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A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination
Synopses & Reviews
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 level—from 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 days—between 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 11—literally 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.
"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." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
On April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson watched as smoke shrouded the nation's capital. Mobs, looters and arsonists were blanketing downtown Washington. They had Molotov cocktails; the police had gas canisters. Johnson had to make a decision fast: Should he order troops to quell the riots? In "A Nation on Fire," journalist... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Clay Risen recounts the tense conditions in several cities in the days after King's death. In Washington, Johnson decided to send troops in but only after a near debacle. First, the president deployed Warren Christopher, his deputy attorney general, and two other top officials, into the riot zone in an unmarked police car to give a recommendation. But they couldn't reach Johnson via police radio. So in the heart of the craziness, Christopher waited for a pay phone for what "must have felt like an hour," Risen reports. "Where have you been!" Johnson yelled when they finally connected; shortly thereafter, Risen writes, "Johnson cut him off. Fine, he said. We'll send in troops." Anecdotes like this one keep Risen's account of the 10 days before and after the King assassination moving fast. Still, despite Risen's use of newly declassified documents, much of the interesting material comes from coverage by The Washington Post that was compiled in the book "Ten Blocks from the White House." Nonetheless, Risen's city-by-city reconstruction of the riots, tucked into his larger analysis about the Civil Rights era, offers a useful evocation of those times. Reviewed by Ian Shapira, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Book News Annotation:
The founding managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas details the riots during the days and nights that followed the April 1968 assassination. He describes not only the battles in the streets, but also the planning and negotiation behind closed doors, and the public announcements and pleas. At the end he offers broader views, first of the summer that year, and then of the country since 1969. Annotation ©2009 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination
"A solid and compassionate account of a week that proved a graveyard for the liberal dreams of the 1960s, and a seedbed for the backlash against them."
—Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland and Before the Storm
"A compelling, original history of the tumult that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. Clay Risen's sobering account of the riots of April 1968 sheds new light on how the racial divisions of the late 1960s reconfigured liberal and conservative politics and transformed American urban life."
—Thomas J. Sugrue, author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
"Clay Risen's A Nation on Fire is the long-awaited, definitive account of one of the most important, underreported events of the 1960s. As important for its historical aspect as it is for understanding where we are today, it is an exciting, important document, excitingly told."
—George Pelecanos,author of The Turnaround and The Night Gardener
"America is still coming to terms with the legacy of the 1960s. A Nation on Fire powerfully demonstrates the impact of urban riots on the politics of race and democracy following Martin Luther King's assassination. With clarity and insight, Clay Risen chronicles the tumultuous week in 1968 that indelibly transformed American race relations."
—Peniel Joseph, author of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America
A few hours after Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at a Memphis motel, violent mobs had looted and burned several blocks of Washington a few miles north of the White House, centered around the U Street commercial district. Quick action by D.C. police quelled the violence, but shortly before noon the next day, looting and arson broke out anew — not just along U Street, but in two other commercial districts as well.
Over the next several days, the immediate crisis of the riots was matched by an equally ominous sense among the nation's political leadership that they were watching the final dissolution of the 1960s liberal dream. For many whites who watched flames overtake city after city — Washington, Chicago, Baltimore, Kansas City — the April riots were an unfathomable and deeply troubling response during what should have been a time of national mourning. To them the rioters were little better than common criminals. But a look at the average rioter complicates such conclusions: they were primarily young (under 25) and male, but most made a decent salary, had a better than average education, and had no previous arrest record. In interviews and testimonies afterward, rioters recalled a sense of release, of striking back at the "system."
To say that the riots meant different things to different people would be exceedingly trite if it weren't also exceedingly true. In ways large and small, the King riots solidified attitudes and trends that destroyed the momentum behind racial progress, fatally wounded postwar domestic liberalism, created new divisions among blacks and whites, and condemned urban America to decades of poverty and crime. This book will explain why they occurred, how they played out, and what they meant.
About 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.
Table of Contents
1 King, Johnson, and the Terrible, Glorious Thirty-first Day of March.
2 April 4: Before the Bullet.
3 April 4: The News Arrives.
4 April 4: U and Fourteenth.
5 April 5: Midnight Interlude.
6 April 5: “Any Man’s Death Diminishes Me”.
7 April 5: “Once That Line Has Been Crossed”.
8 April 5: “Official Disorder on Top of Civil Disorder”.
9 April 5: The Occupation of Washington.
10 April 5: “There Are No Ghettos in Chicago”.
11 April 6: Roadblocks.
12 April 6: An Eruption in Baltimore.
13 April 7: Palm Sunday.
14 April 8: Bluff City on Edge.
15 April 9: A Country Rent Asunder.
16 April 10 and 11: Two Speeches.
17 A Summer Postscript.
18 1969 and After.
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