Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on Thursday, April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. The next night there were riots in over 100 cities. Dr. King, the apostle of nonviolence, by far the most respected figure in the black community, had been gunned down by a white man.

Chicago experienced the most destructive and most deadly riot in the country, with nine people killed and huge areas of the west side leveled by fires. The riot inspired Mayor Richard J. Daley to issue his famous order, “shoot to kill arsonists” and “shoot to maim looters.” But the order was not what it seemed. It was issued a full week after calm had been restored, it was not actually given to the police, and, ironically, it came about because newspaper editors were afraid to print evidence that four of the deaths in the riot were highly suspicious.

You can still see the vacant blocks on the west side, the area hardest hit by the fires. Aimed at white-owned stores, they began on Madison Street a little after 3 PM and soon raged from 2200 to 3300 west. Within minutes a cluster of reporters and editors gathered around the windows of the Sun-Times building was watching clouds of black smoke rising in the distance. The atmosphere was electric. It felt like war had just broken out.

Ben Heineman Jr. was one of those reporters. The son of a prominent Chicago businessman, Heineman, a Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar, had been with the paper just six weeks. He was sent out with photographer Bob Black to see what was going on.

Madison Street from the old Chicago Stadium to Garfield Park was in turmoil as the two newsmen slowly drove into the heat of the riot. Stores were in flames. Groups of young men roamed the sidewalks, darting in and out of looted stores. Silent crowds gathered to watch. Fires crackled, sirens screamed. Black unobtrusively took long shots of the crowds and the burning.

When they got back to the city room, Heineman gave notes to a rewrite man and then was sent back out with a National Guard unit. He rode in the lead jeep as it entered the riot zone. The crowd was quietly obedient as the guardsmen patrolled the streets on the edge of the riot, asking people to clear the sidewalks and go home. He spent the night with the guardsmen at the Chicago Stadium, then caught a ride to the Loop, went to his desk at the paper, and wrote a story about the night before. On Saturday he traveled west and south to interview looters, who tried to explain their grief and rage and the liberation of no longer following the rules.

The story he wrote for the Monday paper began:

“63rd Street on Palm Sunday was an ominous canyon, crowded with people, stirred by anger, swept by wind, littered with glass and refuse.

“As men from the 46th Infantry’s 4th Battalion stood before shuttered stores in the East 100 block, 50 teenagers marched by the soldiers shouting mock orders and words of abuse.

“The soldiers’ heads rotated from east to west, warily watching the ragged adolescent army pass in review.”

The story went on to interview people on the street: a woman bearing palm leaves who said the rioting was disgraceful, a man who said it should have happened a long time ago, a man who said Dr. King was just trying to catch up with the times, a man who said the white men who owned the stores were selling bad meat and cheating the neighborhood, a soldier on duty who said he didn’t like being there and wouldn’t shoot his brothers even if ordered.

Heineman’s story didn’t run. On Monday morning he wrote a memo to the editors. The last paragraph read:

“If people are legitimately angry, why put the lid on it in print? I can’t believe that it’s really inflammatory since many people on the streets are talking the way it appeared in these stories…. People were angry, confused, perhaps irresponsible. But like I said, they are what this is all about. Why can’t it be reported?”

Later that morning Heineman and another young reporter, Joel Havemann, were assigned to work on a detailed story about the riot casualties. Who were they? What were their lives like? The Detroit Free Press had done a similar story following the riots there in 1967, and it was agreed this would be one way to describe the participants in the riot.

Nine people had died on Friday night. They were all black men, ranging in age from 16 to 34. Four were married. Eight were employed. Seven had been shot to death. Another died in a fire and the ninth bled to death from a cut on his leg.

The two reporters divided the riot deaths between them. Heineman would handle the west-side victims and Havemann the north and south sides. They got names and addresses from the Sun-Times police reporter and tracked down the police reports.

