Remembering the Riots

James Nuechterlein

Of the various disasters that littered the 1960s, none was more deleterious in its effects than the series of black riots that began in Birmingham in 1963 and became an annual rite of summer for most of the rest of the decade. The best-remembered of them occurred in Watts in 1965, but the two most destructive in their toll on lives and property took place thirty years ago this summer— the first in Newark and then, the worst of all, in Detroit. I was in Detroit during the disturbance there, and my memories of the event are still vivid.

The riot began early in the morning of Sunday, July 23, 1967, when the police raided an illegal bar in the inner city. A crowd gathered in protest, and within a short time mobs of young men were engaged in burning, looting, and acts of random violence. Earlier riots had been blamed on police "overreaction" to minor incidents, so authorities did not at first dispatch large numbers of officers to the area. They further tried to keep things in check—based again on presumed lessons from disturbances elsewhere—by persuading the media to impose a news blackout. Neither tactic worked, however, and things were soon utterly out of control. The rioting spread to take in fourteen square miles of black neighborhoods, and unlike some earlier outbreaks, it was quite indiscriminate: mobs torched and plundered black businesses as freely as white ones and burned down a number of black homes as well. In the latter stages of the riot, blacks from outside the inner city entered the riot zone to participate in the looting.

My wife and I were visiting my brother’s family in Livonia, a western suburb of the city. We learned nothing of the riot until early Sunday afternoon when other members of the family arrived to report that in their drive from the city they had seen vast clouds of smoke rising from black neighborhoods. Soon afterward the media lifted the news blackout and we began to get the details.

By Monday morning, news reports indicated that the police and National Guard had matters under control, and so, as previously planned, we drove into the city to stay with my sister at her apartment. Kay lived, by choice, in a racially mixed neighborhood near downtown, only a few blocks from the riot area. That night the rioting resumed and intensified.

It was hot and the apartment had no air-conditioning, so we kept the windows open. Playing cards at the kitchen table, we could hear the sound of rifle fire. A major expressway separated us from the riot zone and we felt no great sense of danger, but the continuing—and increasing—background noise of gunfire, much like a war movie soundtrack, made for an unsettling, even surreal, experience. After midnight, we heard the rumblings of what we later learned were troop vehicles moving along the expressway. For the first time in the decade, a riot had gotten so out of hand that the authorities had to call in federal troops. It took five days to restore order, and afterwards there were 43 dead, 7,000 arrested, 1,300 buildings destroyed, and 2,700 businesses looted.

The riots in Detroit and elsewhere had a devastating effect not just on the communities themselves but on the entire nation. The assorted tragedies and lunacies of the sixties came near to wrecking the national morale, and nothing contributed more to the sense of things out of control, of a nation falling apart, than the ghastly parade of "long, hot summers." In 1967 alone, according to a recent report in the New York Times, there were almost four dozen riots and over one hundred lesser incidents of civil unrest. The antiwar protests of the time revealed a society bitterly divided over politics. The riots, along with the widespread and often violent campus disturbances, seemed to indicate a country descending into anarchy.

The riots also shattered the fragile national consensus that had begun to emerge following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963. A majority of white Americans had been increasingly persuaded by the moral appeals of Dr. King and had come to accept the argument that American society had for too long relegated black people to second-class citizenship. There was a readiness to make amends. But the riots eroded much of that good will. They served the cause not of reformers but of racists, and antagonized millions of Middle Americans who were open to change but closed to the idea that the nation’s racial sins were so great that it deserved to be torn apart. The riots polarized a society that had been potentially ready for significant reform.

The response by American liberals to the riots made things worse. Many of them found ways to excuse the inexcusable by rationalizing the mob nihilism manifested in Detroit as radical political protest. They even managed to persuade themselves, against all evidence, that the riots would have a positive net effect: white America would finally be brought to see how desperate was the black plight and thus would be moved to take remedial action.

The official government response compounded the confusion. President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) concluded in 1968 that the single most important cause of the riots was white racism. It would not have been implausible to argue that white racial attitudes were most responsible, over the long run, for the disabilities of black Americans, but to attribute the riots to white racism stretched the causal link to the breaking point.

The Kerner Report also, however inadvertently, demeaned black people by denying them moral agency. It was one thing to recognize the genuine frustration about real grievances that led some blacks to lash out blindly, something else to suggest that the black situation was so hopeless—and so utterly dependent on white behavior for any kind of amelioration—that such lashings-out by blacks constituted the only line of action open to them. The report perpetuated the idea that black people had identities only as historical victims, people to whom things simply happened. In post-segregationist America, that was no longer believable.

Most white Americans rejected the claim that they were incorrigible racists and so simply shrugged off the Kerner Commission’s indulgent exercise in guilt-mongering. They also, in the light of mounting evidence of the failure of Johnson’s Great Society programs, viewed with skepticism the Commission’s claim that only massive government programs offered any hope for making things better for black Americans. Indeed, the perceived failure of welfare-state liberalism to solve the nation’s racial problems contributed mightily to the mounting suspicion that there might be better responses to social ills than simply spending vast amounts of money on them. The first glimmerings of what Bill Clinton would much later call the end of the era of big government can be found in the baffling incapacity of the received liberal wisdom to offer workable prescriptions for the urban racial crisis of the 1960s.

The best that can be said thirty years later is that our racial situation, however bad, is better than it was in 1967. That is pitiably small consolation. The City of Detroit has never fully recovered from the events of three decades ago. Neither, sad to say, has the rest of the nation.