Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
In April 1968, when riots broke out after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., the National Guard were called to protect the Capitol. In this image, troops stand near the center staircase on the East Front.
On this date, federal troops arrived to guard the U.S. Capitol amid nationwide civil unrest following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the day before. King had been in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, campaigning in support of striking sanitation workers when he was murdered at his hotel. In Washington, DC, King’s assassination sparked widespread riots. Fires destroyed buildings while crowds raided storefronts for food, appliances, and other goods. The U.S. House of Representatives was not in session on Friday, April 5, but several Senators eulogized King that afternoon. As the violence and property destruction continued, President Lyndon B. Johnson
called in U.S. troops to quell the disturbance and District of Columbia Mayor Walter E. Washington declared a 5:30 p.m. curfew. About 6,000 troops were mobilized in the District by dusk on April 5, including units from the Army and the Marine Corps as well as the D.C. National Guard. A group of about 70 Marines were charged with defending the Capitol and the surrounding congressional office buildings. By Friday evening, they had set up a machine gun on the West Front of the Capitol and helmeted sentries guarded the building with rifles and sheathed bayonets. When House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford
of Michigan arrived at the Capitol on Saturday, April 6, he was surprised to find Marines sleeping on the stone floors. The full House returned on Monday, April 8, to consider pending civil rights legislation. On April 10, cheers erupted in the packed House gallery as lawmakers voted 250 to 172 to approve the Senate version of Civil Rights Act of 1968
. The new law included several provisions referred to as the Fair Housing Act that King had championed before his death. President Johnson signed the bill into law the following day. More than 13,000 soldiers patrolled Washington, DC, during this tumultuous period—the first time federal troops were sent into the capital since the Army dispersed the Bonus Marchers
in 1932. The Marines remained stationed at the Capitol until April 12, eventually using barracks on Capitol Hill to rest. Days of rioting left 13 people dead and thousands injured; the city suffered millions of dollars in property damage. The Pentagon withdrew the last of the troops by April 16.