Riots, Urban, of 1967
RIOTS, URBAN, OF 1967
RIOTS, URBAN, OF 1967. Beginning in April and continuing through the rest of the year, 159 race riots erupted across the United States. The first occurred in Cleveland, but by far the most devastating were those that took place in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan. The former took twenty-six lives and injured fifteen hundred; the latter resulted in forty deaths and two thousand injuries. Large swaths of ghetto in both places went up in flames. Television showed burning buildings and looted stores, with both National Guardsmen and paratroopers on the scenes.
These upheavals seemed to come out of nowhere, but that was not really the case. Urban violence, including race confrontation, was always present in America; "politics out of doors," as it was called in the nineteenth century, was evident in the coming of the American Revolution, the Age of Jackson, the Civil War, and the century following. In the long view, 1967's explosions were important but far from unique episodes of civil disorder in American history.
In a more immediate sense, the 1967 riots were part of the activist political culture of the 1960s. Agitations for civil rights seemed long overdue in America. It was a decade of upheaval and change involving not only black activism but also growing antiwar sentiment, street theater aimed at social change and class conflict, and the beginning of a women's rights movement. Within this mixture of activism, the civil rights movement, led by Reverend Martin Luther King, came into its own as a biracial effort to achieve full integration and political rights in American society. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would seem to have met the demand, but that was not to be. Black activism remained alive and well and moved beyond the moderation of Dr. King to embrace the concept of Black Power evoked by militant radicals like Hughey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rapp Brown. It was embodied in the Black Panthers as the foremost organizational vehicle for African Americans of the era. Radicalization of the civil rights struggle—seemingly encouraged by legislative progress under the aegis of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society—led to the explosions of 1967 in black ghettos across America. It was euphemized most famously by Rapp Brown's oft-quoted epithet "Burn, baby, burn."
Yet even that destructive component of Black Power should not be taken out of context; the year 1967 ended with a final act of violence in late October, when antiwar protesters from around the country moved on Washington, D.C. Those who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on 21 October were largely white, largely middle class, largely educated, and formerly mainstream in their politics. But, when U.S. Army units met them with fixed
bayonets, they took to the streets of the capital in an out-break of destructive rioting and constructive confrontation, and 650 were arrested.
So, while 1967 was to go down in history as another major riot year like 1765, 1834, 1877, 1919, and 1931, it should be noted that not all of the riots were outpourings of racial confrontations that year. Violence was in the air in 1967, but so was free political expression as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Paul Gilje. Rioting in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.