Uprising: When Black America Launched a Violent Rebellion Against One of the Most Oppressive Societies on Earth
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“Racism is like a Cadillac, they bring out a new model every year”…….. Malcolm X
Last Friday marked the 46th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. He was killed on April 4, 1968. Events honoring Dr. King were held in Memphis and other cities around the country, media outlets ran many stories about the days leading up to King’s assassination, his work in Memphis supporting the striking sanitation workers and its relevance to the contemporary debate over a living wage. Notably missing from these recollections of that period in American history are the momentous events that occurred in the days after King’s assassination and the legacy of the national response.
The immediate cause of the Holy Week Uprising was the killing of MLK, but portents of disaster had been present for years. During the summer of 1964 seven cities – two in New York (NYC and Rochester), three in New Jersey (Patterson, Elizabeth and Jersey City), Philadelphia and the Dixmoor suburb of Chicago – exploded, setting a pattern for summer rebellions to come. The New York Rebellion of 1964 was the first in a series of devastating race-related uprisings that ripped through American cities between 1964 and 1968. The rebellion began in Harlem after the shooting of fifteen year-old James Powell by a white off-duty police officer. Considering the incident an act of police brutality, eight thousand Harlem residents took to the streets and launched a large-scale rebellion, breaking widows, setting fires and looting local businesses. The eruption of destruction soon spread to the nearby neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant and continued for six days, resulting in the death of one resident, over one hundred injuries, and more than 450 arrests.
As the civil unrest in New York City began to cool, another uprising broke out upstate, in Rochester, New York, a city that prided itself on its affluence and stability. Like the Harlem rebellion the Rochester uprising stemmed from an alleged act of police brutality. For three days, protestors overturned automobiles, burned buildings, and looted stores causing over one million dollars worth of damages. Governor Nelson Rockefeller took the unprecedented step of mobilizing the state’s National Guard. The uprisings of 1964 highlighted the racial injustice and growing civil unrest in northern cities and served as a powerful indicator of the urgent need for social and economic reforms in African-American communities outside of the South.
In August 1965, Los Angeles’s South Central neighborhood of Watts became a scene of the greatest racial tension America had yet seen. Again the triggering event involved a police encounter and allegations of brutality. Over the course of the six-day rebellion, over 14,000 California National Guard troops mobilized and established a curfew zone encompassing over forty-five miles. All told, the rebellion claimed the lives of thirty-four people, resulted in more than one thousand reported injuries, and almost four thousand arrests. Throughout the crisis, public officials advanced the argument that the rebellion was the work of outside agitators; however, an official investigation, prompted by Governor Pat Brown, found that the uprising was a result of the Watts community’s longstanding grievances and growing discontent with high unemployment rates, substandard housing and inadequate schools. Despite the reported findings of the gubernatorial commission, city leaders and state officials failed to carry out measures to improve the social and economic conditions of African-Americans living in the Watts neighborhood.