The Worst Week of 1968

Lyndon Johnson's presidency was collapsing. By day, LBJ watched as the Vietnam War worsened and his polls and credibility plummeted. Brave boasts by the generals that they could see the light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam had been swept away; now even establishment figures like CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite were saying the United States had to begin winding down the war. In the New Hampshire primary in mid-March, an upstart peace candidate, Eugene McCarthy, a senator heretofore known more for his poetical moods than his legislative achievements, had nearly upset the incumbent president. As the winter of 1968 turned to spring, LBJ's aides were telling him he would lose the Wisconsin primary to McCarthy on April 2. (Article continued below...)

Johnson dreaded the nights. He dreamt that he was lying in the Red Room of the White House, his body wasted and numb. His grandmother had been paralyzed in her last years, and so had Woodrow Wilson, another president who had struggled with the burden of war. Waking from his tortured sleep, LBJ would take a small flashlight and walk the halls of the White House until he found the portrait of Wilson. Touching the painting, he would be soothed, for the moment, and go back to bed.

Johnson was bitter. "How is it possible," he repeatedly asked, "that all these people could be so ungrateful to me after I had given them so much? Take the Negroes. I fought for them from the first day I came into office. I spilled my guts in getting them the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress … I asked so little in return. Just a little thanks. Just a little appreciation. That's all. But look what I got instead. Riots in 175 cities. Looting. Burning. Shooting …" On and on, Johnson would rant, against the students and poor people who had turned against him, despite all he had done for them, "young people by the thousands leaving their universities, marching in the streets, chanting that horrible song about how many kids had I killed that day …" ("Hey! Hey! LBJ! …")

Johnson's worst dream, the most violent and diabolical, began with a twisted take on a cattle stampede. "I felt," Johnson later confided to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, "that I was being chased on all sides by a giant stampede coming at me from all directions." There were "the rioting blacks, demonstrating students, marching welfare mothers, squawking professors, and hysterical reporters. And then the final straw. The thing that I had feared from the first day of my Presidency was actually coming true. Robert Kennedy had openly announced his intention to reclaim the throne in the memory of his brother. And the American people, swayed by the magic of his name, were dancing in the streets."

Sen. Robert Kennedy had announced for the presidency on March 16. On Sunday evening, March 31, Johnson was scheduled to go on national television to address the nation. The speech was supposed to be about Vietnam, and it contained some surprising news on the war front. Johnson announced that the United States would cease bombing in almost all of North Vietnam, and he invited the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table. But as evening air time approached, the speech still didn't have an ending. At about 5 p.m., as Johnson's speechwriter, Harry McPherson, was laboring over a draft, the president phoned McPherson to tell him he had written his own peroration. McPherson instantly guessed what it would say. "I'm very sorry, Mr. President." "Well," Johnson replied, "I think it's best. So long, podner."

March 31, 1968, was the beginning of one of the worst weeks in American history. From works by historians like Goodwin, Taylor Branch and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., it is possible to reconstruct the inner thoughts of the major players who staggered on- and offstage that week, like doomed actors in a Greek tragedy.

Speaking somberly, slowly, to a nationwide audience that night, Johnson recalled how the country had unified behind the presidency when JFK was shot in 1963. With the country now divided by distrust and suspicion, this was the wrong time, LBJ reasoned, for the president to plunge into partisan politics. "Accordingly," he concluded, "I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."

"You're kidding," Robert Kennedy said when he heard the news as he landed at La Guardia Airport that night. On the way into Manhattan, he was silent, lost in thought. "I wonder if he would have done this if I hadn't come in," he finally said. At his apartment at the U.N. Plaza, he glared at his boisterous aides when their revelry drowned out the sound of the TV news. RFK said he didn't want to hear any champagne corks popping, so his wife, Ethel, brought out the Scotch instead. Ethel, at least, was in a buoyant mood about LBJ's decision not to run again. "Well, he didn't deserve to be president anyways," she remarked. Ethel Kennedy gave her anxious husband what he most craved, unquestioning loyalty and love. Her husband could be a stiff-necked moralist. But he was also a brooder, who kept tattered copies of the Greeks and Shakespeare in his pocket, and he was well acquainted with the darker shades of life.

