Race Riots in the 1960s

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  • 0:01 Racial Conditions…
  • 0:41 Summer of 1964
  • 3:03 1967 Detroit Riots
  • 3:53 Riots after MLK Assasination
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While we may wish to think of the Civil Rights Movement having been a time of peaceful protests, in many parts of the country, it quickly turned violent. This lesson is about some of the race riots that consumed the country during the 1960s.

Racial Conditions Leading to the Riots

During the 1960s, the whole country was faced with the question of Civil Rights Groups had marched on cities from Selma to Washington, and there was a real moral dilemma about how to proceed. Along the way, Southern lawmakers seemed determined to block legislation that would give racial minorities any more influence. However, during the 1960s, several tipping points were reached. Starting with the riots in the summer of 1964 and ending with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., this new wave of protest would prove to have the ability to turn violent quickly and do much to alter the state of race relations in the United States.

Summer of 1964

The first of the major riots to break out in 1964 happened in one of the most important black neighborhoods in the country, Harlem. Here, a police officer shot a 15-year-old boy, allegedly in self-defense. Different versions of the events came from each of the several witnesses to the incident, and within hours, hundreds of protesters were on the streets, carrying pictures of the slain student. For six days, riots consumed much of Harlem.

Halfway through the disturbance, the local police began to work with the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons, to limit further destruction while still making sure that the issues were addressed. However, outside agitators, such as the Black Nationalists, a group that sought to solve the Civil Rights question through violence, had begun to work the crowd as well. Finally, the police ended up having to save the NAACP from these outsiders.

Philadelphia and Rochester were also scenes of violence that summer. In Philadelphia, steps had been taken to improve the relationship between the police and African-American communities. Police had started to patrol in pairs of one white officer and one black officer, but even that was not enough to end friction. An attempt to resolve a domestic dispute led to rumors that a white officer had killed a black pregnant woman, leading to violence in the streets.

Again, groups like the NAACP pleaded with Black Nationalists for peaceful protests. Unlike Philadelphia, Rochester had no such history of trying to resolve racial conflict. In fact, the city had been dragging its feet on making many suggested improvements. Ultimately, it was the first situation in which the National Guard had to be used to quell a racial disturbance outside of the South. It would not be the last.

In August of 1964, another riot struck a major American city, this time, Los Angeles. Again, preexisting tensions caused a traffic stop to erupt into six days of riots. Once again, the National Guard was called in to prevent further damage, as many started to question if such violence and destruction were really necessary. More than anything, the so-called Watts Riots reinforced the truth that racial tensions were not necessarily confined to the Old South or to old manufacturing towns, but also found in America's fastest-growing big cities.

1967 Detroit Riots

A few years later, rioting struck again, this time in Detroit. Again, the same reasons of racial discrimination, poverty, and lack of opportunity were expressed as the reasons for the violence. However, these riots took many turns for the worse. Local dignitaries, ranging from congressmen to baseball players, all tried to calm the revolt, but none were successful.

As a result, more than 12,000 troops, including almost 5,000 Regular Army paratroopers, were sent into the city to stop the destruction. Upon arriving there, however, they found themselves often pinned down by rioting snipers. While the actual incidents of snipers may have been blown out of proportion, the fear of such indiscriminate killing forever scarred the city of Detroit.

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