The Washington Post
A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassinationby Clay Risen
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
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.
The Washington Post
Writer and editor Risen accounts for the lead-up to Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, and the waves of violence that swept the nation in its wake. Risen's work is eye-opening, emphasizing cagey analysis as well as a recreation of the atmosphere and events following King's brutal slaying. Unquestionably important, Risen's detailed narrative documents each riot individually, offering both statistics and accounts from witnesses and participants in the rioting, looting, and arson. Risen also documents President Johnson's personal struggle to maintain order in a wounded country that increasingly disapproved of him, and speeches made by Robert Kennedy and Stokely Carmichael which are believed to have quelled (at least temporarily) the violence. Perhaps more important than his acute historical knowledge is Risen's perspective on the causes of each riot and the emotional toll they took on the American public, which he correlates directly to subsequent loss of support for the civil rights movement. Debut author Risen, formerly of The New Republic and currently founding manager of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, has crafted a crucial addition to civil rights history, sure to absorb anyone interested in the times, the movement or MLK Jr. 16 b&w photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
When Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4, 1968, riots erupted in 125 cities and resulted in 39 deaths, 2600 injuries, and 21,000 arrests. Risen, a former editor at the New Republic, presents a well-crafted narrative describing the chaos and fear that gripped Americans, as their homes, businesses, and cities went up in flames during the weeks after the assassination. The author hones in on Washington, DC, Baltimore, and Chicago, the sites of some of the worst rioting, where federal troops were sent to bolster the beleaguered local police forces and state national guards. Included are sympathetic portrayals of African Americans, few of whom rioted, driven to desperation because of decades of substandard living conditions in urban ghettos. As whites continued their exodus from the cities, the suburbs became the new center of political power, fueling the emergence of the modern Republican Party led by Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. While Risen does not claim the riots alone destroyed liberalism and led to the Republican ascent, his is a cautionary tale of what could happen when a government ignores the needs of many of its citizens. Recommended for all public libraries.
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Meet the Author
Clay Risen, formerly an editor at the New Republic, is the founding managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He's also written for Smithsonian, Slate, the Atlantic, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
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