Understanding the 1960s ‘Civil Disorders’

In the summer of 1967, violence broke out in African American neighborhoods in 164 American cities, including major events in Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Newark, Plainfield (N.J.), and Tampa. In April 1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., violence was recorded in over 100 cities, including major events in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Baltimore. Affected neighborhoods saw arson, looting, and clashes with law enforcement.

After the summer of 1967, which featured a week-long incident in Detroit which left 43 dead, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a presidential committee to study what had happened in American cities that summer. Headed by former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, the committee published their report the following spring. The Kerner Commission Report is a 600-page result of of exhaustive research into the events and their causes. Unfortunately, too often all that is mentioned about the report is its most famous line, which declared that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” However it contains a richly detailed story and has much to tell us about that summer.

In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the events of the late 1960s, both major Detroit newspapers have printed dozens of stories about the event this summer, analyzing the event and its relevance to Detroit today. Already discussions have started about historical studies and events to correspond to the 1968 event in Washington.

What do we know about these events, and what has been their impact?

First, there’s the issue of what to call them. Most sources refer to them as “riots,” or at times “race riots.” However, unlike in other “race riots” when various racial groups were quite literally fighting in the streets, the participants of these events were mostly (although not exclusively) African American, and the activities were not specifically directed at people of other racial groups. Furthermore, the word “riot” itself seems inadequate. Meaning “a violent public disorder,” the word strips the events of any historical or political significance. This seems unsatisfactory — after all, the 1968 events occurred immediately in response to Dr. King’s death, and as we will see the community’s stated grievances were painfully valid.

Others suggest a better term might be “police riot.” While police behavior certainly played a major role in instigating and worsening the riot, as well as contributing to a large degree to the violence (particularly in Detroit), this term also seems too limiting to fully describe the events.

Finally, there are those who prefer the term “rebellion.” This term seems to come closest, meaning “opposition to one in authority or dominance.” After all, the violence of the riot was often directed towards symbols of political or economic authority. However, I still find the term somewhat unsatisfactory. After all, in historical terms rebellions are often organized affairs with leaders and some amount of strategy. The Kerner Commission specifically found no organization or conspiracy. The commission itself adopted the neutral-sounding term “Civil Disorder.”

Despite the occasionally apocalyptic scale of “the riots” in popular memory, the events in most cities were limited. The Kerner commission report itself reports that while the events are highly significant, the extent of disorder has been “exaggerated,” concluding three-fourths would not be nationally-newsworthy in previous years. Even in cities where violence was the worst, looting was generally limited to specific streets, with sporadic events elsewhere. It generally took just a few days for authorities to regain control. In Detroit, the worst of 1967, control was restored in roughly 4 days.

The connection of the events to “white flight” has been exaggerated. Migration to the suburbs began in earnest in the late 1940s, continuing more or less smoothly to almost the present day. (Washington only stopped its population decline in the 2000s, and most other major cities’ population continued to decline up through the 2000 census). The trends in these graphs were well established before the late 1960s.

Population, Detroit and Southeast Michigan

D.C. Population

As historian Kevin Boyle pointed out in an op-ed in the Washington Post, the grievances that caused the riots are historically well documented:

In retrospect, Americans should have seen the riot coming. Since the 1920s, not just Detroit but all of the nation’s major cities had restricted blacks to the oldest, most decrepit neighborhoods available. Segregation inevitably spawned discrimination: Schools in African American areas were overcrowded and underfunded; city services were delivered sporadically; policing was frighteningly oppressive.

Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the urban black economy tumbled into crisis, as decent-paying factory work started to disappear. From 1947 to 1967, Detroit alone lost 120,000 manufacturing jobs. In the city’s ghetto, unemployment skyrocketed. Poverty intensified. And under the strain of it all, life on the streets became more dangerous. There were 112 murders in Detroit in 1946. In 1966, there were twice as many, a sure sign of a horribly strained social fabric.

Tom Sugrue ends his excellent Origins of the Urban Crisis on the eve of the rebellion there, underscoring its role as merely a small capstone to long-building historical forces of injustice at work in that city. In their quest to determine causes, the Kerner Commission conducted a public opinion survey in 15 cities and conducted over 1200 interviews. They reported finding similar major grievances in almost every city, and organized them into categories. The top three: police practices, unemployment and underemployment, and inadequate housing.

The others were inadequate education, poor recreational facilities and programs, political unresponsiveness, white racism, discrimination in the administration of justice, inadequacy of federal programs, inadequacy of municipal services, discriminatory consumer and credit practices, and inadequate welfare programs. The report also points out that in the cities surveyed, none had ever had a black mayor, only three had more than one black legislator, and in only 4 did blacks hold any important municipal positions.

The immediate impact of the events had to do with commercial businesses and real estate. Most of the streets impacted saw businesses close and buildings lost due to immediate damage or subsequent disinvestment and neglect. In Washington in particular, the event accelerated the existing trend of the shift of retail to auto-oriented shopping centers and the death of specialized independent shops along crowded retail corridors. The damage from the event and the urban redevelopment responses has had a profound and lasting impact on the city’s geography. As a result, the Metro’s Green Line was re-routed, urban renewal schemes created the vacant land that was to be used later for the convention center, and the riot-damaged corridors absorbed large numbers of subsidized public housing buildings. Some affected corridors suffered less than others, and I imagine each neighborhood which saw violence in the late 1960s has a slightly different story.

Without excusing the actions of individuals, we must be able to critically examine the causes of the events of the late 1960s if we ever hope to prevent their re-occurrence. The sad persistence of similar events in our cities in the years since only underscores this need.

> W. Post: Kevin Boyle op-ed “The Fire Last Time
> Wikipedia: Lists of incidents of civil unrest in the United States
> Detroit News Special Report: Panic in Detroit
> Detroit Free Press: Lessons From the ’67 Riot
> Freedom Road: “Burn, Baby, Burn”
> Rutgers U.: 1967 Newark and Detroit Riots Website

The first photo is of Chicago from April 6, 1968, posted by Flickr user Andros47, the second of Washington, D.C., also from April 1968, was posted by Richard Layman.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. I just finished reading “10 Blocks from the White House” which is a fascinating account of the 1968 DC Riot. It’s certainly dated (written in the fall of ’68), but it’s really telling to learn about parts of our neighborhood that were burned in the disturbance and that still haven’t been rebuilt today. 40 years later, that incident still has a discernible impact on our city.

  2. Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.

    We need a different perspective to see what really happened not just what the media wants us to know. I have always though of these riots as much more than described, if MLK was not assassinated the riots would have never occurred.

  3. Perhaps ‘uncivil disorder’? Anyway, whatever term we use to describe the events should not, as many are willing to, excuse the violence as valid political speech. The consequences were undoubtedly negative, hastening neighborhood decline for a generation, placing people’s lives in danger, and unjustly destroying property and people’s livelihoods.

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