The next morning Heineman drove his old Volkswagen Bug out to the west side. Friends and relatives of one of the victims told him that other men had also been killed at about the same time and place. That evening he stayed late at the office, checking back with the police and area hospitals and on a hand-drawn map plotting the locations of four bodies found between 8 and 11 Friday night along the 4100 and 4200 blocks of West Madison. He spent the rest of the week looking into those four deaths.

One of the victims, Robert Dorsey, described by his employer as reliable and well liked, had been walking home with his wife about 9 PM. They detoured into an alley to avoid Keeler Avenue, where police were firing their rifles into the air. Dorsey’s wife told Heineman, “We never made it to the house. Robert pushed me to the ground because he heard the guns go off and it sounded like a whole lot of shots–like a machine gun. He fell onto me, asked if I was all right, and said they had shot him in the back. He was bleeding on me and had a hole in his front.”

She said, “I don’t know who did it but I didn’t see anyone shooting but the police.” Her husband lay on the street from about 9:15 until 9:45, when a squad car arrived. “I think he died about 9:30,” she said. “That was when I saw him give a little jerk.”

Several witnesses, including a small-business owner who’d sat in his store all night and watched the looting and burning along Madison, talked about a blue Chevy. They called it a “killer squad.” Four white officers in the unmarked blue car, each with a shotgun, had appeared at intervals during the night, firing into stores without warning. Two of the victims had been found in the backs of stores and two in the alley just south of the stores. A store owner on that block, the 4100 block of West Madison, said there were hundreds of spent bullets on the floor of his shop the next morning.

Heineman checked with the coroner’s office. He was told all four men had died of wounds from shotguns whose shells had been packed with extra shot to be especially lethal.

There’d been a lot of racial tension that year. Black students had been bused into the Austin district for the first time the previous fall. There were reports of the Ku Klux Klan gaining in membership among Chicago policemen. Now there was at least circumstantial evidence that a tactical unit had gone berserk. Heineman told the city editor that he’d stumbled on a much bigger story than a profile of riot deaths. But instead of pursuing the story, he was directed to find out more about the law governing police use of firearms and department regulations on the use of deadly force. He determined that the regulations clearly barred the kind of police fire that had apparently killed the four men.

Heineman was told to turn over his information to a rewrite man. He handed in 12 pages of detailed notes and his map of where the killings occurred. He was told the Sun-Times would run the story it originally had assigned: profiles of the nine who died.

He and Havemann strongly objected. The west-side deaths required a separate story. How could you describe the circumstantial evidence pointing to four wrongful killings by a police tactical unit–a hit squad–in a feature story about all the riot victims?

The two reporters looked at the draft of the story and then called city editor Ken Towers at his home and demanded a meeting. They drove there that evening in Heineman’s Volkswagen. Towers was friendly but stood his ground. After an hour of argument, the reporters left, now with the impression the editor didn’t have the authority to change the story.

On Monday, April 15, the Sun-Times headline read: “Story behind Riot Toll: The Nine Who Died.” The lead-in read, “The nine men who died in Chicago’s rioting were known only as statistics in the midst of general turmoil. Sun-Times reporters Joel Havemann and Ben W. Heineman Jr. gathered facts on who the men were, and how they died. Here is their report on the capricious path of death when riot strikes.”

The story did say that “the biggest mystery involves the deaths of four men, shot in one small area of W. Madison in a 3 and a half hour span of that turbulent Friday night. At least one of the four was an innocent victim, hurrying home with his wife to take a long distance call from her mother in St. Louis. Two others were found shot to death inside stores. A fourth was a 24-year-old man shot in an alley behind a store. His sister said he was just a bystander.”

Returning to those deaths, the story said, “When mobs of looters tore into stores on W. Madison, police were ordered ‘to take aggressive action in arresting violators of the law.’ Did that include the use of weapons? ‘There were no blanket orders pertaining to firing, one way or the other,’ says a police department spokesman. One policeman told the Sun-Times ‘We were told to use our own judgment.'”

