Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was cut down by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee. King was 39 years old and the foremost leader of the civil rights movement.
King preached and fought for change, especially against the poverty and discrimination pressing down on Black people, within the framework of this existing system. Before he was killed, he had been increasingly speaking out against the U.S. escalation of the war in Vietnam. And, as would come out later, the FBI was carrying out an insidious campaign against him, not only spying on him but trying to discredit him by spreading malicious rumors and even sending him an “anonymous” letter threatening to reveal details about his private life and suggesting that he commit suicide in order to avoid a scandal. While many people looked up to King, there were others, like the emerging Black Panther Party, who were seeking out and advocating more radical, revolutionary solutions. These forces had broken with King’s road of working within the system and were going directly up against it.
But everyone was profoundly affected by the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., and came face-to-face with deep questions. As Nina Simone sang—three days after the assassination—in “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)”: “He was not a violent man. / Bigotry had sealed his fate. / Folks you’d better stop and think / everyone knows we’re on the brink. / What will happen, now that the King is dead?” Then, in a searing improvised passage, she sang:
What’s gonna happen now, in all of our cities?
My people are rising…
If you have to die, it’s all right
’Cause you know what life is.
You know what freedom is for one moment in your life.
Violent repression, degrading racism, life-robbing poverty… this was what millions of Black people had faced for so long and continued to face daily. And then to see Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated—this was just too much.
Rising Up in City After City
The word spread like wildfire—“They killed Dr. King!”—from person to person, neighborhood to neighborhood. A reporter who was with U.S. troops, including Black GIs, at a Marine base in Vietnam, recalled later, “The death of Martin Luther King intruded on the war in a way that no other outside event had ever done.”
There were tears… and there was tremendous outrage. Just hours after King’s assassination, by that Thursday evening, the beginning flames of rebellion flared up in larger cities like Washington, DC, Chicago, and Baltimore, as well as smaller cities like Flint, Michigan; Hartford, Connecticut; Jackson, Mississippi; and many others. Over the next days and nights and into the following week, Black people rose up in an unprecedented nationwide rebellion that spread to more than 120 cities in 28 states.
As people rose up, the powers that be lost control of large sections of inner-city Black neighborhoods. The hated pigs were driven off by stone-throwing youths and by people using rifles from rooftops in self-defense against the shoot-any-Black-person-on-sight cops. In Baltimore, two days after the King assassination, crowds of 1,000 or more men and women moved through the streets. Businesses hated for ripping off the poor in the ghettos were burned down, and people took goods that had been denied them. Over 1,000 fires were reported just in DC—the president and other officials in the White House could see smoke rising over the city out of their windows, and troops with machine guns guarded the Capitol building. The opening of the Major League Baseball season had to be postponed in several cities.
Students at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and other African-American campuses joined in the uprising. In Kansas City, Missouri, things had been quiet until the day of King’s funeral on the Tuesday after the assassination, when a police tear gas attack on several hundred students marching to demand that the city close schools touched off a two-day uprising.
There was debate, wrangling, and defiance among broad numbers of people. Carl Dix, of the Revolutionary Communist Party, recalls how he “got the first draft notice in April 1968, a couple of days after Martin Luther King was killed and the rebellion swept the cities. I was in no mood to show up at the Army. I sent them a notice back and said I’m too busy right now.” Dix ended up being drafted but refused to be deployed to Vietnam and was imprisoned for his resistance.
A Black journalist in Chicago described a scene in a Black neighborhood in the city: “63rd Street on Palm Sunday was an ominous canyon, crowded with people, stirred by anger, swept by wind, littered with glass and refuse. As men from the 46th Infantry’s 4th Battalion stood before shuttered stores in the East 100 block, 50 teenagers marched by the soldiers shouting mock orders and words of abuse. The soldiers’ heads rotated from east to west, warily watching the ragged adolescent army pass in review.”
Reverberations Across the Globe
The news and images from the April 1968 rebellion electrified people around the world. Suddenly, it became clear for all to see that there were deep divides and sharp conflicts right inside the belly of the hated imperialist beast.
Mao Zedong, the leader of China, then a revolutionary socialist country, issued a statement on April 16, in which he pointed out that Martin Luther King was “an exponent of nonviolence” but that “the U.S. imperialists did not on that account show any tolerance toward him, but used counter-revolutionary violence and killed him in cold blood.” And he said, “The Afro-American struggle is not only a struggle waged by the exploited and oppressed Black people for freedom and emancipation, it is also a new clarion call to all the exploited and oppressed people of the United States to fight against the barbarous rule of the monopoly capitalist class. It is a tremendous aid and inspiration to the struggle of the people throughout the world against U.S. imperialism and to the struggle of the Vietnamese people against U.S. imperialism. On behalf of the Chinese people, I hereby express resolute support for the just struggle of the Black people in the United States.”
