The American Historian

The Ferguson Crisis in Historical Perspective

Kevin J. Mumford

On the evening of August 9 in a small suburb of St. Louis, a six-year veteran of the Ferguson Police Department, Darren Wilson, confronted and then killed an eighteen-year old black man, Michael Brown, who was unarmed and attempting to surrender. Over the next two weeks, the homicide provoked major disorders and grabbed mass media attention—a scene reminiscent of the sort of riots that have long punctuated United States urban history. Most recent were the 1992 Rodney King riots that left more than fifty dead, but perhaps the most useful comparison with Ferguson is “the long, hot summers”: the rioting in Watts in 1965; in Newark, Detroit, and Milwaukee in 1967; and after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. In comparing the particular situation in Newark to Ferguson, obviously times have changed and Ferguson is not riven by big city social problems, but I would argue that in both cases not only racial and economic inequality but also the failure of government and democracy were the underlying historical causes.

The facts of the altercation between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown remain in dispute. Brown was shot on video at a convenience store grabbing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk aside, and then quickly exiting. The clerk phoned for the police, and Officer Wilson arrived on the scene and confronted Brown. After a firearm went off in the police car, he apparently ran away, and Wilson fired. An autopsy revealed that he was hit at least six times, after which his corpse laid in a lot for at least four hours before an ambulance arrived, a failure that to many symbolized the state’s lack of regard for black life. A number of witnesses reported that Brown had attempted to surrender, and the pattern of bullet wounds suggested that he was bent forward with his head down. In the subsequent protests, black residents continually approached police and other authorities with their hands up, recalling Brown’s futile attempt to protect himself. For the next two weeks, apparently peaceful crowds clashed with law enforcement, resulting in daily arrests, gun shots, injuries, and extensive use of tear gas.[2]

The riots in Newark involved a similar set of circumstances. On June 12, 1967, two white police officers stopped John Smith’s taxi for an alleged traffic violation. Witnesses claimed that Smith was the victim of excessive force, but the Newark Police charged him with assault and resisting arrest. After Smith was transported to the precinct, rumors of his arrest and possible death began to spread around the Central Ward. Later in the evening, an angry crowd gathered outside the police station, and despite some effort to address their protest, a riot broke out, leading to arson and looting. For the next five days, at least twenty-four participants would die, hundreds were injured, and hundreds more were arrested, and the city lost many thousands of dollars in property and infrastructure damage. >

What distinguishes a so-called riot from a rebellion or uprising remains a matter of historical perspective. Certainly one actor’s purposeful agitation or dissent is another’s irrational act of self-destruction. In both Newark and Ferguson, law enforcement struggled to control the increasingly angry crowds, imposed a curfew, and declared a state of emergency. As publicity ensued, and more images of rioters clashing with law enforcement flashed across the press and the internet, public opinion divided along predictable lines: was this lawful protest or dangerous violence, legitimate dissent or criminality? On a smaller scale in Ferguson, rioters damaged a McDonald’s, looted stores in a nearby strip mall, and set on fire a QuikTrip convenience store that then became a gathering point for protesters. In Newark, retailers lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of merchandise, and often the press conveyed an image of rioters as wanton criminals. But many of these same stores were accused of selling inferior merchandise at inflated prices and gouging customers with high credit. Rioters often targeted particular retailers with a reputation for mistreating or discriminating against black customers, and spared many black-owned stores.

As even the most casual reader of the news is aware, critics have questioned not only who was at fault in the homicide (recalling the tragic, racially charged murder of Trayvon Martin), but also the overall conduct of the police. In this sense as well, Ferguson parallels the 1960s. In Newark, a single incident of police-citizen conflict served to trigger a kind of popular recollection of questionable conduct by law enforcement, including the murder of young black men. In both cases, white police routinely stopped young black men for minor traffic violations or suspicion of shoplifting. In Newark, riots erupted only hours after the arrest of Smith in part because the police failed to respond adequately to the crowd assembled outside the precinct, and in Ferguson the protest became more volatile because of police mismanagement and repression of lawful assembly. Finally, the outbreak of rioting ultimately revealed the long-term effects of racial inequality, but perhaps lack of lack of political voice was the key determinant.

By the time of the riots, decades of migration from the south and white flight had resulted in a black majority in Newark, and in Ferguson too a majority of residents are African Americans. Yet in both locations, the mayors and a majority on the city council were white, and in turn, the police departments were disproportionately white. Although blacks comprised 63 percent of the town, they accounted for 86 percent of all police stops and 92 percent of all arrests. Of fifty-three commissioned officers in the Ferguson Police Department, three were black. Reporting subsequent to the riot revealed that much of small-town and suburban America has the same profile: black majority towns and nearly all-white police forces, the result of white flight and lack of political representation.

