Fifty years ago, a series of deadly riots roiled cities large and small across the United States. Dozens of people died and thousands were injured in what came to be known as the “long hot summer of 1967.” Buildings burned, businesses were looted and many cities remained scarred for decades.
Violence and rioting boiled over in Tampa and Cincinnati, Buffalo and Atlanta, Boston and Birmingham. The worst riots were in Detroit and Newark, but they took place in smaller towns, too, such as Cambridge, Maryland. In all, 164 “disorders” broke out during the first nine months of 1967, according to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission.
What sparked the riots, which largely erupted in African-American neighborhoods? Often the unrest followed a specific incident of perceived injustice at the hands of the police _ a black taxi driver beaten, an after-hours club raided.
But the root causes were much bigger social issues. The 1964 Civil Right Act banned segregation and employment discrimination, but progress was slow, racism persisted and many black Americans did not see their lives improving. The Kerner Commission attributed the violence to “discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing” along with “black ghettos where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy opportunity and enforce failure.”
In some places, U.S. Marshals and National Guard troops were called in to quell the violence. President B. Lyndon Johnson even directed units from the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions to deploy in Detroit. After five days of rioting there in July 1967, “43 persons were dead, 657 injured, 7,231 under arrest and thousands left homeless. More than $50 million in property was destroyed,” according to a 1977 Associated Press report looking back on the unrest.
Photos from 50 years ago show angry men and women demonstrating for their rights; police and soldiers arresting African-Americans at gunpoint, and firefighters putting themselves in harm’s way to extinguish blazes set by protesters.
But even in 1967, observers saw history repeating itself. A distinguished black psychologist who spoke to the Kerner Commission, Kenneth B. Clark, compared the 1967 riots to violence that broke out in 1919 in Chicago, 1935 and ’43 in Harlem and 1965 in the Watts section of Los Angeles. “It is a kind of Alice in Wonderland,” Clark said, “with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.” His words were prescient even in the short-term: Riots broke out in three dozen U.S. cities a year later following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Text by Jonathan Elderfield
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