Sorrow, Then Rage

Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination shook Chicago, and ignited riots on the city's West Side.

Hear from people who were there.

The news came on a Thursday evening 50 years ago. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead by a white man in Memphis.

On the West Side of Chicago, there was an eerie silence. That’s how one pastor  described it.

Maybe it was because King had walked these same West Side streets, had lived here, and though it would be ignored by most media and left out of textbooks, King had delivered his national call for economic justice here in Chicago.  

After the lunch counter sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama, after the voting rights marches farther south in Selma, King brought his campaign for civil rights to the North — and he picked Chicago.

He saw his Chicago campaign as a critical next phase of the civil rights movement, one that would be about more than race: In Chicago, King called for a doubling of the minimum wage, a government-guaranteed minimum income, and fair funding for all schools. It was a campaign to “end slums.” King wanted massive investment in areas like North Lawndale, where he rented a dilapidated apartment to make his point.

The West Side at the time was filled with African-American migrants who had come North in search of a better life. Instead, they found low wages, unemployment, inferior schools, redlining, and exploitative landlords and shopkeepers.

Now, in the eerie silence after King’s death, maybe the words King had spoken in Chicago echoed one more time.

Echoed in the third floor slum apartment on 16th Street and Hamlin Avenue that King had rented in 1966, with the door to the street that wouldn’t lock and the entryway that smelled of piss. Echoed at Stone Temple Baptist Church, where the crowds were so big, King had to enter the church through the fire escape. At the Lawndale pool hall where King played, and at nearby Marshall High School, where students had cheered his arrival.

After the eerie silence came the rage. The first firebombing was on the West Side. In the following days, there were fires and destruction in other parts of the city, too, but nothing like the West Side. Madison Street (where King had liked to eat), Kedzie, Roosevelt — they were all in flames. Black teenagers put fists and feet through the windows of white-owned businesses. They grabbed shoes and televisions.

There were riots — some people call them rebellions — in Harlem, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Chicago’s West Side calmed after three days, and by then, at least nine people had been killed.  

Much of what King said in Chicago would feel unnervingly relevant after the flames were put out. Fifty years later, they still feel relevant in the neighborhoods King came to boost up.

King was asked frequently about riots. He always condemned them. But he also said, “America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots.” A riot “is the language of the unheard,” he said.

This week, to mark the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination and the city’s response to his murder, we present stories from Chicagoans who have a personal connection to that moment.

Prexy Nesbitt

Prexy Nesbitt’s family were members of the Warren Avenue Congregational Church, where King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference set up its Chicago headquarters. Nesbitt marched with King in Marquette Park, and worked with other members of the Chicago Freedom Movement to attack structural racism and economic inequalities.

“There were no banks operating on the West Side, schools were getting the worst teachers and the least amount of appropriations, stores were closing up altogether. You couldn’t get insurance.”

Clara Fitzpatrick

Clara Fitzpatrick is the daughter of J.M. Stone, the founding pastor of Stone Temple Baptist Church, where King spoke on multiple occasions. She remembered King using the Lawndale area to point out economic, mental, and physical exploitation — and she remembered the riots that followed his assassination.

“[The riots were] more than the King assassination. It was about the people on the West Side — black people on the West Side — being tired of being tired. And so, maybe it was King that sparked it, but it was deep emotional hurt that kept it going.”

Rev. Donald McFadden

The Rev. Donald McFadden, now the pastor of St. Joseph Missionary Baptist Church, was among the hundreds of students who walked out of Marshall High School the day after King’s assassination. McFadden sat down with current Marshall senior Damontae Warren to discuss their walkouts, then and now. The reverend said that in 1968 kids marched through city streets, took over CTA buses, and tried to get to a majority-white high school in Austin to “rumble.”

"We were hurt. The one thing that was going to help us get past the grieving period was to retaliate. … The things that we were seeing Martin Luther King take, we were not willing to take.”

Bob Black

Bob Black, the first African-American photographer at the Chicago Sun-Times, captured the city’s mourning — and later, the riots — after King’s assassination.

“It was a quiet sorrow, but you could feel it. At that point, I had to come out of my own emotions and divorce myself from that so that I could concentrate on what I needed to do. It wasn’t until later that I was able to feel what they were feeling. … I knew that this was a situation that needed to be recorded.”

Richard Townsell

Richard Townsell, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, was born in North Lawndale and was a child when the riots broke out. He has dedicated much of his adult life to rebuilding the neighborhood.

“I think we are trying to show a neighborhood that has persevered, despite what happened. I think we are trying to show a resilience.”

What they saw:
Click “play” below to hear more reflections.


WBEZ reporters Linda Lutton, Sarah Karp, Odette Yousef, Miles Bryan; freelance reporter and photographer Bill Healy; WBEZ producers Joe DeCeault, Paula Friedrich, Andrew Gill, Jason Marck, Candace Mittel Kahn and Arionne Nettles; WBEZ editors Cate Cahan and Michael Lansu

Thanks to NBC News and WGN TV for use of archival footage, and to photographer Karega Kofi Moyo and the Chicago History Museum for use of archival photographs. Additional thanks to former WBEZ colleagues Shirley Jahad and Julia McEvoy, producers of the documentary “From the Ashes,” part of WBEZ’s 1998 Chicago Matters Series, for excerpts from their work. First image of Dr. King via AP Photo.