Race Riots of the 1960s

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Race Riots of the 1960s

In the early 1960s, African Americans in cities nationwide were growing frustrated with the high level of poverty in their communities. Since the years immediately following World War II (1939–45), middle-class white Americans had been leaving the cities for nearby suburbs. Businesses that had once provided jobs and tax funding in the cities were leaving as well. At the same time, more than three million job-seeking African Americans moved from the South to the cities of the North and West. Increasingly, the downtowns of large cities became home to lower-income minorities, many of them southern blacks. Unemployment among African Americans was well above the national average, and one-half of all black Americans lived below the poverty line (as opposed to one-fifth of whites). Not surprisingly, tensions ran high in black communities.

The 1960s saw the most serious and widespread series of race riots in the history of the United States. Major riots occurred in Birmingham, Alabama , in 1963; New York City in 1964; Watts in Los Angeles, California , in 1965; and Chicago, Illinois , in 1966. In 1967, alone, Tampa, Florida ; Cincinnati, Ohio ; Atlanta, Georgia ; Newark, Plainfield, and New Brunswick, New Jersey ; and Detroit, Michigan , all had riots. Riots erupted in more than 110 U.S. cities on April 4, 1968, the night civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was assassinated.

The Harlem riots, 1964

The first major riot in the decade occurred in Harlem and several other African American neighborhoods of New York City. On July 16, 1964, an off-duty police officer shot and killed a fifteen-year-old African American boy in Manhattan. That night, there was a peaceful student protest march in Harlem. Two days later, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a nonviolent African American civil rights organization, sponsored a protest march and rally to protest police brutality in Harlem.

After the rally, a militant (aggressive or war-like) crowd marched to the Harlem police precinct building. Minor fights began between demonstrators and police, and sixteen African American leaders were arrested and brought into the police station. Demonstrators reported that the arrested protesters were being beaten and that their cries could be heard outside. Soon more fighting broke out between police and demonstrators. By 10:30 pm, a riot had begun, with youths pelting police with rocks and Molotov cocktails (crude, homemade bombs made

of breakable bottles or jars filled with gas or any flammable liquid, usually lit with a rag wick and then thrown at the target). The police responded by shooting over protesters' heads.

The rebellion continued for four nights and spread to Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where there was further rioting during the next two nights. White-owned businesses were vandalized and burned by arsonists. Whites entering Harlem unguarded were beaten. CORE chairman James Farmer (1920–1999) organized squads from CORE chapters and walked through Harlem's streets urging an end to the violence. The crowd ignored him and the black militants jeered him.

The uprising finally ceased on July 23, but even as New York City calmed down, rioting broke out in Rochester, New York, and three cities in New Jersey. The violence left one man dead, 144 people injured, and 519 arrested. Although the conflict seems minor when compared to the urban riots to come, it was the first major outbreak of urban violence in a generation.

Watts riot, 1965

On a hot afternoon in August 1965 in the mostly black South Central section of Los Angeles, white policemen used force to restrain a young black man arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. A crowd gathered at the scene. The mood was tense but nonviolent until one of the officers on the scene tried to arrest a woman he mistakenly thought had spit on him. The crowd lashed out in anger, pelting nearby cars and buses with rocks and bottles. Police reinforcements arrived, and they squared off against the angry crowd well into the night. Disturbances spread from South Central to Watts, a neighborhood several miles away. The demonstrators threw rocks; the police responded with riot sticks. Television news reporters on the scene filmed the rioting.

At around midnight, the police decided that their presence was making things worse, and they withdrew from the scene. But the mob had no intention of going home. Newsmen who stayed behind after the police left were attacked, and rioters overturned the mobile television-news vans. Rioters smashed the windows of local stores and made off with the merchandise. “Burn, baby, burn,” the catchphrase of a disc jockey at one of Los Angeles's black-music stations, became the rioters' motto during the uprising.

Violence continued over the next several days. In the first two days of rioting, seventy-five stores in the area had been burned. African American storeowners began putting signs in their shop windows telling the rioters that they supported them, but in many cases, the signs were ignored. Black leaders, including members of CORE and stand-up comedian Dick Gregory (1932–), appealed to the crowds to go home, but with little success. (Gregory actually received a minor gunshot wound for his efforts.) Finally, the Los Angeles Police Department called in the California National Guard to help restore order. Before the uprising was over, more than thirteen thousand guardsmen would be involved.

