Uprising: When Black America Launched a Violent Rebellion Against One of the Most Oppressive Societies on Earth

America learned the exact wrong lesson from the black uprising of the 1960s.

“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.

Black America reacted to the murder of Dr. King with unmitigated rage. Within hours of the news, cities around the country were in flames. Blacks were in open rebellion in more than 110 cities with the worst and most prolonged rebellions taking place in Chicago, Kansas City, Louisville, Baltimore and the nation’s capital – Washington, D.C. The rebellion continued for almost a week and came to be known as the “Holy Week Uprising”. Crowds of 20,000 angry residents overwhelmed the District’s 3,100-member police force, leading President Johnson to dispatch some 13,600 federal troops to aid them. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol and Army troops guarded the White House. At one point, on April 5, the rebellion reached within two blocks of the White House. The occupation of Washington, D.C. was the largest of any American city since the Civil War. Mayor Washington imposed a curfew and banned the sale of alcohol and guns in the city. By the time the rebellion ended on Sunday, April 8, some 1,200 buildings were severely damaged or burned, including over 900 stores.
The Days After-68

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.

The upheaval that detonated in Watts stunned the nation – the horrific violence and upheaval shattered one illusion. Rebellion was no longer an East coast phenomena, it was now a dilemma of national proportions. Watts would be the standard-bearer for hundreds of rebellions that followed. For every big city had a black ghetto and every black ghetto had for decades been experiencing the same grievances: hatred and mistrust of police, unending poverty, discrimination, despair, alienation and increasing frustration with white resistance to nonviolent appeals for justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Watts rebellion. His experiences over the next several days reinforced his conviction that he should go north and lead a movement to address the growing problems facing black people in the nation’s urban areas.

In late 1965, King brought his crusade for civil rights to Chicago. He moved his family into a West Side tenement apartment in the 1500 block of South Hamlin. The move grabbed national headlines and illuminated deplorable housing conditions that King called “typical” for blacks in northern cities. King pushed for fair and open housing and used the non-violent strategies of the civil rights movement to try to bring about change. Rallies, boycotts, and grassroots lobbying drove the 17-month campaign, but it was the marches in hostile white territory that forced the city to respond. News cameras captured the depths of racial tension during an open housing march into the all-white neighborhood of Marquette Park. Mobs of angry whites screamed obscenities and hurled rocks, bricks, and bottles toward the protesters. As the marchers walked peacefully, King was struck in the back of the head with a rock, which knocked him to the ground. After recovering, King commented, “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”  King began to fully appreciate the challenge of promoting nonviolent social action in the face of massive angry white resistance.

Forty-three disorders and rebellions occurred in 1966 – in a twenty-day period during that summer eight cities – Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Jacksonville (Fla), South Bend (Ind), Des Moines and Omaha – were rocked by civil unrest but the worst was yet to come. The 1967 rebellions were so widespread and destructive the nation into a state of shock. Beginning in June in Tampa, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Dayton, the battlefield quickly shifted from one locality to the next, hopscotching from North to South and coast-to-coast. Up to this point most of the disorders had taken place in large cities. Small towns had been immune to the racial turmoil that had convulsed urban centers. In 1967, that all changed as rebellions occurred in scores of towns with populations less than 25,000.

The worst of the ’67 rebellions occurred in Newark and Detroit. The Newark rebellion lasted six long and bloody days in July. When it was over, twenty-six people had been killed, more than 1,500 injured and 1,400 arrested. At its height, the rebellion spread across half of the city’s 23 square miles. The greatest number of deaths occurred in the days after the National Guard was deployed and responding to false claims of snipers, began shooting indiscriminately into occupied public housing developments. Then came Detroit, serving as an unexpected and horrifying climax.

From Sunday, July 23rd to Saturday, July 30th the Motor City was engulfed in violence. Governor Romney called in the National Guard – when they were unable to subdue the rebellion he called President Johnson and requested federal troops. The final figures of destruction in Detroit were terrifying and sobering. Forty-three persons had been killed in the violence, over six hundred injured and more than 5,000 arrested. Fires had destroyed hundreds of homes, leaving more than 5,000 homeless. This report by Detroit station WXYZ-TV provides historical context for the ’67 uprising:

It seemed like the country was coming apart at the seams. In the wake of these devastating events President Johnson appointed a special investigative body to delve into the origins of the civil disorders. The panel was charged to make recommendations to the President, Congress, state governors and mayors for “ways to prevent or contain such disorders in the future.” The panel was headed by Otto Kerner, then Governor of Illinois and became known as the Kerner Commission. The Commission conducted hearings with testimony from hundreds of witnesses on all aspects of the problem. Members visited the eight cities that had experienced major rebellions. Extensive field surveys and investigations were conducted covering studies of 23 representative cities.

The Commission’s report was submitted to President Johnson on March 2, 1968, a full month before Dr. King’s assassination. The Kerner Commission painted a grim picture of the racial situation in the United States. It predicted not only more, but possibly worse, racial rebellions. Americans were warned that continued white racism could lead to a divided nation, with cities under semi-martial law. The prescribed remedy was a national commitment to summon the will necessary to effect systemic change that would fully integrate African-Americans into the mainstream of American life. The most controversial statements in the report were those that concluded white racism was a principal cause of the rebellions. The report maintained:

“White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive situation, which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II. Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of Negroes from the benefits of economic progress.” The resulting poverty has led to “bitterness against society in general and white society in particular. What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget–is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The basic findings and recommendations responded in detail the three questions in the President’s charge:

  • What Happened?
    According to the Commission, the summer rebellions (they called them riots) were not caused by, nor were they the result of, any organized plan or conspiracy. Agitators merely aggravated the discontent by seeking to encourage violence.
    Why did it Happen?
    The rebellions resulted from widespread black discontent with the lack of progress made and improvement in their living conditions and the belief that nonviolent protest had failed to change white indifference.
    What can be done to prevent it from happening again?
    The Commission called on local governments to remedy the situation. The relationship between black communities and the police should be improved. To control future disorders, law enforcement agencies, including National Guard units, should be given special training in riot control. The use of destructive weapons was condemned. The Commission made recommendations for national action. The living conditions of blacks should be improved through massive programs sponsored and paid for largely by the federal government. New tax revenues would most likely be necessary. Remedial action should be immediate, and suggestions were laid out in detail in the major fields of employment, education, welfare and housing.

