"Chaos in the Capital"

By Jessie Faller-Parrett, U.S. Army Heritage and Education CenterMarch 31, 2010

President Lyndon B. Johnson
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

One of the essential, though often overlooked, duties of the United States Army is that of protecting citizens within the United States, an evolving task, with specific missions assigned by senior leadership, such as the President of the United States. These assignments often reflect changes and developments occurring in regions of the country, including areas affected by civil unrest. The 1960s were a period of great turmoil, both in the United States and around the world, and the conditions in several American cities reflected this instability. Racial tensions reached a tipping point at several different times during the decade, and hostility spilled into rioting and general chaos within several major American cities. Washington, D.C., hosted many key civil rights related events during the 1960s, but these occasions largely remained peaceful. The civility and peace cloaking the city during this period evaporated in an instant after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the early evening of April 4, 1968.

During the following afternoon, three men found themselves in a vehicle touring the area around 14th and U Streets in Washington, D.C. Riots erupted in the hours after news of the assassination of Dr. King spread, and the worst areas of damage occurred in this section of nation's capital. Deputy United States Attorney General Warren Christopher, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army General Ralph Haines, and Washington's Director of Public Safety Patrick Murphy each had a stake in understanding the scale and intensity of the riots and damage in the city. Protecting all of the residents and property within the District, from the poorest members of the community to the leader of the country, took precedence.

On their tour, these men found evidence of heavy looting and destruction, and they realized the gravity of the situation. With windows smashed and buildings smoldering, the trio telephoned the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, and "recommended federalization of the National Guard and intervention in the District by federal troops." Soon after the phone call, United States Army Soldiers entered the city to help end the civil disturbance.

Chaos enveloped Washington as many residents took to the streets in anger upon hearing reports of Dr. King's murder, while others feared for the destruction of their city. Washington presented a special circumstance, as one of the thousands of residents who called the city home happened to be President of the United States. As disorder spread, it threatened not only the city but also the stability of the national government. With this in mind, and heeding the recommendation from Deputy Attorney General Christopher, General Haines, and DC Public Safety Director Murphy, President Johnson took action. He issued Proclamation No. 3840 "calling upon persons engaged in acts of violence and disorder in the Washington metropolitan area to cease and desist therefrom and to disperse and retire peaceably." In addition to the Proclamation, President Johnson also issued Executive Order No. 11403, which delegated authority to the Secretary of the Army, "to call into the active military service of the United States any or all of the units or members of the Army National Guard and of the Air National Guard to serve in the active military service of the United States." Federal troops filled the city and over the course of several days, slowly restoring order. They enforced a curfew, disbanded rioters, protected the White House and Capitol, all while exercising the greatest care to not generate any unnecessary or negative media coverage.

After a return to order and the removal of Soldiers from the Nation's capital, the Army leadership examined the situation, and extracted lessons about civil unrest. Controlling the situation in Washington, D.C., following the assassination of Dr. King illustrates one of the important domestic roles performed by the Army.

ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021.

Related Links:

A Working Bibliography of MHI Sources: US Army and Domestic Disturbances