Sunday, January 16, 2011

Watts, Detroit and The Long, Hot Summers

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below, I describe the series of urban uprisings that took place in the United States between 1965-1967.

For Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party, the era of peaceful reform ended with shocking abruptness in the mid-1960s. Rather than a racial millennium, the immediate aftermath of the landmark civil rights legislation from 1964 to 1965 brought explosive urban uprisings across the country and angry backlash from the white working and middle classes. A mere five days after Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, a riot exploded in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. “Watts was a neighborhood of single-family detached homes that did not look like a ‘slum’ at all,” historians Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin observed. “But it had all the problems of more congested urban neighborhoods, including poor schools, high unemployment, and a high crime rate that included a growing drug abuse problem.” The riot started when Lee Minikus, a white police officer, arrested Marquette Frye, an African American who had just consumed two beers with his brother Ronald, for speeding.

As a possibly intoxicated Frye began to resist arrest, a rumor spread rapidly through the crowd that police had beaten Frye’s mother and pregnant girlfriend. One woman spat at a police officer and was pushed into a police car. Tempers rose on the hot summer day and the crowd, which included many who had been roughly treated by Los Angeles police, began throwing rocks and bottles. About 5,000 Watts residents, chanting “Burn, baby, burn,” began torching buildings, looting stores, and firing handguns. African American comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory suffered a gunshot wound in the leg as he appealed for peace.

The Watts riot lasted for six days and took the lives of 34 people (32 of them black), injuring another 900, leaving hundreds homeless, and destroying neighborhood businesses. Black businessmen tried to save their businesses by posting signs in windows that said, ‘Soul Brother,” meaning that the establishment was African American owned. King would tour the riot zone days later and was shocked when young people yelled to him, “We won.” King shot back with a question. “How can you say we won when [32] Negroes are dead, your community is destroyed and whites are using the riots as an excuse for inaction?” Watts’ angry young men gave an answer filled with bitterness over the persistence of racism and the failure of liberal reform to bring improvement to the lives of black Americans more quickly: “We won because we made them pay attention to us.”


In this new period, longtime advocates of non-violence like Robert Moses temporarily dropped out of the Civil Rights Movement. More defiant and, to some whites, more threatening black voices like those of Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, both members of SNCC who later affiliated with the Black Panther Party, received bigger audiences.

Carmichael in particular liked to talk of what he called “Black Power,” which he described as “bringing the country to its knees . . . you are talking of a movement that will smash everything Western Civilization has created.” Observing that some stores in Cleveland had been constructed without windows in order to prevent rioters from breaking in, Carmichael told an audience, “I don’t know what they’ll accomplish. It just means we have to move from Molotov cocktails to dynamite.” Such rhetoric appealed to young blacks inspired by the many independence movements that swept Africa in the 1950s and 1960s and who wanted revolutionary, not incremental, change in America. Carmichael’s vision, and not King’s, seemed to rule the day.

A major riot broke out in Cleveland in July 1966, while in Newark, New Jersey on July 12, 1967 young people threw Molotov cocktails (bottles filled with gasoline that explode on contact) after an alleged police brutality incident. After much property damage, almost 18,000 National Guardsmen marched into the city’s black neighborhood and, according to author Mark Lytle, “started shooting indiscriminately with high-powered rifles and machine guns.” The violence agitated the community further, and the bloodshed, arson and property damage did not abate until the governor withdrew the guardsmen. Twenty-one African Americans died, including six women and two children who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and were killed by the National Guard, as well as a white police officer and a white firefighter.


The months of June through August 1967 became know as the “long, hot summer,” as riots in 127 cities claimed at least 77 lives and a total of a half-billion dollars in property destroyed. One riot broke out in Plainfield, New Jersey, on July 14, 1967, but the worst urban upheaval exploded in Detroit July 23, 1967. There, police conducted a series of raids on buildings where after-hours drinking and illegal gambling regularly took place. By the time the police conducted their fifth raid, they encountered a party celebrating the return home of two servicemen. Police conducted mass arrests, hauling 82 to jail. During the lengthy raid, a mob gathered and, as in Watts, rumors of police brutality echoed across the black community. By 5 a.m., someone had thrown a bottle at a police car window, even as someone else threw a garbage can through a store window.