Response and Resistance
The black response to the Kerner Commission report was primarily positive; people felt it said what needed to be said in clear, unequivocal language. The Commission’s recommendations were consistent with the reforms Dr. King and civil rights leaders had advocated for years. Implementation would facilitate a giant leap forward towards tangible racial progress. Unfortunately, white America, wasn’t ready to hear it. President Johnson’s response was exceedingly cool. He’d expected the report to confirm his suspicions black radicals and political agitators had instigated the rebellions. He didn’t want to hear that his ‘war on poverty’ had failed to satisfy black demands for equal opportunity and political power. He was angry with King for opposing him on the Vietnam War, although he privately bemoaned the fact it was undermining his ability to fight the war on poverty. Johnson refused to formally receive the Kerner Commission report and completely ignored it’s impact. When he belatedly mentioned it, while acknowledging its thoroughness, he expressed his disappointment that it failed to mention the civil rights and poverty reduction efforts of his administration.

Placing the guilt for the situation on white racism was difficult for the most whites to accept. Many public officials criticized the ‘guilt’ charge as a tactical error. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (a lifelong liberal) spoke for many whites when he expressed his feeling that the report “overstressed the racism angle”. Richard Nixon, then a presidential candidate, remarked that the report “in effect blames everybody for the riots except the perpetrators.” He took a firm tone saying, “he was sympathetic with Negro problems. We will go forward with their programs but there will be no toleration of violence. There can be no protests that justify the use of violence or lawlessness.” Nixon ran on the campaign theme of restoring law and order, voicing views that deftly combined repression with reform – white America embraced that message awarding him the White House. As President, Nixon gravitated towards the views of his conservative advisers like Pat Buchanan who endorsed increased use of police squadrons to control black communities; derided Great Society programs to improve conditions in urban slums and offered individual initiative as the solution to poverty.

Exactly one year after the Kerner Commission’s report, a follow-up study was released entitled, One Year Later, assessing the nation’s response to the Kerner report. The discouraging conclusion was that “the nation’s response has been perilously inadequate. The nation has merely come one year closer to being ‘two societies, one black and one white, separate and unequal.’” More ominously, the report found in many cities white attitudes had hardened. Cities that experienced major rebellions tended to show some efforts at change, particularly with respect to policing practices but also showed an increase in racial polarization. Medium-sized or small disturbances in cities with racially conservative policies tended to result in increased polarization and no change or even a worsening of conditions for blacks as existing repressive attitudes simply hardened. Most cities made few attempts to rebuild sections that had been destroyed by the rebellions. It would take decades for inner-city neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Chicago to recover. Some, like Detroit still haven’t. I close with the prescient prediction of the Kerner Report about the future of American cities:

By 1985, the Negro population in central cities is expected to increase by 72 percent to about 20.8 million. Coupled with the continued exodus of white families to the suburbs, this growth will produce majority Negro populations in many of the nation’s largest cities. The future of these cities, and of their burgeoning Negro populations, is grim. Most new employment opportunities are being created in suburbs and outlying areas. This trend will continue unless important changes in public policy are made. In prospect, therefore, is further deterioration of already inadequate municipal tax bases in the face of increasing demands for public services, and continuing unemployment and poverty among the urban Negro population:

Three choices are open to the nation:
* We can maintain present policies, continuing both the proportion of the nation’s resources now allocated to programs for the unemployed and the disadvantaged, and the inadequate and failing effort to achieve an integrated society.
* We can adopt a policy of “enrichment” aimed at improving dramatically the quality of ghetto life while abandoning integration as a goal.
* We can pursue integration by combining ghetto “enrichment” with policies, which will encourage Negro movement out of central city areas.

The first choice, continuance of present policies, has ominous consequences for our society. The share of the nation’s resources now allocated to programs for the disadvantaged is insufficient to arrest the deterioration of life in central city ghettos. Under such conditions, a rising proportion of Negroes may come to see in the deprivation and segregation they experience, a justification for violent protest, or for extending support to now isolated extremists who advocate civil disruption. Large-scale and continuing violence could result, followed by white retaliation, and, ultimately, the separation of the two communities in a garrison state.

Even if violence does not occur, the consequences are unacceptable. Development of a racially integrated society, extraordinarily difficult today, will be virtually impossible when the present black ghetto population of 12.5 million has grown to almost 21 million. To continue present policies is to make permanent the division of our country into two societies; one, largely Negro and poor, located in the central cities; the other, predominantly white and affluent, located in the suburbs and in outlying areas.

The true impact of our nation’s failure to act on the Kerner Commission recommendations were on full display in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The failure to consider the plight of those too poor to leave the city and to adequately prepare for their needs in an emergency resulted in scenes of misery and distress associated more with developing countries than the most affluent democracy in the world.

It’s 2014, what reflection of America, do you see – Dr. King’s or Richard Nixon’s?



Deborah Small is the founder of Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs. Follow her on Twitter: @oshun125.

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