In reaction to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, hundreds of cities across the United States were struck by rioting, arson, and looting. While the violence in Chicago was no different than the rest of the nation, the reaction of Mayor Richard Joseph Daley was.

Throughout the hot summer of 1967 Chicago was on the brink of a riot. Poor urban blacks, tired of being sent to Vietnam, and being overlooked by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, erupted with rioting in 128 cities. Chicago somehow managed to escape unscathed in 1967. Some credited the Mayor’s tough “law and order” stance and putting the National Guard on alert. Others thought it was his plan to make Chicago’s blacks “the wettest in the nation”, as Mike Royko dubbed it. Daly opened fire hydrants across the city for people to play in and trucked in mobile swimming pools in order to keep everyone cool. Whatever it was, the city stayed surprisingly quiet over the summer. They had literally dodged a bullet, in 1968 they would not be so lucky.

When Martin Luther King was shot, it was immediately recognized as the spark that would set off another round of violence in 1968. In the wake of the assassination there were 2,600 fires and 21,270 injuries nationwide. By noon on the day after the shooting groups of young black people had gathered throughout the city. The violence began with smashed store windows and looting; arson and sniper attacks soon followed. By 2:00 p.m. the governor had dispatched over 600 members of the Illinois National Guard and Mayor Daley had sent out the entire Chicago fire department and borrowed fire departments from eight suburbs. Fires raged throughout the city, completely engulfing many black neighborhoods. Power lines to the predominantly black West Side were now dead, leaving that part of the city in darkness, and giving cover and encouragement for more looting.

As the violence entered its second day, Mayor Daley began to try and take back the city. 1,500 more National Guardsmen were put on the streets. A 7:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. curfew was imposed on people less than 21 years of age. Liquor sales were banned in areas with “serious disorder.” Troops patrolled the city in jeeps and military deployments guarded every intersection on the West Side. That night was much quieter, but far from tranquil. Molotov cocktails were still being thrown, buildings were still being torched, and snipers were still shooting at firemen.

It was at this point that Mayor Daley took a helicopter tour over the city’s charred West Side. The riots had almost wound down, but he still saw some looters and arsonists continuing their crimes, but in places out of sight of the police. After he returned, Daley called a press conference and issued what was to be the most famous utterance of his 21-year career as mayor:

“I have conferred with the superintendent of police this morning and gave him the following instructions: I said to him very emphatically and very definitely that an order be issued by him immediately and under his signature to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand because they are potential murderers, and issue a police order to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city. Above all, the crime of arson is to me the most hideous and worst crime of any and should be dealt with in this fashion."

"I was most disappointed to learn that every policeman out on his beat was to use his own discretion. In my opinion they should have had instructions to shoot…arsonists to kill and looters to maim and detain.”

“What about children?” one reporter asked.

“You wouldn’t want to shoot them,” Daley said, “but with Mace you could detain youngsters.”

After the riots had finally ended, Daley said that he had been misunderstood and modified his statement, retreating back to the principal of “minimum force.” His press aide blamed the misunderstanding on the press. “It was damn bad reporting,” he said, “they should have printed what he meant, not what he said.” The Mayor’s office also began tabulating the public reaction to Mayor Daley’s order. They announced that in one week City Hall had received 11,000 letters and they were running fifteen to one in favor of shooting to kill. These numbers, whether real or made-up, would undoubtedly affect the police reactions at the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Sources:
"Boss" by Mike Royko
"American Pharaoh" by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor (the absolute best book about Daley’s reign over Chicago, imho.)

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