Monday, January 12, 2009

Clay Risen's "A Nation on Fire"

Clay Risen, formerly an editor at The New Republic, is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He's also written for Smithsonian, Slate, the Atlantic, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination, and reported the following:
In a strange coincidence, page 99 is one of the most important in the book. It is the first page of Chapter 7, which details how the rioting that had erupted in Washington the night of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death on April 4 picked back up a little after noon the next day. The page shows how expectations of rioting differed greatly in official Washington and "black" Washington. By 1968, rioting was a regular occurrence in inner-cities, but experience had taught that they waned during the day. And so tens of thousands of suburbanites pored into downtown that morning, only to flee in panic a few hours later. One of those thousands was my mother, who had fought to get on a bus headed across the Potomac (a story that played an important part in the genesis of this book). At Howard University Stokely Carmichael gave a rousing, some said incendiary speech, while at the White House President Lyndon Johnson met with civil rights leaders in a desperate strategy session aimed at avoiding further violence elsewhere. But they wouldn't succeed: Around the same time, civil disorder was erupting in Chicago, and tense standoffs between angry crowds and overwhelmed law enforcement could be found in dozens of other cities across the country. By nightfall, Army units were on patrol in the nation's capital. In Chapter 7 I try to capture this swirl of events, and page 99 drives home how, in the aftermath of a tragedy, official Washington and the streets of inner-city Washington were driving dangerously apart.

Deputy Mayor Tom Fletcher later called the morning of April 5 the "shadow war period." The streets were quiet, and the running assumption among officials--from the local schools to the Pentagon to the White House--was that a riot wouldn't break out until evening; that was how riots had always worked, in Watts, in Newark, in Detroit, and in dozens of other cities over the last four years. And so that morning tens of thousands of school children headed off to class, and almost a hundred thousand suburbanites went to work in downtown Washington.

But the mood was much tenser in black Washington. "There," wrote Ben Gilbert of the Washington Post, "the same ominous tension that had preceded Thursday night's inner-city outbreak was noticeable, not on on the riot-torn 14th Street shopping strip but also on 7th Street and in neighborhoods in the northeast and southeast sections of the city." Many people stayed home from work and idled on sidewalks. Principals were having a hard time keeping students in class; in some places, teenagers were drifting out as they saw fit. By noon, half of the seventeen hundred students at Cardozo High School had vanished.
Read an excerpt from A Nation on Fire, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue