The Unmaking of the President

Lyndon Johnson believed that his withdrawal from the 1968 presidential campaign would free him to solidify his legacy

(Cheryl Carlin)
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In Washington, the night was warm and cloudy, with rain in the forecast. As news of King's death spread, crowds gathered on U Street, the center of the city's downtown black community about 20 blocks north of the White House, to share their shock, grief and anger. At 9:30, someone broke the plate-glass window at a Peoples Drug Store; within an hour, the crowd had turned into a mob, breaking shop windows and looting. A light rain before midnight did little to disperse the crowd. Soon rioters set several shops ablaze.

Volleys of police tear gas brought the rioting under control by 3 a.m. Friday; by dawn, street-cleaning crews were sweeping up broken glass. And though scattered looting and violence had erupted in more than a dozen other cities, it seemed that the country had emerged from the night remarkably intact. The question was whether rioting would resume that night.

Friday, then, was a day for grieving and waiting. The House of Representatives observed a moment of silence. The Senate heard eulogies for an hour, after which House and Senate liberals called for immediate passage of fair-housing legislation, which had been stymied for almost two years. In Atlanta, preparations began for King's funeral the following Tuesday. But by and large, the country tried to adhere to routine. Most schools opened, as did federal and private offices in Washington.

At the White House, Johnson and the assembled black leaders gathered in the Cabinet Room, along with Democratic Congressional leaders, several cabinet members and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. "If I were a kid in Harlem," Johnson told them, "I know what I'd be thinking right now: I'd be thinking that the whites have declared open season on my people, and they're going to pick us off one by one unless I get a gun and pick them off first."

That can't be allowed to happen, he continued. That's why he had called the meeting. Resoundingly, his guests told him that words weren't enough; with King gone, black citizens needed to see action in order to believe that there was still hope for progress. Otherwise, the country could experience untold violence in the coming days.

Johnson promised immediate, concrete action. Then, accompanied by the leaders, he went by 12-car motorcade to a memorial service at Washington National Cathedral, where King had addressed an overflow crowd just five days before. "Forgive us for our individual and our corporate sins that have led us inevitably to this tragedy," intoned King's Washington representative, the Rev. Walter Fauntroy. "Forgive us, forgive us. God, please forgive us."

Upon returning to the White House, Johnson read another statement on television promising to address Congress that Monday with a list of new social spending plans. "We must move with urgency, with resolve, and with new energy in the Congress, in the courts, in the White House, the statehouses and the city halls of the nation, wherever there is leadership—political leadership, leadership in the churches, in the homes, in the schools, in the institutions of higher learning—until we do overcome," he said.

Afterward, Johnson sat down to lunch with Luci, Busby, McPherson, Califano and Supreme Court Justice (and longtime adviser) Abe Fortas. Before they began eating, Johnson bowed his head and said, "Help us, Lord, to know what to do now." Looking up, he added, "I thought I'd better get specific about it, fellas." Halfway through the meal, one of the men got up and went to the window overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. "Gentlemen, I think you'd better see this," he said. Through the budding trees they spied a flood of cars and people, all pushing their way westward out of the city.

Johnson and others moved from the dining room to the sitting room. The president looked down the long hall of the White House toward the east and pointed silently. Out the window, past the Treasury Building, a column of smoke was rising from downtown Washington.

By 1968, the White House was well-versed in crisis management. As reports of rioting across the city began streaming in, Johnson called in Cyrus Vance, the former deputy secretary of defense who had overseen federal efforts during the 1967 riots in Detroit, from his law office in New York to help coordinate the Washington response. D.C. Mayor Walter Washington set a curfew of 5:30 p.m. Califano established a White House command center in his office, while the city government set one up at the mayor's office. At one point, Califano handed the president a report saying that militant African-American leader Stokely Carmichael was planning a march on Georgetown, home to many of the media elite LBJ so disdained. "Goddamn!" the president caustically joked. "I've waited thirty-five years for this day."


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