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A Country Shaken

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A NATION ON FIRE

America in the Wake of the King Assassination

By Clay Risen

Wiley, John & Sons. 292 pp. $25.95

On April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson watched as smoke shrouded the nation's capital. Mobs, looters and arsonists were blanketing downtown Washington. They had Molotov cocktails; the police had gas canisters. Johnson had to make a decision fast: Should he order troops to quell the riots?

In "A Nation on Fire," journalist Clay Risen recounts the tense conditions in several cities in the days after King's death.

In Washington, Johnson decided to send troops in but only after a near debacle. First, the president deployed Warren Christopher, his deputy attorney general, and two other top officials, into the riot zone in an unmarked police car to give a recommendation. But they couldn't reach Johnson via police radio. So in the heart of the craziness, Christopher waited for a pay phone for what "must have felt like an hour," Risen reports. "Where have you been!" Johnson yelled when they finally connected; shortly thereafter, Risen writes, "Johnson cut him off. Fine, he said. We'll send in troops."

Anecdotes like this one keep Risen's account of the 10 days before and after the King assassination moving fast. Still, despite Risen's use of newly declassified documents, much of the interesting material comes from coverage by The Washington Post that was compiled in the book "Ten Blocks from the White House." Nonetheless, Risen's city-by-city reconstruction of the riots, tucked into his larger analysis about the Civil Rights era, offers a useful evocation of those times.

-- Ian Shapira

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