16th October 2015
Across the United States of America, the contention for equality and civil rights has been one of the single most defining aspects of the 1960’s. Starting at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, protestors sat-in “non-approved” seating, with the intention of focusing national attention on the injustice and brutality inflicted on the Black minority under the Jim Crow Laws, which mandated de jure racial segregation in all public areas. Change, although seen as slow in coming, did arrive in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson forced the American Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination in public places based on race, and provide equal workplace opportunities to all members of American society. The act also provided the legal requirements necessary for the Justice Department to sue individual states for any breech that publicly, socially, or politically, discriminated against women and minorities. Similarly another breakthrough came in 1965 in the form of the Voting rights Act which sought to eliminate the means used by the southern white population to prevent Blacks from voting (Poll Taxes, Literacy Requirements etc.)(Rucker 2007:678). While these made radical changes and advanced the equal rights causes greatly, they did not provide any identifiable or finite solution, they fell short and failed to eliminate racism and poverty, and they did not provide any means of addressing the poor living conditions endured by a significant portion of the colored population (LeFeber, 2013). As a consequence of the inadequacy of the introduced changes, numerous Black social and community leaders began the task of reevaluate their goals, and the future of their causes. It was at this time some, such as the more radical Black Panther Party, sought to embrace a more assertive and offensive, even militaristic, ideology of separatism and self-defense (LeFeber, 2013, Rucker 2007:485). It was this deviation in ideology, from the passive determination of reformist leaders such as Martin Luther King, that fueled the violent rioting that became known as The Long Summer of 1967 (McLaughlin 2014).
Beginning in Cleveland, in April of 1967, and continuing throughout the remainder of that year, the eruption of 159 race related riots spanned a large portion of the United States and invaded the lives of all citizens. The civil impact caused by these, despite having the appearance of being unexpected and unforewarned, could more realistically be considered a continuation of the urban violence and civil disarray, including racial confrontation, that has marred American domestic relations since the period of the American Civil War (LeFeber, 2013). Termed as politics out of doors (Irvin, 2011; Black, 1993), Black (1993:99) defined this to mean, “the place of opinion ‘out of doors’, outside the world of Court and Parliament”. A more realistic view of the summer riots of 1967 would be to encapsulate them as a segment of the political activist sub-culture that began to develop during the earlier years of the 1960’s. For many of its proponents the urgency that they associated with political and civil freedoms, and liberties, was long overdue, and the government’s lack of implementation became viewed as dereliction and perhaps even negligent (Mumford, 2007). Collectively the 1960’s represent a decade of agitated social disobedience that involved not only the intense emotive outbreaks of black activism, street or Guerrilla theater productions, that targeted social change and class conflict in their commitment to revolutionary socio-political change, but also the renewal and fortification of antiwar sentiment. It also provided a backdrop for the blossoming of the women’s rights movement.
Under the banner of social and class activism came the civil rights movement, led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a multi-racial organization intent on the achievement of consummate integration and, social and political rights and freedoms for all members of American society. The document, the Joint Statement on Violence in the Cities, appears to directly and emphatically target the actions of the “Negro Community”. King, well understood the prevalent though that “disorder involving black people was considered inherently threatening as a matter of cultural reflex, but the different significance attached … was not entirely due to racism … [but rather] a challenge to the basis of social order and authority” (McLauchlin, 2014:12). He realized that there was much more to the mass defiance of the law than simply the aggregation of individual criminal acts of looting and fire setting. The statement that he issued was further empowered through its reiteration and echoance of the Presidential Address to the Nation during which President Johnson asserted, “First–let there be no mistake about it-the looting, arson, plunder, and pillage which have occurred are not part of the civil rights protest. There is no American right to loot stores, or to burn buildings, or to fire rifles from the rooftops. That is crime–and crime must be dealt with forcefully, and swiftly, and certainly–under law” and “… that it is law-abiding Negro families who have really suffered most at the hands of the rioters” (Johnson, 1967a). This statement was further linked to the Presidential Remarks to the Nation After Authorizing the Use of Federal Troops in Detroit, “Pillage, looting, murder, and arson have nothing to do with civil rights. They are criminal conduct… So tonight, your President calls upon all of our people, in all of our cities, to join in a determined program to maintain law and order–to condemn and to combat lawlessness in all of its forms–and firmly to show by word and by deed that riots, looting, and public disorder will just not be tolerated.” (Johnson, 1967b)