The April 1968 rebellions—and the great upsurge of the 1960s to early 1970s, which drew in very broad sections of U.S. society beyond the Black ghettos—did not lead to a revolution that actually defeated the rulers and their system. But there were important lessons to be learned. As vicious and powerful as they are, the U.S. imperialists are not all-powerful—even on their own “home turf.” And there is a section of people in this country who are a potentially powerful revolutionary force—who have nothing to lose under this system and who, when conditions are ripe, would be willing to put everything on the line to go all out for revolution.
As Bob Avakian would powerfully insist some years later:
There will never be a revolutionary movement in this country that doesn’t fully unleash and give expression to the sometimes openly expressed, sometimes expressed in partial ways, sometimes expressed in wrong ways, but deeply, deeply felt desire to be rid of these long centuries of oppression [of Black people]. There’s never gonna be a revolution in this country, and there never should be, that doesn’t make that one key foundation of what it’s all about. (BAsics 3:19)
Full-Scale Violent Repression
When it quickly became clear that the local police forces were not able to quash the uprisings, National Guard forces were mobilized in many cities. And when even those combined forces looked incapable of containing the rebellions in key cities, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the deployment of Army troops in Washington, DC, Baltimore, and Chicago. All told, over 50,000 Army and National Guard troops were deployed in dozens of cities.
A “riot control” headquarters led by a general was set up in the Pentagon, as well as a special high-level team in the White House. This was the first time since the Civil War that troops had been deployed to guard the national seats of power.
There were reports of debates among Black soldiers at the Fort Meade base in Maryland as orders came in to the 6th Calvary Regiment to occupy Washington, DC. Officers received orders to be on alert for “conspiracies” among Black troops, including among the U.S. forces in Vietnam.
In Chicago, occupied by 11,000 federal troops, a number of Black men were shot and killed—probably by police, though no pig was ever even identified as a killer, let alone charged. Shortly after the authorities restored “order” in the city, Mayor Richard Daley made clear how the pigs had been given a license to murder: he commanded the police chief to order his cops to “shoot to kill” anyone suspected of arson. Later media reports claimed that 46 people died nationally in the April 1968 rebellions, 41 of them Black, 14 teenagers. But no one really knows how many were actually killed by the police and troops. More than 20,000 people were arrested.
This was a naked display of the institutions and organs of violent repression wielded by the rulers of this capitalist-imperialist system, who prey upon the masses of people here and around the world. The rulers were able to re-impose their “order” after days of rebellion. But people broadly saw the real nature of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie in this country, even if they did not have a full scientific understanding of this. Instead of being intimidated, many people were further enraged by this and compelled into opposition and struggle against the system, among Black people and also more broadly.
As the rulers came down violently on the uprisings, the U.S. Congress rushed to pass a new Civil Rights Act on April 10 that officially banned discrimination in housing. They hoped that people would believe the system was open to reform. But the law also contained new repressive measures—like making it a felony to cross state lines to “incite a riot,” which was used against Black revolutionaries and others.
April 1968 marked a turning point in the struggle in the U.S. Many, many more people had to face up to the fact that they faced a vicious enemy that was ruthless—even against those who resisted peacefully. More people started considering radical and revolutionary ideas and strategies. They wanted to struggle—and win—against the rulers and their system.
People were increasingly seeing the limits of the civil rights movement that began in the early ’60s, and the Black Liberation Movement was rising explosively. In the period following the rebellions, organizations like the Black Panthers and the Revolutionary Union, forerunner of the Revolutionary Communist Party, led by Bob Avakian, attracted new fighters. There was a widespread sense that big, fundamental changes were needed; and many from different sections of the people raised, confronted, and debated big, consequential questions: What were the actual changes that were needed in society and in the world? How were those changes going to be made? What kind of ideology and what kind of leadership did you need? How should the masses of people be mobilized and organized? What would it take to actually defeat the enemy?
This oppressive monster, the system of U.S. capitalism-imperialism, still rules today—and now in an even more grotesque, dangerous way in the form of the fascist Trump/Pence regime. More than ever, there is a crying, urgent need for an actual revolution that can bring an end to this system and open the door to a radically new, liberating system aiming toward the emancipation of humanity. The struggle of Black people to be free of their oppression is a key part of this revolution. And a significant section of Black people can come to recognize the great social need to step up to help give leadership to that revolution. As Bob Avakian points out:
There is the potential for something of unprecedented beauty to arise out of unspeakable ugliness: Black people playing a crucial role in putting an end, at long last, to this system which has, for so long, not just exploited but dehumanized, terrorized and tormented them in a thousand ways—putting an end to this in the only way it can be done—by fighting to emancipate humanity, to put an end to the long night in which human society has been divided into masters and slaves, and the masses of humanity have been lashed, beaten, raped, slaughtered, shackled and shrouded in ignorance and misery.
Revolution newspaper/revcom.us, the voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party, provides the foundation, guideline, and organizational scaffolding for the whole process of carrying out our strategy for revolution. Through publishing works of Bob Avakian, and through many different articles, interviews, letters, graphics, and other features, Revolution enables people to really understand, and act to radically change, the world.
Originally published at revcom.us