Kennedy had anguished over the decision to run. He was afraid he might tear apart the Democratic Party and be seen as a political opportunist. As President Kennedy's top adviser and all-purpose hatchet man, he had gained a reputation, not undeserved, for "ruthlessness." He was sure to be criticized as a power-grabber vainly seeking to restore Camelot. More deeply, he wondered if he could ever live up to his brother Jack—and whether he might suffer the same fate. He had moped and sulked and hated those signs held up by students who wanted him to run: RFK: HAWK, DOVE—OR CHICKEN? read one. Robert Kennedy could not abide being called a coward.

His entry into the presidential race had loosed a riot of popular emotion. Traveling around the country in late March, he had been mobbed. KISS ME BOBBY read the student placards in Kansas. "The crowds were savage," recalled John Barlow Martin, an adviser. "They pulled his cuff links off, tore his clothes, tore ours. In bigger towns, with bigger crowds, it was frightening." In Michigan, a housewife leaned into Kennedy's car and calmly removed his shoe, which she displayed to the reporters as a trophy of war. Kennedy's bodyguard, Bill Barry, hung on to Kennedy as the motorcade inched through the tumult. "Not so tight," Kennedy cried out. "You're going to break my back." At the podium, Kennedy's hands shook; his voice was reedy and often mournful, or hot and petulant. But it didn't matter. Poor whites and poor blacks, rarely political allies, turned out for him. They could hear, beneath the high-flown rhetoric Kennedy's polished speechwriters handed him, his own vulnerability and pain and genuine empathy. It gave them—some of them, anyway—hope.

Kennedy was a practical politician. He asked to have a meeting with President Johnson—to thank him and praise him, but really to try to get a feel for how hard Johnson would work against him. LBJ's initial reaction was, "I won't bother answering that grandstanding little runt," but on April 3, the abdicating king and his dreaded usurper met at the White House. "I am no kingmaker," LBJ told Kennedy, "and I don't want to be." Kennedy said to Johnson, "You are a brave and dedicated man." Speaking in a near whisper, Kennedy seemed to choke on the words and had to awkwardly repeat them. Johnson was gracious, if noncommittal, but Kennedy was not fooled. Johnson did not immediately endorse his vice president, Hubert Humphrey. But the president lost no time working against RFK. A couple of hours after he had met with him, LBJ greeted Senator McCarthy, who had also stopped by the Oval Office to gauge the president's intentions. When Kennedy's name came up, Johnson said nothing. Then he drew the side of his hand across his throat, in a slashing motion.

While Robert Kennedy was meeting with Johnson at the White House, Martin Luther King Jr. was sitting on a plane at Atlanta's Hartsfield airport while dogs sniffed for a bomb. The threat was aimed at King. The civil-rights leader was on his way back to Memphis to rally striking sanitation workers. "Your airline brought Martin Luther King to Memphis, and when he comes again a bomb will go off, and he will be assassinated," was the message left by an anonymous caller to Eastern Airlines. The pilot of the flight to Memphis helpfully told those onboard they were being held up by a bomb threat to their fellow passenger, Dr. King.

King was still preaching nonviolence, but in the feverish atmosphere of 1968, his brave benevolence was hard to sustain. King had been down, slightly adrift, as the black-power movement became angrier and more militant. On Sunday, March 31—the day LBJ announced he would not run—King had given a moving sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Having won the battle against Jim Crow and legal segregation, he was now urging his people to struggle against the even-harder targets of poverty and violence. He had told a packed cathedral that mankind must face a moral reckoning. "One day we will have to stand before the God of history, and we will talk of things we've done," King said. "Yes, we will be able to say we have built gargantuan bridges to span the seas. We built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies … It seems to me I can hear the God of history saying, 'That was not enough! But I was hungry and ye fed me not. I was naked and ye clothed me not …' "

The week before, a march for the striking sanitation workers in Memphis had turned violent, leaving a 16-year-old boy dead. Waiting for King that afternoon in Memphis when he finally arrived at room 306 of the Lorraine Motel was a delegation from the Invaders, a local youth gang that postured with black-power slogans and paramilitary swagger. The Invaders wanted King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference to give them $200,000 to start a "Liberation School" that would teach guerrilla warfare and martial arts. King's aides coolly regarded the Invaders as shakedown artists. According to King's biographer Taylor Branch, one of King's aides, Andrew Young (later mayor of Atlanta and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations), fended off the young hotheads. "How many people did you kill last year?" he asked the Invaders, in a gently mocking tone. Last week? What are you waiting for? Why not try something real in the meantime? He offered to help them write a funding proposal that King might actually endorse. The meeting ended uneasily.