Mayor Daley attended early mass that Monday and then read the morning papers as he was being driven to work. City Hall sources would say the Sun-Times story enraged him. Later that morning he announced at a City Hall press conference the appointment of a committee to investigate the causes of the rioting, to be headed by federal judge Richard Austin. Then he reacted to the Sun-Times story with an angry speech.

“I have conferred with the superintendent of police this morning and I gave him the following instructions, which I thought were instructions on the night of the fifth that were not carried out. I said to him very emphatically and very definitely that [he should issue an order] immediately and under his signature to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand in Chicago because they’re potential murderers, and to issue a police order to shoot to maim or cripple any arsonists and looters–arsonists to kill and looters to maim and detain.”

Daley said he thought these instructions shouldn’t have been needed. “I assumed any superintendent would issue instructions to shoot arsonists on sight and to maim looters, but I found out this morning this wasn’t so and therefore gave him specific instructions.”

City Hall reporters knew they had a big story on their hands. “It was one of those odd moments when reporters realize that someone has said something very foolish,” Richard Ciccone wrote in his 1996 biography of Daley. At least one editor called the mayor’s office to confirm the wording. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

The next day’s stories became international news. It was the most famous thing Daley ever said.

But there was some consternation over at police headquarters. That Monday afternoon Superintendent James Conlisk met with first deputy superintendent James Rochford to try to figure out how he could legally obey the mayor. They were determined not to issue an order that would encourage police to use excessive force. Then Conlisk met with deputy superintendent Patrick Neenan and press officer Frank Sullivan to draft an order for the men. “I’ll tell you one thing,” Conlisk said. “I’m not going to issue an order that’s going to result in a federal indictment.” They wrote a carefully worded order and sent it out over the teletype to police districts and area headquarters that night. It read:

“Arson, attempted arson, burglary and attempted burglary are forcible felonies. Such force as is necessary, including deadly force, shall be used to prevent the commission of these offenses and to prevent the escape of perpetrators. The commanding officers will insure that the above and General Order 67-14 are continually reviewed at all roll calls effective immediately and continuing through 22 April, 1968.”

The catch was that general order 67-14 spelled out the carefully limited circumstances in which it was appropriate to use deadly force. And the new order would only be in effect for seven days.

Sullivan said later that he thought the press could have interpreted the order as defiance of the mayor. But after some wavering, City Hall reporters portrayed it as compliance.

The next day, Tuesday, April 16, a group of clergymen, my father among them, urgently asked to meet with the mayor. They felt he must rescind his order immediately. But when they entered Daley’s inner office, most felt intimidated. Finally my father, Dr. Edgar H.S. Chandler, then the head of the Church Federation of Greater Chicago, spoke up. He said the “shoot to kill” order was illegal and could not stand. Policemen were not supposed to act as judge and jury. And “shoot to maim” was vicious imagery that the mayor surely must not have intended.

On Wednesday morning, Daley held another press conference. “There wasn’t any shoot to kill order,” he said. “They said that I gave orders to shoot down children. I said to the superintendent, if a man has a Molotov cocktail in his hand and throws it into a building with children and women up above, he should be shot right there and if I was there I would shoot him. Everybody knows it was twisted around and they said Daley gave orders to shoot children. That wasn’t true.”

Daley’s press secretary, Earl Bush, said the controversy was the fault of reporters. “They should have printed what he meant, not what he said.”

A week later Daley’s office announced that mail had poured in from all over the country and was running 15 to one in favor of the mayor. Daley aides insisted he’d never said “shoot to maim.” He’d said “shoot to detain.”

Routine inquests were held into each of the riot deaths, and Heineman wrote stories for the Sun-Times on the first two west-side verdicts: death by “person or persons unknown.” Neither story ran in the paper.

