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Race Riots in the 1960s

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Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

The Race Riots of the Civil Rights movement were violent incidents of racial tension erupting between demonstrators and opposing groups. Identify the social conditions leading to the riots, the events of 1964, and riots in 1967 and 1968. Updated: 11/10/2021

Social 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 minority groups more influence.

However, during the 1960s, several tipping points were reached. Starting with the conflicts in the summer of 1964 and ending with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., this new wave of protests had the potential to turn violent quickly, especially when outside forces agitated the situation. In addition, the events occurring during these protests did much to alter the state of minority group relations in the United States.

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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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Summer of 1964

The first of the major conflicts 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.

Over the next six days, peaceful protests turned into destructive uprisings when a few agitators began vandalizing and looting throughout Harlem. The situation was inflamed when police responded in kind with violence and chaos quickly erupted. 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, 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 had to provide protection for the NAACP from the Black Nationalists and those they inspired to riot.

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 minority group disturbance outside of the South—it would not be the last.

In August of 1964, another case of civil unrest burst open in the major American city of Los Angeles. Again, the preexisting tensions of systemic racism, long-held inequality and discrimination, high unemployment, unmet grievances, and the subpar efforts of local governments to solve these problems contributed to the fiery response of the Black community. A simple traffic stop and arrest of a Black woman quickly transformed into the Watts Riots, also called the Watts Rebellion. Once again, the National Guard was called in to prevent further damage. More than anything, the Watts Riots reinforced the truth that social tensions between white and Black citizens were not necessarily confined to the Old South or to old manufacturing towns but also found in America's fastest-growing cities.

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