King was scheduled to speak that night at the Mason Temple at the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, but he begged off, asking his No. 2, Ralph Abernathy, to stand in his place. The night was thunderstormy, with tornado warnings, and the crowd at the enormous Temple auditorium was disappointingly small. From a pay phone in the vestibule, Abernathy implored King to come, to keep faith with the sanitation workers who had turned out on the cold, wet night. King's entrance caused an "eerie bedlam," wrote Branch. "Cheers from the floor echoed around the thousands of empty seats above, and the whole structure rattled from the pounding elements of wind, thunder, and rain." King came to the microphone at about 9:30, just as the storm was cresting, and launched into a rambling, rather unremarkable speech, until he came to the ending. King mentioned the bomb threat on the flight, and added, "but it doesn't matter now." Branch describes what happened next:

"King paused. 'Because I've been to the mountaintop,' he declared in a trembling voice. Cheers and applause erupted. Some people jerked involuntarily to their feet, and others rose slowly like a choir. 'And I don't mind,' he said, trailing off beneath the second and third waves of response. 'Like anybody I would like to live—a long life—longevity has its place.' The whole building suddenly hushed, which let sounds of thunder and rain fall from the roof. 'But I'm not concerned about that now,' said King. 'I just want God's will.' There was a subdued call of 'Yes!' in the crowd. 'And he's allowed me to go to the mountain,' King cried, building intensity. 'And I've looked over. And I have s-e-e-e-e-e-n the promised land'."

King's eyes were brimming now and a trace of a smile crossed his face. "And I may not get there with you," he shouted, "but I want you to know tonight, ['Yes!'] that as a people we will get to the promised land!" By now the crowd was clapping and crying and preachers were closing in behind him. "So I am happy tonight!" King exclaimed, rushing into his close. "I'm not worried about anything! I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!" He broke off and "stumbled sideways into a hug from Abernathy," writes Branch. "The preachers helped him to a chair, some crying, and tumult washed through" the Temple.

The next day, April 4, an escaped convict named James Earl Ray moved into a rooming house at 424? South Main Street. A guest staying next door to Ray noticed that he was taking frequent trips to the toilet. A small window in the bathroom overlooked the Lorraine Motel. A little before 6 p.m., Ray closeted himself in the bathroom and propped a 30.06 rifle on the window ledge.

Just below, in the motel courtyard, two King aides, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson, were talking and joking with a local musician, Ben Branch. Dr. King emerged on the balcony and Jackson called up to him: "Doc, you remember Ben Branch?" King greeted the Memphis saxophonist and song leader. "Ben, make sure to play 'Precious Lord, Take My Hand,' in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty."

"OK, Doc, I will," replied Branch, just before a single round from Ray's hunting rifle tore a three-inch hole in King's face.

If Martin Luther King was the black man who had done the most for the cause of civil rights in America, then Robert Kennedy was the white man. King had carried the cause with passion and vision and even ecstasy, while Kennedy was far more guarded and grudging, at least at first. But Kennedy was experiential, and the more he saw of discrimination and its cruel impact as he toured the South in the 1960s, the more he was moved and galled into action. It was Robert Kennedy, more than anyone, who pressed his brother, President John F. Kennedy, to introduce what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended legal racial discrimination in the nation.

King and Kennedy should have been natural allies, brothers in the cause, but they were not. Kennedy was irritated at King for riling up the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover by not getting rid of an accused communist spy in his ranks (Stanley Levison, falsely accused). Kennedy would later deeply regret the FBI wiretaps he authorized against King. Then there was a matter of style. King was a Prince of the Church, and regarded Kennedy as fellow royalty. He spoke to him in a grave, dignified manner that Kennedy found unctuous and cloying. When King warned of physical danger to himself and his followers, Kennedy faulted him for not showing the sort of tough-guy insouciance that Kennedy himself would have shown (or wanted to show) in times of danger. In truth, King had a rollicking sense of humor, but Kennedy never saw it.

Still, Kennedy wanted King's political support, and he was on the verge of getting it. King was preparing to endorse Kennedy for president. Kennedy's reaction to King's assassination was a mixture of shock, disappointment, bitter memory of his own brother's death and revelation about the meaning of tragedy.