Mayor Daley’s blue ribbon committee headed by Judge Austin sent him their report two months later, and after some delay the mayor made it public. A primary recommendation was an investigation of the four west-side deaths. The report said the four died “under especially disturbing circumstances” and requested that the police department conduct an investigation. No official report was ever made public about the four deaths.

Heineman went on to Yale law school, was a law partner of Joseph Califano Jr. (President Carter’s secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare), and wrote a well-received book on presidential politics. He’s now senior vice president and general counsel for General Electric. He still faults himself for not spending more time lining up witnesses to the shootings and for not pushing the paper more. “I do remember being stuffed by the editors on pieces trying to tell the story from the streets. Hard to believe today,” he said recently.

Havemann, now an editor in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, said “there’s little doubt there was a rogue police unit targeting people that Friday.”

In the fall of 1968 Heineman wrote a story for the Chicago Journalism Review in which he concluded:

“The editors may simply have seen the story differently than the field reporters. The paper, at least in April, may have felt it had expended all its ‘liberal’ capital in supporting busing (it was the only paper in the city to do so) and in vigorously defending police restraint during the disturbances and that it couldn’t mount a campaign on behalf of four blacks who died under ambiguous circumstances….

“What matters is that four men were killed–killed needlessly by men who may still be dangerous–and the newspaper, the only independent institution with enough power to unravel the extent of police involvement, did not give its full efforts to the case.”

He described as “ironic” and “paradoxical” the link between the riot-deaths story and the shoot to kill order. A story that focused on the cluster of suspicious west-side deaths would have set the mayor back on his heels. He’d have faced calls for an investigation of police conduct at a terrible time for him–with the Democratic Convention approaching that summer and his control of the city in doubt. But instead, the story emphasized the police force’s lack of clear orders. No doubt angry that the Sun-Times had questioned police conduct at all, Daley went on the offensive.

Tom Keane, Daley’s powerful ally as chairman of the City Council’s finance committee, said at the time: “I don’t know why we are disturbed about the mayor’s statements. Instead of criticizing actions of police, I feel it’s time to use brass knuckles.”

My father was shocked to learn months later that Daley was referring to him as “that rioter.” He’d always been on cordial terms with the mayor, but his statement to Daley the day after the shoot to kill order was issued turned him into a pariah. Later that year a number of prominent Protestant businessmen met at a downtown club and decided to earmark their donations to Church Federation projects they approved of–not the controversial ones dealing with race relations. My father felt they were trying to pressure him into leaving, and he did. In 1969 he became head of the council of churches in Worcester, Massachusetts. He and Rabbi Robert Marx and Monsignor John Egan had led the Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs since the early 60s. All were gone from Chicago a year after the riots. Cardinal John Cody had Monsignor Egan transferred to Notre Dame, while Rabbi Marx was, as he now puts it, “kicked upstairs” to New York.

Just months before he died in 1976, Mayor Daley gave an impassioned speech defending his actions in 1968 to a gathering of the Cook County Democratic Party. Though no one in the audience seemed even slightly interested, Daley was concerned about his legacy. But that legacy will always include most famously, “Shoot to kill…shoot to maim.”

It was an order, Heineman would much later recall, that “led to renewed tension and ultimately contributed to the later police riot at the Democratic Convention.”

Emmett Dedmon, the Sun-Times editor in 1968, was asked in a 1970 interview why the paper hadn’t run a separate story on the four west-side killings. He replied that no other paper had covered the riot deaths as extensively as the Sun-Times. “We covered it to the maximum,” he said. “You have to judge these things in terms of the whole picture. You have to be responsible.”

Ken Towers was recently asked the same thing. He said the city was tense and Heineman was a young, inexperienced reporter. The story that did appear, he noted, won a Chicago Newspaper Guild award. Wasn’t it clear now that the Sun-Times’s timidity had allowed Daley to issue his shoot to kill order? “We were in the eye of the hurricane,” Towers said. “Some of the decisions were good and some not so good.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Ken Sexton, Charles Eshelman.