Archival footage from the WNYC-TV Moving Image Collection, Municipal Archives, City of New York
Early in his administration, Lindsay earned a reputation for his willingness to walk the streets to communicate with black and Latino New Yorkers. He helped to quell racially charged riots in Brooklyn in July 1966 and in East Harlem in July 1967 by personally appearing there to appeal for calm and peace. In 1967, his record earned him appointment to the National Commission on Civil Disturbances, known as the Kerner Commission. On the night of April 4, 1968, Lindsay was at a Broadway play when he learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis. He and his aides quickly drove to Harlem, where he mingled with the crowds, expressing his sorrow and seeking to dissuade enraged young people from acts of violence. At one point, as crowds grew, aides rushed him from the scene, but he returned later that night. Fires, looting, and vandalism did break out in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and two people were killed, but Lindsay’s forays were widely credited with helping to calm the situation. In contrast, full-scale riots tore through Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and 120 other cities following the assassination, leaving the cities burnt, looted, and traumatized.
Key to Lindsay’s ability to keep the calm was the strategy of police restraint he adopted with Police Commissioner Howard Leary during earlier “long, hot summers,” avoiding clashes that might have inflamed further violence. When Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered his police to “shoot to kill” during the April 1968 riots, Lindsay sent a different message: “We are not going to shoot children in New York City.”