In examining this document, perhaps the most profound revelation that can be learnt from it is in the view of the author, and the language that was chosen to portray such a message. There are two are two particular aspects that are highly noteworthy; the first is in the linguistic usage of words chosen for moral censure. It was most likely that it was King’s intimate understanding of the challenges of people, and the turmoil of this period, which allowed him to point out and address the riots as an underlying message directed for the whole of American Society. The second aspect this statement raised was his identification of the role of while illegality. Exploitation, discrimination and brutality were all just causes for outward public grievance, but the rioting and public discord were not simply a cause and effect, rather it was the coherence that The Long Hot Summer imposed on often disparate events that relates a common connection or shared idea. Sugrue and Goodman (cited in McLaughlin 2014:10) related the tension of the time as “[t]he simmering politics of black discontent… [in regions]… that extend well beyond the large concentrations of African Americans living in segregated, central-city neighborhoods”. King pointed out that it was these broad, common grievances that represented a larger systemic problem in the ghetto, “a zone of illegality in which white power… held sway… a fundamental failure of liberal society … a crumbling respect for the law resulting from the broader contexts that formed the riots [and the situation of]… urban unrest as a result of a morally bankrupt system of exploitation and abuse.” (McLaughlin 2014:10)
It was hardly coincidental that widespread occurrence of civil disobedience, unrest, and urban uprisings occurred simultaneously within the period in which black communities were nationally contesting the racist and antiquated orders of white domination (McLaughlin, 2014). Each of the riots independently held its own distinctive form in each of the cities. These forms, while reflective of local peculiarities, were a derivative of the same fundamental circumstances, and provided opportunities for a local populace to define their own agony and conflict akin to those of other Black communities. From the point of view of the historian, it would be justifiable to claim that the explosive riots that occurred during the Long Hot Summer of 1967 were socially, politically and historically important, yet at the same time it would be unwarranted to assert that they represent unique episodes of civil disorder in the broader context of American history
Time Line of the Race Riots of 1967 and some relevant highlights
In total there were 159 Riots that took place during the summer of 1967, making it impossible to list them all. In addition to those listed on this timeline segment there were also many others both in the lead up to and following the “Long Hot Summer of 1967”. Of additional importance there were other incidents that while non-violent or group orientated in their behavior, greatly affected the happenings at these other larger gatherings and events.
Black, J. (1993). The Politics of Britain, 1688-1800. Manchester University Press. UK.
Irvin, B. H. (2011). Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors. Oxford University Press. New York. N.Y.
Johnson, L.B. (1967a, July 23). The President’s Address to the Nation on Civil Disorders. [online] accessed 2 October 2015 from http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=28368
Johnson, L.B. (1967b, July 24). Remarks to the Nation After Authorizing the Use of Federal Troops in Detroit. [online] accessed 2 October from http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=28364
King, M.L., Randolph, A.P., Wilkins, R. & Young, W.M. (1967, July 26). Joint Statement on Violence in the Cities. The King Center. [online] accessed 28 September 2015 from http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/joint-statement-violence-cities#
LaFeber, W. Polenberg, R. & Woloch, N. (2013). The American Century: Volume 2; A history of the United States Since 1941, 7th edn. M.E. Sharpe, Amonk, New York.
McLaughlin, M. (2014). The Long Hot Summer of 1967. Palgrave MacMillan. New York
Mumford, K. (2007). Newark: A History of Race, Rights and Riots in America. New York University Press. New York.
Rucker, W.C & Upton, J.N (ed.). Encyclopedia of American Race Riots. Greenwood Press. Westport, Connecticut.
Spokane Daily Chronicle (1967, July 26). Negro Leaders Appeal; End to Riots Asked. Page 8. [online] accessed 3 October 2015 from https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1338&dat=19670726&id=S2pYAAAAIBAJ&sjid=vvcDAAAAIBAJ&pg=5989,2263047&hl=en
United States Congress (1965). Eighty-Ninth Congress of the United States of America (First Session). [online] accessed 5 October 2015 from http://ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=100
 A Sampling of some of the various laws found throughout the United Stated can be found at http://www.nps.gov/malu/learn/education/jim_crow_laws.htm and http://americanhistory.si.edu/brown/history/1-segregated/jim-crow.html