Looters, including not just the unemployed but people with jobs and whites as well as blacks, began shattering storefronts.
Reportedly, some rioters began to dance as a Molotov cocktail-sparked fire destroyed one building. Twenty-five mph winds spread the sparks, lighting flames throughout the city. Fire soon raged across a 100-block area. Detroit police and the Michigan National Guardsmen began widespread shooting, killing thirty. United States Army units calmed the situation down, and after five days the riot burned itself out. A total of 33 African Americans and 10 whites died in the melee, which caused $250 million in damages to homes and businesses. Much of Detroit turned into a burned-out shell. Michigan Gov. George Romney described Detroit as looking like it “had been bombed on the west side.”
In 1968, President Johnson appointed a commission made up of representatives of the establishment civil rights organizations, politically centrist businessmen and politicians to explain the causes of race riots that had torn American cities apart during the previous three summers. Chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, the commission attributed the violence to a spirit of “hopelessness” felt by many blacks, Hispanics and even poor whites in the inner city. Urban slums served as homes, the commission reported, to “men and women without jobs, families without men, and schools where children are processed instead of educated, until they returned to the streets – to crime, to narcotics, to dependency on welfare, and to bitterness and resentment against society.”

The culprit, the commission declared, was white racism that created racial segregation and discrimination, race-based income disparity, lax law enforcement in ghettoes, white flight from cities to the suburbs, and a lack of financial development and business investment in inner cities. In cities hit by riots, according to the commission, blacks were twice as like to be unemployed, and those who had jobs earned only 70 percent of what whites earned. Black residents of riot-torn communities were three times more likely to live in substandard and overcrowded housing. In cities like Detroit and Los Angeles, the Kerner Commission’s final report said, “Actions to ameliorate Negro grievances have been limited and sporadic; with but with few exceptions, they have not significantly reduced tensions . . . In several cities, increasing polarization is evident, with continuing breakdown of inter-racial communication, and growth of white segregationist or black separatist groups.”

The black community’s relationship with the police, in particular, had become completely poisoned. “To some Negroes,” the report said, “police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a ‘double standard’ of justice and protection--one for Negroes and one for whites.”

The commission recommended further reforms including expansion of public housing and urban renewal programs, provision of subsidies for low-income families so they could purchase homes, improved procedures for filing grievances against abusive police officers and a larger, non-confrontational police presence in urban neighborhoods, and increased attention by the national media to the challenges faced by minority communities in the inner city. Unless such steps were taken, the commission report warned, the United States would become “two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal.”


As the racial divide deepened, no group struck greater fear in white America than the Black Panther Party, established by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in October 1966 in Oakland, California. Party members wore black military-style berets and openly displayed firearms as they advocated the establishment of a socialist nation that would provide for black and other “oppressed Americans” free health care, self-determination, improved and non-racist education, quality housing and a cessation of police brutality. The Panthers established health clinics, classes on self-defense, free clothes and meals for schoolchildren and so on. In 1967, the California state legislature and Gov. Ronald Reagan were disturbed enough by the group that these normally pro-gun politicians pushed through a bill outlawing the carrying of loaded weapons in public. The Panthers appeared at the state legislature in Sacramento bearing arms during debates on the measure. Panthers also regularly pursued white policemen in black neighborhoods as a means of preventing police brutality.

Black nationalists and separatists deeply influenced black culture in the 1960s, even if few African Americans supported the ideology of radicals. Polls conducted in the mid-and late 1960s revealed that most African Americans still saw King as the leader of the civil rights cause and only approximately 15 percent of the black population identified with Black Nationalism. But Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and other more radical black activists had a deep influence on the black self-image and black education. In the wake of Malcolm X and the Panthers, black studies curricula spread to colleges and universities across the country and eventually were offered at public schools.

Black Nationalists rejected the notion that white people represented the universal standard of beauty. The slogan “Black is Beautiful” inspired African Americans and, at an admittedly glacial pace, black models and actresses began to appear in advertising, magazines and movies. Hairstyles like the “Afro,” in which African Americans refused to straighten their hair in order to meet white expectations, and African-inspired clothing such as dashikis became popular among young American blacks. Many African Americans rejected their “slave names” and adopted new Muslim or African names as a means of restoring a heritage and identity partly lost during slavery.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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