5 1960s Race Riots That Rocked America

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Fifty years ago this summer, dozens of race riots erupted in American cities. The two most serious riots were in Detroit and Newark, but there were more than 150 others that year, most coming during what came to be known as the “Long Hot Summer of 1967.” In an era when black Americans were winning many civil rights battles, race riots were not a step in the right direction. They took a toll in terms of deaths and injuries and caused hundreds of millions in property damage. In the aftermath, white flight from many cities — already a concern — intensified. The result: urban areas became increasingly blacker and poorer, lagging in jobs and investment, all conditions that remain to some extent a half-century later. Here are five riots that shocked the U.S. during the 1960s.

 

5. Harlem Riot

The 1964 Harlem Riot inspired other race riots in the 1960s. Credit: Dick DeMarsico/New York World Telegraph & Sun

The 1964 Harlem Riot inspired other race riots in the 1960s. Credit: New York World Telegraph & Sun

As with many other race riots, this one began with a traffic stop; on July 16, 1964, a white police lieutenant shot and killed a 15-year-old African American, James Powell. The officer claimed Powell had a knife; witnesses claimed he was unarmed. The resulting riot on July 18-19 left one dead and more than 500 injured, and led to 465 arrests. The officer in the shooting, Lt. Thomas Gilligan, was cleared of all charges. Although several other 1960s race riots were deadlier and more destructive, this one set the precedent for such outbreaks of violence.

 

4. Newark Riot

Newark police fire on rioters during the deadly riot in that city in 1967.

Newark police fire on rioters during the deadly riot in that city in 1967.

As noted earlier, more than 150 race riots erupted across the United States in the summer of 1967. One of the worst occurred July 12-17 in Newark, New Jersey. Sensational rumors in the black community helped fuel the violence. After white police officers apprehended a black cab driver for an alleged minor traffic violation, rumors spread that the cabbie had been killed in police custody. More than five days of rioting ensued, with 26 deaths and more than 1,500 people arrested.

 

3. Watts Riot

The Watts Riot of 1965 decimated south-central Los Angeles and led to more than 3,400 arrests. Credit: New York World Telegram

The Watts Riot of 1965 decimated south-central Los Angeles and led to more than 3,400 arrests. Credit: New York World Telegram

Racial tempers had been simmering for years in this south-central Los Angeles neighborhood, as a booming African American population faced discrimination in housing, education and employment. The powder keg of racial unrest exploded Aug. 11, 1965, when a California Highway Patrol officer tried to arrest a young African American for driving while intoxicated. A crowd confronted officers at the scene. Within a couple of days, almost 4,000 National Guardsman and more than 1,500 law enforcement officers would be trying to restore order. In the aftermath, 34 people died, and more than 1,000 were injured. The rioters caused an estimated $40 million in damages (the equivalent of almost $300 million in 2014). As in other 1960s riots, the terrible irony is that blacks were driven to riot in part by substandard living conditions, a situation that became much worse following the riots.

 

2. Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King Riot

More than 14,000 U.S. troops were called in to help restore order after the 1968 riot in Washington, D.C. Credit: Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

More than 14,000 U.S. troops were called in to help restore order in the 1968 riot in Washington, D.C. Credit: Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, sparked rioting in more than 100 U.S. cities. The one that shook mainstream America the most occurred in Washington, D.C. The riots resulted in some surreal images, including the sight of machine gun emplacements set up to protect the U.S. capitol. A massive display of federal firepower — almost 14,000 U.S. troops were called in to restore order — stopped the rioting after five days. More than 6,000 rioters were arrested, and 12 deaths were recorded. Many of the burned-out structures remained rubble for decades, as businesses and residents fled the area for the suburbs. Other notable riots following the Dr. King’s assassination occurred in Baltimore and Chicago.

 

1. Detroit Riot

A U.S. soldier stands guard against snipers as firefighters battle a blaze in the Detroit Riot.

A U.S. soldier stands guard against snipers as firefighters battle a blaze in the Detroit Riot.

How did modern Detroit become a financially strapped city filled with abandoned buildings and a decaying infrastructure? This 1967 riot, also known as the 12th Street Riot, sent an already declining industrial city into a death spiral that resonates decades later. The rioting began after police raided a bootleg bar in the early morning hours of July 23. In the next five days, rioters torched both black- and white-owned businesses, and snipers attacked firefighters and police officers. More than 10,000 National Guardsman and 82nd Airborne troops were called in to help restore order. The statistics behind this riot almost defy belief today: 43 people were killed, almost 1,200 were injured, and more than 7,000 rioters were arrested. Damage estimates ranged up to $45 million.

Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young, who served from 1974-1994, wrote years later that, “The riot put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could.”

 

More: The Lasting Impact of the 1960s Riots

Here’s a link to a 2005 Vanderbilt University study on the lasting economic impact of the 1960s race riots on African Americans.

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