The demonstrations that have spread across the country since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May unavoidably invite comparisons with the massive riots that occurred in more than one hundred cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on 4 April 1968. The most serious disturbances broke out in Washington, DC. They began a short time after King’s death, resumed with ferocious strength the next day, and continued with gradually diminishing intensity for nearly two weeks. By the time they ended, 13 people were dead and 1,201 injured. Property losses were estimated at $27 million, including 1,352 private businesses and 403 housing units that were destroyed or heavily damaged.
One critical difference between today’s protests and the riots of half a century ago is that in 1968, there were no peaceful demonstrations. The disorders in Washington and elsewhere were raw, angry, out of control, and enormously destructive. Lyndon B. Johnson confronted a much more severe crisis in the streets than Donald J. Trump has faced, and he handled it in a much more measured way. For Johnson, the riots of the long hot summers that began in 1963 created an agonizing dilemma. On the one hand, he was appalled by the violence. “There is no American right to loot stores, or to burn buildings, or to fire rifles from rooftops,” he declared in 1967. “That is a crime—and crime must be dealt with forcefully.” On the other hand, he recognized that protesters had legitimate grievances. He made clear that the “only genuine, long-range solution for what has happened lies in an attack . . . upon the conditions the breed despair and violence.”
In response to the riots in Washington in 1968, Johnson, drawing on the lessons of the previous outbreaks, sought to end the bedlam without inflaming greater fury, and perhaps, armed resistance. As the turmoil escalated the day after King’s assassination, he reluctantly decided to mobilize National Guard and federal troops; they eventually numbered about 15,000. But he also ordered that the troops use minimum force to restore calm. “If humanly possible,” he said, “I don’t want anybody killed.” The soldiers who were deployed in the city carried ammunition but did not load their weapons unless absolutely necessary. They fixed bayonets but did not unsheathe them. The strategy was to combat unchecked violence by making a massive show of force for the purpose of avoiding its actual use. Federal and local officials adopted a “policy of restraint” in part because they worried about inciting exchanges of gunfire. One rioter later suggested that if the police and troops had shot looters, “there would have been a whole lot of killing on both sides.”
The strategy was effective in reducing the violence. The presence of troops, the use of tear gas, and a strict curfew eventually restored order. Army and National Guard soldiers shot a total of only fourteen rounds of ammunition during the twelve days they patrolled the city. None of the deaths that occurred in Washington during the riots resulted from gunfire by military units.
The contrast between Johnson’s actions in 1968 and Trump’s approach to the demonstrations in 2020 is stark and disturbing. Johnson worked closely with Walter Washington, the recently appointed mayor of the District of Columbia. He consulted with civil rights and congressional leaders, and he relied heavily on the expertise of knowledgeable and experienced advisers. Trump ignored DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and seems to look for counsel, if at all, from ill-informed, unseasoned sycophants. Johnson tried to diminish racial tensions; Trump fuels them. Johnson strived for unity; Trump blasts political opponents and the news media. Johnson adopted a policy of restraint; Trump threatens to unleash “vicious dogs” and the “most ominous weapons.” Johnson kept a low public profile during the riots; Trump staged a photo opportunity after forcefully clearing Lafayette Park of peaceful protesters. Johnson was keenly aware of the conditions and injustices that produced the riots; Trump from all indications views the protests only through the prism of his own self-interest.
At the peak of the riots in 1968, twenty-five to thirty-five new fires broke out every hour in the nation’s capital. Johnson later recalled “the sick feeling that came over me . . . as I saw black smoke from burning buildings fill the sky over Washington.” He added, “I wondered, as every American must have wondered, what we were coming to.” Trump’s response to the protests of 2020 raises the same question in distressingly sharp relief. He could learn some important lessons from the experiences of 1968, but there is no reason to think he will do so.
Featured Image Credit: “Damage to a store following the riots in Washington, D.C., April 16, 1968” by Warren K. Leffler . Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.