It was a New York Times reporter, R. W. (Johnny) Apple, who first told RFK King had been shot. He delivered the news to the candidate as the campaign plane was preparing to fly from Muncie to Indianapolis, Ind., where Kennedy was contending in his first primary. Kennedy "sagged," recalled Apple. "His eyes went blank." Arriving in Indianapolis, they learned that King was dead. Kennedy seemed to "shrink back," remembered NEWSWEEK reporter John J. Lindsay, "as though struck physically." He put his hands to his face. "Oh God," he said, "when is this violence going to stop?"

Kennedy was scheduled to give a speech in a poor, black area in the inner city. The chief of police warned the Kennedy entourage to stay out of the ghetto; he refused to be responsible for their safety. Ethel begged her husband not to go, but he sent her back to the hotel and went ahead. The police escort peeled off as they entered an area of run-down buildings.

The night was cold and gray, but the crowd was in an almost-festive mood. Kennedy, clad in a dark overcoat with the collar turned up, climbed onto a flatbed truck. He pushed away a speech draft offered by his aide Adam Walinsky, and pulled out of his pocket some crumpled notes he had written himself.

In this pre-instant-news era, the crowd was ignorant of King's death. It fell to Kennedy to tell them. As the wind whipped at his hair (recently cut short, to signal he was no wild-eyed radical), he looked slightly hunched over and frail. "I have bad news for you," he began.

In the crowd, a Kennedy adviser named John Lewis anxiously watched the strange scene. Lewis was a hero and a martyr of the civil-rights movement. Practicing King's creed of nonviolent resistance, he had been beaten bloody as he knelt and prayed at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in March 1965. In March 1968, he had joined RFK's campaign because of Kennedy's concern for the "invisible poor" and his commitment to civil rights. "The America Bobby Kennedy envisioned sounded much like the Beloved Community I believed in," Lewis later wrote in his memoirs. Lewis had come to Indiana to help get out the black vote, and now, still reeling from the news of King's death, he watched transfixed as Kennedy's soft, weary voice rose over the crowd, which was still talking and laughing as Kennedy plunged ahead.

"I have bad news for you, for all our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world," said Kennedy. Lewis noticed that a few faces had gone somber in the front rows of the thousand or so people gathered there. "… [A]nd that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight."

"No!" gasped voices in the crowd. People began to weep and drop to their knees. Farther back, people were still talking and laughing, oblivious.

Navigating the tricky shoals of race, Kennedy stumbled a little at first as he tried to relate King's death to the killing of his own brother. RFK had never before spoken publicly about JFK's assassination, and he could hardly bear to speak of it privately, though the death of the president had gloomily filled his thoughts for months and years. "For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and disgust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say," he began, "that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my own family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times," he said, his voice gaining in strength as he found his peculiar comfort zone, the realm of myth and tragedy. Kennedy was not an articulate intellectual, but he was surprisingly well read, and he could quote the texts he carried in his pocket.

"My favorite poet was Aeschylus," Kennedy told his audience, not many of whom had graduated from high school, but who now listened with rapt attention. "He wrote, 'In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or black.

"So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that's true, but most importantly to say a prayer for our country, which all of us love—a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke …

"Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.

"Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people."

That night, as the news of King's death spread through the blighted parts of the land, there were riots in 110 cities causing 39 deaths and injuring 2,500. But in the city of Indianapolis, where Kennedy had spoken, it was quiet.

Kennedy had trouble sleeping that night. He wandered around the Marriott hotel, stopping in to talk to some young staffers, tucking in a young speechwriter named Jeff Greenfield at about 3 a.m. "You're not so ruthless," said Greenfield. "Don't tell anyone," said Kennedy.

The Kennedy campaign quietly arranged to have King's body flown from Memphis to King's hometown of Atlanta. Before the funeral, young John Lewis took Bobby and Ethel into a darkened church at 1 a.m. to view King's body in an open casket. Kennedy wordlessly crossed himself. "I said to myself, 'Well, we still have Robert Kennedy'," recalled Lewis.

But he didn't. On June 4, on the night he won the California primary, an important milestone on the march to the Democratic convention in Chicago, Robert Kennedy, too, was shot. He died two days later.

CORRECTION (ADDED Nov. 20, 2007): This story originally said that Dr. King gave his final speech at the Masonic Temple in Memphis. In fact, the speec took place at Mason Temple at the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.

Join the Discussion