Finally, racialized policing shaped the dynamics as well as the spectacle of the crises. In both Newark and Ferguson, law enforcement were initially overwhelmed by protesters, and in both the governor called up the National Guard to restore order and enforce newly imposed curfews. But perhaps the biggest story to emerge from Ferguson was the militarization of the local and state police forces. In the wake of 9/11, the federal government promoted massive anti-terrorist grants to law enforcement for the upgrading of weapons and machinery. It was reported that Missouri had received about 69 million from the Department of Homeland Security in the past five years. In a sense, the riots drew attention to a national trend that has powerful implications for the balance of citizen-police relations as well as the health of the public sphere. Clearly this debate will attract more notice and expand in the future, but from a historical perspective the question of militarization remains ambiguous. To what extent did the state’s deployment of military force in Ferguson permit a swifter repression of potentially more violent clashes and therefore prevent further personal injury and additional deaths? In Newark, unarmed women and children were killed, and this could just as easily have happened in Ferguson.

After the Newark rioting, some conservatives called for increased spending on weapons, and even police dogs, but black activists mobilized effective protests, and increased militarization was not a major consideration or recommendation in the overall political response to the crisis. In Ferguson, the state’s show of force was captured in disturbing images of black men and women suffering from the effects of tear gas (not used against Newark protesters) and surrendering to armored tanks. The scale of the post-9/11 weapons buildup strikes me as not only unprecedented but also dangerous—it has created a climate of real and symbolic repression that undermines causes for urban justice. For example, military intervention in Ferguson extended beyond the riots to the repression of peaceful protests when law enforcement prevented activists from staging a commemorative traffic block on Interstate 70.

Meanwhile, some observers have indeed encouraged governments to deploy their veritable arsenals for “security and crowd control,” including on college campuses. At least 124 campus police departments have received high-tech weapons and even grenade launchers. But the chilling effect on First Amendment assembly seems obvious, and the policy threatens to upend the intended purpose of the police to protect, rather than subdue, students. Campaigns for law and order did follow in the wake of Newark and other urban disorders, and the general public grew alienated from or impatient with the familiar spectacle of violent clashes. By 1968 President Lyndon B. Johnson’s mail ran roughly 3 to 1 against the actions of the black rioters, whom many labeled criminal and disparaged as lazy. While Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama sympathetically responded to the Ferguson situation, President Johnson refused to meet with key leaders and legislators on the issue.[3]

In both cases, an array of politicians and journalists called for a reappraisal of the state of the nation’s race relations. Perhaps the most famous example of this was the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, the result of extensive congressional hearings, which memorably proclaimed that America was moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. In placing the blame for the riots on white racism, the Kerner Commission issued a remarkably progressive call for social reform and increased public attention to and resources for poor black Americans. In Ferguson the question of racial profiling, and police officer’s views or perceptions of young black men, prompted journalists and other experts to address racism in numerous articles and excerpts that were published in August and September. As of today, there are no publicized plans for a riot commission and the president has remained characteristically taciturn on the questions of racism raised by the injustice and repression in Ferguson.

On the whole, however, public opinion about race relations has drifted rightward since the days of the Kerner Commission. Almost two weeks after the death of Brown, a number of polls revealed a deeply divided nation. 47 percent of respondents felt that race relations were generally good, while 44 percent responded generally bad. 42 percent of respondents identified police as “friends,” and 83 percent indicated that they had not faced discrimination from police. Another poll indicated that a majority of whites believe that anti-white racism has become more significant than anti-black racism.

To conclude on an optimistic note, perhaps the most striking parallel between the two moments is the likelihood of black political empowerment. After the Newark riots, leading black activists, such as Amiri Baraka, helped to organize a black and Puerto Rican political party to run a slate of candidates for city council and mayoral elections, and in 1970 Kenneth A. Gibson became the first black mayor of a Northeastern city when he was elected mayor of Newark. African Americans soon comprised a majority on the city council, while the mayor encouraged the swift recruitment of more black police officers. Much the same is bound to happen in Ferguson. In the previous election, only 12 percent of eligible voters participated, but after the riots, the NAACP helped lead a voter registration drive to increase awareness about the democratic process. If the two-thirds black population turns out to vote at the next elections, the government will soon reflect not only the racial profile but the political will of the citizenry. Instead of facing tear gas and tanks, African Americans in Ferguson may yet take control.

KEVIN J. MUMFORD is a professor of history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Interzones: Black/White Sex Districts in Chicago and New York in the Early Twentieth Century (1997) and Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America (2007), and is at work on a study of modern black gay activism and politics. He is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.


[1]For background on this essay, see Kevin J. Mumford,Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America (2007); Michael B. Katz, Why Don’t American Cities Burn? (2012); Thomas J. Sugrue and Andrew P. Goodman, “Plainfield Burning: Black Rebellion in the Suburban North,” Journal of Urban History,> 33 (May 2007), 568–601.

[2] The account of events in Ferguson is based on the reports provided by the New York Times.

[3] Kevin J. Mumford, “Harvesting the Crisis: The Newark Uprising, the Kerner Commission, and Writings on Riots,” in African American Urban History Since World War II, ed. Kenneth L. Kusmer and Joe W. Trotter (2009), 203–18.