Chicago “West Side” Race Riots – 1968

The 1968 Chicago riots were sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was shot while standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968 at 6:01 pm. Violence and chaos followed, with blacks flooding out onto the streets of major cities. Soon riots began, primarily in black urban areas [1] . Over 100 major U.S. cities experienced disturbances, resulting in roughly $50 million in damages. Of the 39 people who died, 34 were black. Chicago, Illinois, Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C. experienced some of the worst riots. In Chicago, more than 48 hours of rioting left 11 Chicago citizens dead, 48 wounded by police gunfire, 90 policemen injured, and 2,150 people arrested [2] . Two miles of Lawndale on West Madison Street were left in a state of rubble.

Rumours swirled that the riots had been organized by Black Panther activists and on April 10, the Chicago Tribune editorial claimed that “Black Power groups” had been the driving force behind the violence through a “Conspiracy to Riot”. No evidence was produced to support the argument that it was a planned riot. During the summer of 1968, Mayor Richard J. Daley appointed the Chicago Riot Study Committee. The committee was led by judges, business leaders, lawyers, and politicians, and staffed by volunteers from law offices. The Committee interviewed hundreds of black residents and white business owners in the area, as well as police officers, fire fighters, and local activists, but no evidence of a conspiracy was produced. The final Riot Study concluded, “Some of the rioters may have discussed specific acts of violence, but for the majority of blacks the riot was a spontaneous overflow of pent-up aggressions.” [7] The Committee also concluded that the majority of first rioters were high school students who began taking their frustration out on white business owners. Once the riots started, however, witnesses said that the riots expanded and multiple adults joined the teenage rioters. No evidence was found that concluded anyone intentionally set fire to a black-owned business or residence [8] . The riots resulted in over 125 fires and 210 buildings being damaged, resulting in millions of dollars worth of damage. The 210 buildings burned resulted in $10 million worth of damages.[9] Power lines and telephone lines all around the city were knocked out. In the first two days of rioting, police reported multiple civilian deaths but were unable to determine whether they were caused by the riots or other crimes. No official death toll was given for the riots, although published accounts say 9 to 11 people died as a result. Almost 300 people were arrested, and a thousand people were left homeless. The destruction was mostly on the west side. However, there was some damage in the south side ghetto and near the north side. The south side ghetto had escaped the major chaos mainly because the two large street gangs, the Blackstone Rangers and the East Side Disciples, cooperated to control their neighborhoods. Following the riots, Chicago experienced a food shortage, and the cities needs were barely met by volunteers bringing food to the area. Results of the riots include the increase in pace of the area’s ongoing de-industrialization and public and private disinvestment. Bulldozers moved in to clean up after the rioters, leaving behind vacant lots. No clashes of this magnitude have ever happened since 1968.[10]