In the course of my eclectic research into the collective phenomenon we call "The sixties", I came across the March 1969 of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (382), a issue organized around the theme, "Protest in the Sixties". I'm sure I'll be using it in more than one post.
One of the most disturbing aspect of "the sixties" were the urban riots. Two of the articles from The Annals address that question, "The Revolt of the Urban Ghettos, 1964-1967" by Joseph Boskin and "Black Nationalism" by J. Herman Blake. Howard Zinn, one of the most influential thinkers for the New Left, addresses it in his 1973 book Postwar America: 1945-1971. So did the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., to some extent in The Crisis of Confidence: Ideas, Power and Violence in America (1969). One of the major themes of the politics of the day was the causes of violence and how to respond.
The conservative answer is very familiar: bad people make bad choices and they deserve to go to jail for a long time. (One of Mike Huckabee's good buddies, Bill Gothard, argues that even schizophrenia results from making bad character choices.) The conservative reaction against the increasing violence during the 1960s also involved a conceptual and rhetorical trick, which was to treat any attempt to understand the various causes of violence, both the violence of rioting and of ordinary crime, was accused of making excuses for violence and letting perpetrators off easy or even encouraging it.
Schlesinger describes the Nixonian approach, which now appears as the forerunner of the Cheney-Bush police-state mentality:
The right tells us that we are a violent society because of what Mr. Nixon called in his campaign the "fog of permissiveness" in American life — a weakening of the national moral fiber expressed, among other ways, in judicial decisions strengthening the rights of arrested persons. The Supreme Court, Mr. Nixon said, had given the "green light" to "the criminal elements." More third degrees, more wire-tapping, longer jail sentences, a tougher Attorney General, a conservative Supreme Court and presumably the suppression of the child-rearing treatises of Dr. Spock: these would comprise the distinctive elements of the right-wing program for law and order. Yet careful studies by the National Crime Commission fail to bear out the contention that Supreme Court decisions have been a significant factor in the increase in violence; and, while the enlargement and modernization of our police forces (including the payment of better salaries) are an unquestioned necessity, the establishment of a police state would seem another of those cases where the cure would be, in the end, worse than the disease. "We might then have to choose," as [liberal Republican] Mayor [John] Lindsay [of New York] has put it, "between the random terror of the criminal and the official terror of the state." (my emphasis)
Leaders like George Wallace of Alabama and Ronald Reagan of California were even more strident than Nixon in their rhetoric at the time.
From today's perspective, it does appear to be a challenging question why riots broke out in black ghettos just at the time of unprecedented peacetime prosperity (at least semi-peacetime), real advances in civil rights legislation and enforcement, and an expansion of social services and federal programs aimed at expanding opportunities for the urban poor, that such social explosions would occur.
Or maybe I should say that for many whites, then and now, it appeared hard to understand. For some raw contemporary examples of how many whites reacted to large-scale urban disorders in the mid-1960s, see The Meaning of Box 722 by Rick Perlstein, The Big Con blog 06/05/08. His selections include examples of people making an argument along the lines of, "these blacks have gotten so much, and now they're being ungrateful by rioting."
African-Americans and other minorities in urban ghettos faced racial discrimination, real misconduct from often all-white local police forces, and much tougher daily living situations than most whites experienced. There were certainly significant numbers of poor whites then as today. But the conditions faced by urban blacks were different in many ways to those faced by whites. And the racial separation in society meant that whites were in many ways genuinely unaware of the realities that African-Americans lived.
There were riots in the predominantly black Harlem section of New York in 1935 and 1943 which resembled in many ways the urban riots of the 1960s in their nature. But, as Boskin observes, those two incidents were exceptions. The other urban "riots of the past two centuries were initiated by Caucasians and were motivated by racist attitudes."
John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moss, Jr., give some examples in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (8th edition; 2003). The summer of 1919, they write, "ushered in the greatest period of interracial strife the nation had ever witnessed." Major riots occurred in Longview, Texas, and in Chicago, both touched off by whites attacking a black target:
Although rioting continued for the next few years, few outbreaks equaled in proportion those of 1919. Two years later, in June 1921, the blacks and whites of Tulsa, Oklahoma, engaged in fighting - which Buck C. Franklin, a local black attorney, and some others preferred to call a "race war" - in which nine whites and twenty-one blacks were known to have been killed and several hundred were injured. On hearing that a black had been accused of assaulting a young white woman, blacks took arms to the jail to protect the accused person, who, it was rumored, would be lynched. Altercations between whites and blacks at the jail spread to other parts of the city, and general rioting, looting, and house burning began. Four companies of the National Guard were called out, but by the time order was restored more than $1 million worth of property had been destroyed or damaged. The young black man was subsequently exonerated of any wrongdoing. ...
The predominantly black town of Rosewood, Florida, was annihilated in January 1923 by a white mob from a neighboring village. The destruction resulted from a white woman's false accusation that a black male assaulted her. Rosewood was burned to the ground, many of its residents were murdered, and the survivors were driven into exile. Those who escaped "lived in fear that if they talked of what they saw . . . members of the mob would track them down and resume the bloodletting." Not until the early 1980s did some residents break silence. As a result of the publicity, investigations followed that produced a book, a scholarly study, a television special, and a feature film on the "Rosewood Massacre." In 1994 the Florida legislature provided reparations of $150,000 to each of the survivors of the violence.
