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The rioting in American cities began well before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4, 1968. White flight and suburbanization were already well underway by that time, too. But MLK’s death and the unrest that followed in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., served as the tragic climax for a extraordinary period in urban history, and the exclamation point for an entire era: This was when the narrative of America’s great cities cemented its shift into one of decline, despair, and intractable poverty. It’s also when our national politics began to reflect the outlines of the urban-suburban schism we still see today.
1968 was also a time when big, Great Society-scale urban thinking was in vogue. The unrest of that year launched ambitious projects in housing and transportation that would be unthinkable today, altering—for both good and ill—the face of cities nationwide. From urban highways to massive housing developments, we’re still struggling with the physical legacy of policies and decisions forged in the immediate aftermath of King’s assassination. In many ways, the 50 years since have been about recovering from the events of that year. In Cities on Fire 1968: Urban America After MLK, starting this week, CityLab will examine the forces that were unleashed in 1968, and tell the story of what happened to urban America in the decades since.
“Most people did it because they were angry and were frustrated with the country… It was like there was no hope for the future.”
–Bonnie Perry, who was 13 years old living in D.C. in 1968
Weeks after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, thousands of demonstrators came to D.C. to create Resurrection City, a shantytown on the National Mall built to demand government action on poverty.
“The city’s slogan, part of a branding campaign, is an unimaginative and crude adaptation of 1,300 black sanitation workers’ 1968 slogan “I Am A Man.” From the workers’ strike to protest poverty wages, the lack of union rights, and dangerous working conditions emerged their rallying cry. Their plight—which dovetailed with King’s growing focus on economic justice as the path to black liberation— drew the Baptist preacher to town.”
In the years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis fighting for economic justice, whatever progress black families and workers have made has been dwarfed by the economic trajectory of whites in the county.
Even before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, American cities were burning. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson went on television to denounce the violence and formed a commission to investigate what was at the root of many urban uprisings and rioting. That produced the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Report, which contained hard truths about inequality and brutality in American society. Visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger digs in to the history of the report and its legacy today.
In 1925, Tom Lee—a black man who couldn’t swim—saved 32 white people from a sinking ship in the Mississippi River. Memphis’s unfortunate attempt to honor him and the decline of his own neighborhood speaks to the city’s ongoing struggle to become a more equitable place. As Americans reflect on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, visual storyteller Martha Park shares the story of local hero Tom Lee and the efforts of his descendants to keep his story alive.
This special edition of the CityLab Daily was written by Andrew Small, with contributions from David Dudley. Find all stories in Cities on Fire 1968: Urban America After MLK here. Send feedback to email@example.com.