Sunday, April 22, 2012

Prologue: Race Riots before the 1960s

During the turn of the 20th century, social and economical conditions made seem as if blacks would never gain a decent foothold in American society.  Race riots before the 1960s primarily took the form of white supremacists rebelling against blacks trying to survive the tumultuous conditions of the time.  Minor violent clashes against blacks were commonplace; lynching was still a routine practice in the early 20th century.  While most famous riots stemmed from alleged criminal activity, it certainly did not take much to spark all-out war between white and black communities.  One of Chicago's most famous riots started in 1919 when an African American teenager was drowned for crossing the invisible threshold that separated the "white" beach from the "black" beach.  What followed was seven days of shootings, arsons, and beatings that left 15 whites and 23 blacks dead and 537 injured.  As a result of post-WWII housing projects and developments, whites gathered in the thousands to protest African American professionals seeking improved housing beyond the reaches of the ghetto.  White race riots against African Americans even spilled over into the early 1960s, when Southern segregationalists rioted after a black student, James Meredith, was admitted at the University of Mississippi in 1962.  By the year of 1964, blacks had seen generations of unrelenting hatred from whites, but the outset of the Civil Rights Movement encouraged blacks to take drastic steps in order to fight back.

1919 Omaha Race Riot. A crowd stands around the burning corpse of Will Brown, who was accused of assaulting a white woman

1921 Black Wall Street Riot.  A dead black man is put on display for everyone to see

Harlem: the Fight Begins

On July 18, 1964, Police Officer Thomas Gilligan shoots and kills fifteen year-old James Powell.  Due to the racial tensions that existed within Harlem, it was irrelevant whether it was self-defense or not.  Tempered by the misery of living in the ghetto, the inspiration of the Civil Rights Movement, and the hatred of police, Harlem’s citizens were outraged and spread accusations of police brutality.  On the day of mourning, a wave of hatred spread throughout Harlem’s streets.  Hate-preaching demagogues emerged on street corners.  People gathered in a rally, and Reverend Nelson Dukes gave a twenty minute speech of fury and frustration that ended with everybody marching on the West 123rd Police Precinct.  As police tried to hold off rioters on the ground, people on rooftops lobbed bricks and bottles into the precinct.  Police drove them back, and the rioters retreated, vandalizing and looting as they went.  The battle for Harlem had begun.  The fighting lasted for a day, and resulted in one death, over a hundred injuries, more than 450 arrests, and over a million dollars’ worth in damages.  As the rioting in Harlem came to a close, another race riot broke out it Rochester, New York.  It was clear that Harlem was only the first of many to come.

Demonstrators marching down 125th Street with photos of Thomas Gilligan

Police officers beating a rioter

Malcolm X: “The Hate that Hate Produced”

From the wave of ongoing hatred during the early to mid 20th century, it was only a matter of time before an influential African American leader emerged that was not satisfied with mere social integration.  That influential leader was Malcolm X.  Malcolm was born in Omaha and raised in the ghetto.  His father was killed by the Black Legion (a white supremacist group) and his mother was institutionalized after she had a nervous breakdown.  Unable to escape the influences of ghetto life, Malcolm started pushing drugs and became addicted to cocaine.  He embraced a life of crime until he was caught and sentenced to prison in 1946.  While in prison, he discovered and studied the works of Nation of Islam (NOI) leader Elijah Muhammad, and by the time of his release in 1952 he was a devout Muslim and follower of the NOI.  The NOI supported the notion that whites actively made an effort to keep African Americans in poverty, and that African Americans needed to separate themselves from whites in order to be free.  Freed from prison, Malcolm X became a firm social activist that preached revolution.  He was perhaps one of the most controversial figures of the time, since he was not only fighting for the African American, but also Muslim Americans.  He incited a fighting spirit in black communities everywhere, and black militant groups often cited him as a source of their inspiration.  Malcolm was a media magnet during the 60s, and was considered the NOI’s most valuable asset.  Even after his assassination in 1965, the unrest that Malcolm created was still very much stirring in the heart and minds of African Americans.  

Malcolm X making a speech in Los Angelos on May 5, 1962

1964 Philadelphia Riots:

At this point in time, racial tensions were so high that police tried to take extra steps to prevent rioting.  Now police patrols travelled in duos with one white cop and one black cop.  However, no matter what steps the police took, they could not prevent people from venting their frustration.  On August 18, 1964, a black woman was pulled over for a driving infraction.  She screamed at the two cops, and the two cops had to forcefully remove her from the vehicle in order to arrest her.  A nearby black man tried to help the arrestee by attacking the cops.  He was subdued and arrested as well.  Later that evening, rumors circulated that policemen had beaten a pregnant black woman to death.  Violence erupted and lasted two days.  No one was killed, but 341 people were injured, 774 people were arrested, and 225 stores were looted, damaged, or destroyed.  

Watts Riots of ‘65

The largest and most costly race riot of the 60s was the Watts Race Riot.  On August 11, 1965, young black Marquette Frye was pulled over for suspicion of being drunk while driving.  A crowd gathered around the scene as the police officer arrested him.   Members of the crowd became angry at the police officer, and violence broke out soon after the arrest.  A large-scale riot formed in the center of the commercial section of Watts.  The riots lasted six days as impoverished African Americans burned vehicles and looted stores.  Over 14,000 National Guard troops were deployed in Watts and a curfew zone that spanned over forty-five miles was established.  When the rioting subsided, thirty-four people were dead, more than a thousand people were injured, and more than four thousand were arrested.  

The Black Panther Army, 1966:

Although aggression against white people was prevalent in 1964 and 1965, it was largely unorganized and did not follow any rules of conduct.  The people who founded the Black Panther Party in October of 1966 sought to change that.  Although not officially dealing directly in the business of inciting riots, the founders of the Black Panther Party were not opposed to using any means necessary to ensure civil liberty.  In fact, one of the rules of the Black Panther Party is that all members must be trained in the use of firearms.  Although a Black Panther member could not fire a weapon at anyone “unnecessarily or accidentally,” there were no rules against harassing or harming whites.  The party’s members drew inspiration from Malcolm X, and saw themselves as revolutionaries.  Police and FBI agents targeted suspected members and leaders of the party.  Various clashes with the government officers ensued after its founding.  The Panthers allied themselves with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which supported the idea of “Black Power.”  From its founding in Oakland, the Black Panther Party would spread across the nation and bring with it the will to stand together and fight against oppression.

 Bobby Seale, co-founder of Black Panther Party, outlines the ten point program 

Long Hot Summer of 1967

No matter what the cause may be, it has been proven time and time again that people usually riot and rebel when the climate is unbearably hot.  The summer of 1967, known as the “long hot summer of ‘67”,” was no exception to this phenomenon.  The year of 1967 saw a total of 159 riots.  The biggest riots occurred in Newark, New Jersey and Detroit, Michigan.  However, riots also broke out in Tampa, Florida; Houston, Texas; Buffalo, New York; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.  In the Detroit riots, there were 2,000 injuries, and in the Newark riots, there were 1,500 injuries.  As the summer dragged on, the numbers increased dramatically from other parts of the US.  Rioting was starting to become a regularity, and Americans came to expect violence and turmoil from poor black communities.  Racial tensions were still at an all-time high, and blacks were not planning to stop fighting for their rights.