In 1925 Detroit joined the ranks by seeking to prevent an African-American physician, O. H. Sweet, from living in a house he had purchased in a white neighborhood. When a mob gathered around his home and threw stones, a white man was killed by gunfire coming from the house. Sweet, his brother, and friends in the house were brought to trial. The NAACP came to their defense, employing Clarence Darrow and Arthur Garfield Hays as defense attorneys. All were finally acquitted, but irreparable harm had been done not only to the Sweet family but also to race relations in Detroit.
The periods around both world wars saw notable racial violence, in major part related to the influx to Northern and Western cities of large numbers of African-Americans from the South looking for work and greater freedom.
Detroit was the scene of another riot during the Second World War. Franklin and Moss:
On June 20, 1943, the most serious race riot of the war period broke out in Detroit. The months of tension reached a climax after a fistfight occurred between a black man and a white man. The altercation rapidly spread to involve several hundred people of both races. Wild rumors, as usual, swept through the town. Within a few hours blacks and whites were fighting throughout most or Detroit. When the governor hesitated to declare martial law and call out troops, whites began to roam the streets, burning blacks' cars and beating large numbers of black people. Nothing effective was done to bring order out of the chaos until President Roosevelt proclaimed a state of emergency and sent 6,000 soldiers to patrol the city. At the end of more than thirty hours of rioting, twenty-five African Americans and nine whites had been killed, and property valued at several hundred thousand dollars had been destroyed.
Boskin draws a qualitative distinction between the pre-1960s riots and those that followed, presumably based on the growth of more cohesive black communities in urban ghettos by the 1960s. But it's not entirely clear why he draws a qualitative distinction for the Harlem riots of 1935 and 1943, likening them more to those of the 1960s.
After the Second World War, Boskin finds that the riots prior to the 1960s largely involved white reaction to some move by blacks to challenge the color line, which existed in the North though not in the Jim Crow form found in Southern segregation:
The most intense violence occurred when minority groups attempted to change residential patterns or when a number of Caucasians defined the situation as one in which such an attempt was being made.
The volatility of these situations was constantly reflected in the years following the termination of the war. Resentment against Negroes who moved into all-white neighborhoods resulted in more than a hundred incidents: the Airport Homes violence in Chicago in November 1945; the Fernwood Project violence, also in Chicago, August 1947; the Georgia house-bombings in May 1947; and the highly publicized violence of 1951 in Cicero, Illinois. Some of the weapons employed by white assaulters — bricks, guns, sniping, Molotov cocktails — were those which were utilized by blacks in the 1960's. Racial violence also occurred when Negroes attempted to use public recreational facilities traditionally reserved for Caucasians in northern and midwestern cities. In sum, the race riots which raged in American society from the turn of the century until the mid-1960's reflected extensions of white racism. The rebellions which began in 1964 represented a major response to that racism. (my emphasis)
The change to a more aggressive attitude of protest by urban African-American communities outside the South clearly had a generational aspect. The First World War marked the first major exodus of Southern blacks to the North. Blake writes that during that war:
... Northern industrialists began a campaign to induce blacks to leave the South and work in Northern factories. It is estimated that in one two-year period a half-million black people moved to the North.
The many blacks who made this journey found that though they were often openly recruited, they were seldom welcomed, for they were crowded into urban slums and faced a continual round of unemployment, depression, and indigence. Furthermore, they met the massive hostility of whites - many of them newly arrived in this country - who saw the black in-migrants as threats to their economic security and reacted against them with devastating riots.
He notes two major developments that produced a qualitative change in attitude by the 1960s:
Not a small proportion of the in-migrants to central cities are younger blacks who are generally better educated than those whites who remain in the cities. Furthermore, a new generation of black people is coming to maturity, young people who were born and raised in the urban black communities. They do not use a previous Southern pattern of living as the framework through which they assess their current situation, but use an urban, mainstream-America framework, usually learned from the mass media rather than experienced. These youth comprise a very large proportion of the urban residents and are less enchanted by the view that, although things are bad, they are better than they used to be. As such, they are very critical of attitudes of those blacks who see the situation of the black man as improving. A small but significant proportion of the new urbanites are young people who have graduated from first-rate colleges and hold white-collar positions in integrated firms. The subtle prejudices which they have encountered, along with the empty lives of the many middle-class whites whom they have met, have increased their awareness that there is a style and tone of life in the black community which gives much more satisfaction than that of the white middle class. The heightened interaction of black youth as a result of urban living, the coming-of-age of a generation of post-World War II youth, and the rejection of some white middle-class values in the attempt to articulate values which grow out of the black experience are some of the internal dynamics of black communities in the 1960's which are producing a new upsurge in [black] nationalism. (my emphasis)
Schlesinger also address the question, that for good culture warriors would be, "How can those people be so ungrateful when they're already getting so much?" He writes of "excluded groups" by which he means "the traditionally poor, the blacks, the Indians, the Puerto Ricans, the Mexican-Americans":
The excluded groups today are mostly better off than they were a generation ago. They receive more attention, have more influence and exert more pressure on society than ever before. Yet they grow more drastic and importunate as their status improves. This should surprise no one. As Tocqueville observed of the discontent that led to the French Revolution, "Patiently endured so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men's minds. For the mere fact that certain abuses have been remedied draws attention to others and they now appear more galling; people may suffer less, but their sensibility is exacerbated." So, while the failure to continue improving the objective situation will only make matters worse, we cannot rest in the comfortable supposition that continued improvement will solve our problems. The operative idea here is what the sociologists call "relative deprivation" — that is, a sense of frustration measured not against the past but against the future, not in terms of how little people once had but of how much they now expect. (my emphasis)