The violence slowly began to subside. Martial law (temporary military rule over the civilian population in a time of crisis) was imposed, a curfew was established, and no one was allowed on the street without a good reason. An area of nearly 50 square miles of the city was under military control. When the smoke finally cleared, the loss of life and property stunned Los Angeles. Thirty-four were dead, most of them participants in the riot, and more than a thousand were injured. Six hundred buildings were damaged, a third of them totally destroyed. Property damage was estimated at $40 million.

Newark, 1967

The conflict in Newark, New Jersey, started on July 12, 1967, when police arrested and beat a black cabdriver. A crowd that had formed at the station house to protest the incident became unruly and ignored requests to leave. The police used force to clear the area, and some protesters began to loot stores. The next day, a rally was held to protest police brutality. When police again used force to disperse the crowd, mobs roamed through some areas of the city burning, looting, and fighting with police. On July 14, the National Guard was brought in to help restore order. By the time the National Guard was withdrawn on July 17, twenty-three persons (twenty-one blacks and two whites) had been killed and $10.25 million in damage had been done.

Detroit, 1967

On the surface, Detroit, Michigan, in 1967, was an African American success story. Many blacks commanded high wages in Detroit's factories and occupied high positions in the United Auto Workers union.

Approximately 40 percent of the city's 555,000 blacks owned houses. A new antipoverty agency, Total Action Against Poverty, had provided the city with $200 million for jobs, job training, education, and recreation for the city's poor. Blacks in Detroit had also attained a share in political power, with several high-level officials in the city government.

Beneath the surface, though, Detroit had serious problems. The unemployment rate among blacks was 11 percent—double the national average—and even higher among black youths. Crime in the city was very high, and many African Americans feared for their lives.

On July 23, 1967, at 4:00 am, Detroit police raided an after-hours bar in a poor neighborhood and arrested eighty people. A crowd of blacks gathered outside, cursing and throwing rocks and bricks. A brick broke a police car window. The police tried to avoid conflict by doing nothing, but the violence grew. People began to smash windows and loot stores, setting fires as they went along. The rioters spread through the neighborhood and far beyond, growing in numbers until they outnumbered the city's four thousand police.

The next morning, Michigan governor George Romney (1907–1995) proclaimed a state of emergency, set a 9:00 pm curfew, and called in state troopers and the National Guard. The use of force only made matters worse. The National Guard had little training in crowd control and tended to fire at anything that moved. In an effort to escape the bloodshed, thousands of blacks clogged the available refugee centers. As the riot raged, offices, banks, stores, and hotels closed, leaving the city paralyzed.

Romney appealed to President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) to send in federal troops. The arrival of federal troops shifted the riot back to the neighborhood where it had started. There, about one hundred rioting snipers took up positions and began shooting. They shot at firefighters and assaulted a police station. A sniper shot and killed a white woman who was watching from her window. When the police and the National Guard went after the snipers, they killed several unarmed people who were only trying to flee from the chaos.

The riot died out by the weekend and authorities were finally able to assess the damage. Property damage exceeded $45 million. So many people had been arrested—more than four thousand—that some had to be detained in buses. More than a thousand people were injured, and forty-three people had been killed. The dead included looters, snipers, a policeman, and a fireman, as well as many innocent people who had been caught in the cross fire. Only eight of the dead were white.

Even before the Detroit riot had ended, insurrections were erupting in other Michigan cities, including Pontiac, Saginaw, Kalamazoo, and Grand Rapids.


The race riots of the 1960s led President Johnson to establish a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1967. The commission identified white racism as the main cause of the riots. Specifically mentioned were pervasive discrimination and segregation, black migration to the cities as whites left them, harsh ghetto conditions, and frustration of hopes and a feeling of powerlessness on the part of many blacks. There is little evidence that serious efforts were made to correct the problems raised by the commission. The Johnson administration, and those that followed, viewed the riots as law-enforcement problems rather than signs of social imbalance.