During the summer of 1967, 158 riots broke out in urban communities across America. Most shared the same triggering event: an argument between black citizens and white police officers that escalated into violence. During those convulsive months, massive social unrest – labeled in turn by riots, rebellions, uprisings and civil unrest – left 83 dead and 17,000 arrested, according to a 2007 study in The Journal of Economic History. In Detroit, the bloodiest uprising, there were 43 deaths, 7,200 arrests and more than 2,500 buildings looted, damaged or destroyed in five days of riots. The property damage, adjusted for 2020 dollars, made upset 67 in Detroit ($ 322 million) and Newark ($ 115 million) two of the 10 costliest civil unrest in American history, in terms of claims. insurance.
In the aftermath of the riots, President Lyndon Johnson set up the Kerner Commission, an 11-person task force, to investigate the reasons for the riots. “Racial prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future, “said the 1968 report.” White racism is primarily responsible for the explosive mix that has built up in our cities since the end of World War II.
READ MORE: Why the 1967 Kerner report on urban riots suppressed its own conclusions
“All our cities are potentially barrels of powder”
Social unrest in black communities has been building up for a long time. A century after emancipation, black citizens were still denied many of the rights and privileges accorded to white Americans. And while the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s progressed slowly, racial injustice and police brutality persisted, fueling tensions. In 1964, two weeks after the landmark Civil Rights Act, banning racial discrimination, was passed, New York City police shot dead a black teenager, sparking a six-day protest that turned into an uprising in Harlem and in other large African-American communities in the surrounding area. the city. In 1965, a traffic stop in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles quickly exploded in six days of violence, with more than 30 dead, over 1,000 injured and over 600 buildings damaged or destroyed.
Three months before the unrest began in Newark and Detroit, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned of the violence to come, even as he pressed for nonviolent direct action: “All of our cities are potentially powder kegs, ”said the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in a speech at Stanford University titled“ The Other America ”. But, he was careful to note, “I think America needs to ensure that riots don’t develop out of thin air,” citing persistent poverty and dire conditions in separate housing and schools. . “All of these things have caused a lot of hopelessness and a lot of despair, a lot of disappointment and even bitterness in black communities.”
Writer and activist James Baldwin, one of the most eloquent critics of racism during the civil rights movement, summed up the conflicts to one radio host this way: “To be black in this country and to be relatively aware, c is to be angry. , almost all the time. ”His 1966 essay“ A Report from Occupied Territory, ”published in The nation, developed the harsh conditions in black communities in America, denouncing impoverished schools, limited employment opportunities and, in particular, racist police: “The police, he writes, treat black people like a dog.”
Such treatment had deep roots in American history – from the 19efrom the slave patrols of the last century to the “black codes” of the Jim Crow era (designed to facilitate the arrest of blacks and profit from their free labor) to lynchings involving the police. By the mid-1960s, “conflicts between blacks and the police became hotbeds of racial resentment,” as white residents of cities like Detroit and Newark felt threatened by the “black invasion” of their neighborhoods, writes. New York University historian Thomas Sugrue, author of The origins of the urban crisis. “Decades of racial strife and economic inequality provided tinder for the 1967 [Detroit] riot; police action provided the spark.
In May 1967, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission informed mayors of cities with large black populations that the coming summer had “potential for racial conflict.” Noting that many incidents of civil unrest had escalated following an incident between a black citizen and a police officer, the commission called on the police to “re-emphasize the equal application of its laws. rules and regulations regarding civility, conduct and language “.
READ MORE: How police shooting of black soldier sparked Harlem riots in 1943
The summer of rabies
During the summer of 67, violent unrest erupted in dozens of American cities, including Milwaukee, Buffalo, Tampa and Cincinnati. But the nation was galvanized by the events that unfolded in July in Newark and Detroit.
The Newark uprising began on July 12 when a black cab driver was beaten by two white police officers for a minor traffic violation. The five days of riots and looting that followed left 26 dead, 700 injured and more than 1,400 arrests. The National Guard and state soldiers were called in to restore order. “For some, the flames and violence were riots, destroying neighborhoods and driving out white and middle-class residents,” Rick Rojas and Khorri Atkinson wrote in The New York Times on the 50e anniversary of the Newark upheaval. “Or was it a rebellion, the uprising of a long oppressed community that was finally fed up? “
Less than a week after the violence in Newark ended, it began in Detroit on the night of July 23 when white police raided an illegal black nightclub. In the five days of violence and clashes that followed, police forces and predominantly white military units deployed in the city were responsible for the deaths of 30 of the 37 blacks who died. As dozens of city blocks burned, President Johnson delivered a televised address to the nation. “Even the most severe police action and the most effective federal troops will never be able to create lasting peace in our cities,” he said. “The only real long-term solution to what happened lies in an attack, mounted at all levels, against the conditions which breed despair and violence.”
READ MORE: The Detroit Riots, From A Child’s Perspective
Crime Control and Safe Streets Act 1968
In the first version of the Kerner Report, titled “The Harvest of American Racism,” sociologists cited police brutality as the central cause of uprisings and black discontent in urban America. But the commission buried these researchers’ findings, and President Johnson chose to focus his response on segregation and economic equality. The Kerner Report recognized that “the nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.”
According to Nicole Lewis, reporter for the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system, Johnson has used the riots to double its policing agenda. “As a result of the violence, two distinct and opposing forces have formed,” Lewis wrote. “As the black community pushed for police reform alongside socio-economic improvement, the federal government responded by equipping the police with new tools to control violent expressions of civil unrest.”
Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, a crime bill that authorized $ 400 million in state grants to provide resources to local law enforcement.
READ MORE: 11 Black Pride and Protest Anthems Across American History
The uprisings of ’67 helped usher in a new era of black activism and empowerment that contributed to law enforcement reforms, economic inequality, and the election of the first black mayors in the early 1970s to Newark and Detroit.
“The black community was definitely empowered,” said Junius Williams, a Newark-based law professor and civil rights activist. the New York Times. “No one wanted this violence. But at the same time… we had the opportunity to transform this destructive power into something positive for the community.
WATCH: Fight the Power: The Movements that Changed America premieres Saturday June 19 at 8 / 7c on The HISTORY® Channel.