Sid Davidoff's two-way radio crackled to life just after 8:30 p.m. on April 4, 1968.
The young aide to Mayor John Lindsay was eating dinner with a colleague at a steakhouse on University Place near E. 11th St.
Within minutes, Davidoff was on the phone with the mayor’s night secretary. The news was beyond grim.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot dead in Memphis.
King’s assassination marked a seminal moment in American history. But Davidoff had no time to reflect on its significance.
The call was passed through to the mayor. Lindsay declared that he wanted to go to Harlem to be with the people.
Davidoff thought it was a bad idea: A white mayor heading to the beating heart of black America in the minutes after the assassination of the nation’s most influential civil rights leader.
“Let me at least get up there and see what it’s like,” Davidoff recalls telling Lindsay.
He and fellow aide Barry Gottehrer hopped into Davidoff’s city-issued black Mercury and switched on its siren and flashing red light. The car shot up the FDR Drive.
Around the same time, a 37-year-old assemblyman named Charles Rangel was digesting the dreadful news at a community meeting on W. 137th St.
“The pain and the shock left people absolutely speechless,” Rangel recalled. “The only thing you could hear in that group was moaning: ‘Oh, no. It can’t be. It didn’t happen.’
“I thought the worst. I thought that the country was coming apart.”
Rangel would soon be on his way to the same place as the young mayoral aides.
Harlem, they all feared, was poised to explode.
King’s assassination sparked devastating riots in several American cities.
Newark went up in flames. Baltimore erupted in chaos. Washington saw 13 people killed in three days of looting, fires and bloody strife.
Thousands of active-duty soldiers, including snipers, were called in to quell the unrest in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington.
The life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
New York experienced spasms of looting and arson in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
The perpetrators smashed windows and stole goods from several grocery, liquor and clothing stores in the early morning hours of April 5.
Times Square also saw an outburst of violence, and minor looting hit Columbus Circle.
In all, some 120 people were arrested in the mayhem.
But there was no large-scale riot, no bloody confrontations with police, no raging infernos devouring whole blocks.
While there are surely many reasons — political and economic — to explain the absence of widespread unrest, many credit the city’s relative calm to what transpired on the streets of Harlem in those first few hours after the nation learned it had lost King.
On his way uptown, Davidoff started compiling in his head a list of the community figures they would contact in anticipation of a visit from the mayor.
They weren’t the typical names you’d expect in a mayor’s Rolodex. These were street preachers, gang leaders and even Ellsworth (Bumpy) Johnson, the larger-than-life Harlem kingpin who controlled the numbers racket.
Lindsay had made it a hallmark of his mayoralty to cultivate relationships with such influential, if not wholly innocent, characters. These men commanded respect on the street. Their support would signal to potential troublemakers that a visit from the mayor had the blessing of the neighborhood’s most respected — and feared — figures.
Davidoff pulled up his car outside a popular lounge on W. 125th St. called the Shalimar. This was the de facto headquarters of the Five Percenters, an offshoot of the Black Muslims.
The group’s leader was a man known as Allah.
“He, probably more than anybody we knew, had his ears to the ground as to what was happening,” Davidoff recalled.
From the Shalimar, Davidoff saw people pouring out of buildings in droves. Soon hundreds of people had flooded the streets in and around the bar.
“At this point, it was sorrow and grief, which could easily explode into anger and rage,” Davidoff said.
He reached out to the mayor and described the scene.
“I’m coming up,” Lindsay replied.
Davidoff tried to persuade him otherwise. “This is an explosive situation,” he told the mayor. “We can’t guarantee your safety.”
Lindsay wouldn’t take no for an answer. He gave Davidoff 45 minutes to prepare for his arrival.
Davidoff and other aides worked the phones, informing Johnson and their other key contacts in the neighborhood that the mayor was on his way.
It wouldn’t be the first time Lindsay was showing up unexpectedly. He had by then developed a reputation for walking the streets of minority neighborhoods to hear directly from black and Hispanic New Yorkers.
Now Lindsay was wading into a heaving mass of people — many weeping, some standing in silent shock — on W. 125th St.
“There was an odd type of tension,” Davidoff recalled. “We really didn’t know what was going to happen.”
The crowd parted, and Lindsay made his way through. It appeared that he was stopping to console someone every few steps.
“It was an amazing thing to see,” Davidoff said. “This patrician, 6-foot-4, blond, blue-eyed mayor walking the streets in the most densely-populated African-American neighborhood in the country and sharing his sorrow with everybody.”
Bumpy Johnson dispatched his daughter to walk with the mayor, sending an unmistakable message to the neighborhood toughs. Allah had also come through in providing muscle to surround Lindsay.
The crowd swelled around the mayor. As the throngs walked slowly west, they could see thick smoke rising in the distance.
“I remember remarking to the mayor, ‘Gee, that’s Newark,’ ” Davidoff recalled. “Here, there was anger mixed with sorrow, but you didn’t have that rage.”
Rangel also joined the crowd. He and Lindsay had forged a close bond.
“I remember so well walking with who I thought was a pretty courageous guy,” Rangel said. “Neither he nor I and so many of his staff had any idea where this was going to take us.”
The mayor remained in the streets for close to an hour. By some accounts, a flareup between rival factions prompted Lindsay to abruptly leave the scene.
Rangel said Lindsay’s surprise appearance in Harlem had an overall calming influence.
“I had no idea what he would do at a time like that,” Rangel said. “But it was just a wonderful feeling knowing that the mayor was with us at the time of our pain.”
Jimmy Breslin, the city’s famed columnist, would later describe the events of that night in his inimitable prose.
The mayor “looked straight at the people on the streets and he told them he was sick and he was sorry about Martin Luther King,” Breslin wrote. “And the poor he spoke to who are so much more real than the rest of us understood the truth of John Lindsay. And there was no riot in New York.”
Lindsay would venture back to Harlem after midnight. And he made an impassioned speech the following day, urging New Yorkers to remain calm.
“It is only natural that those who believe in Martin Luther King’s cause — and there are tens of millions of them — should want to strike back against the forces that brought him down,” Lindsay said.
But the mayor stressed that retribution — though a “natural reaction” — was “not in Martin Luther King’s vocabulary, nor in his philosophy.”
New York City may have been spared the worst of the nation’s violence. But the shock and pain triggered by King’s assassination lingered for days.
“There was a spiritual tone in his voice that allowed me to believe that at his young age he was not just mortal,” Rangel said. “That he had a calling. That he was protected by God.
“I remember going to bed that night hoping so badly that this was a dream, a nightmare,” Rangel added. “That it never really truly happened.”