of Austin Boulevard.
“As a child living in Oak Park, I’d go into Austin with my dad to buy live chickens,” she said. “There was also a very nice bakery, a fish store — all these stores that existed until racial change took place.”
The riots only hastened the speed with which whites escaped into the suburbs or as far away from the inner city as possible. Oak Park, Raymond said, pushed back in its own way. The village adopted among the first and most effective fair housing ordinances in May of that year.
During the thick of the crisis, village leaders took incremental, but pro-active, measures that may have also worked to ward off the alarm and paranoia that might feed into racial hostility.
On the Monday after King’s death, blacks and whites, “Protestant, Jewish, and Roman Catholic,” gathered during an ecumenical service at Rosary College (now Dominican University) in River Forest, according to an April 10, 1968 report in the Oak Leaves.
Rev. Shelvin J. Hall, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in North Lawndale, told the crowd of nearly 1,000 that “it’s not enough to help the slum dweller, the alcoholic, the addict, the dispossessed. … Convert the man on Lake Shore Drive who owns the slum.”
A few weeks after the riots, Oak Park Village Manager Harris Stevens penned a column in the April 17, 1968 edition of the Oak Leaves “devoted to rumors and what your village government is doing to quell them.”
No, there was not a “mob of Negroes” congregating at St. Catherine of Siena Church; rather, a “handful of Negroes were working together” at the church “loading trucks” with food and clothing to be driven to the “homeless in the riot-stricken area.”
On Sunday, April 7, “three small fires occurred simultaneously in the village,” involving “a garage, a house and a collection of wastepaper,” leaving some people to jump to the “conclusion that the village was under siege.”
Raymond said she “wasn’t afraid personally” that the village would be ruined along with the West Side.
“I was more concerned about whether people would do the right thing in Oak Park,” she said, arguing that race relations have progressed since those dark days and nights in 1968.
She cited the Fair Housing Ordinance and the banishment from the realm of decency of the kind of overt racism that Oak Park author Doug Deuchler experienced as a senior at Western Illinois University in downstate Macomb. Deuchler had been involved with voter registration efforts in Macomb and was a strong supporter of King’s.
After the civil rights leader died, Deuchler said, he was determined to watch the funeral, so he headed to a “seedy, working-class bar on the town square called ‘Shag’s, where there was a television up above the bar.” He bought himself a 25-cent can of beer from a “frowsy-looking woman in her 60s named Virginia” and took a seat.
“I remember some of the locals who were there that afternoon saying rude things like, ‘Virginia, why the hell we gotta watch Martin Luther Coon?’ This went on for a while with them harassing Virginia to change the channel,” Deuchler recalled.
“Finally, she had had it. She went to a drawer, pulled out a revolver, flashed it in the air and announced that she controlled the TV, we were to respect Dr. King, and if anyone wanted to ‘raise some mess’ they were welcome to leave. Several men did exit. All those who stayed were quiet and we watched the funeral.”