The American Historian

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An American Tradition

Ashley Howard

It begins with a rumor, bouncing back and forth from person to person, like a threadbare basketball on a run-down court. The report grows and morphs until it becomes so astonishing and yet so plausible. People stream from their homes to congregate in the streets, speaking of past wrongs, past due bills, and opportunities which passed them over. Someone in the throng hurls a chunk of brick at a storefront, simultaneously releasing years of pent-up rage and frustration. Stepping across the twinkling, moonlit glass the crowd enters the shop taking items to survive or that they have long coveted. The uprising escalates in a strange cacophony of glass raining down upon the pavement, cries for justice and sirens howling in the distance, while an acrid odor of spilt liquor and blood mingles with the scent of charred buildings, wafting through the air. A golden dawn breaks, the damage is assessed, and for many the series of events which transpired is over.

Until recently the memory of “long hot summers” of the 1960s remained a vivid if distant specter. Long after the National Guard marched from the ghettos and boarded-up shops caulked with new shatter-resistant windows, the rebellions still hold tremendous power in the national collective memory. Many Americans, however, relegate urban revolts solely to that tumultuous decade, forgetting to remember the numerous major uprisings that have occurred since, including those in Attica Correctional Facility (1971), Miami (1980), Los Angeles (1992), Cincinnati (2001), Oakland (2009), Ferguson (2014), and Baltimore (2015.) Whether we choose to admit it, civil unrest is a potent fixture of American life. So much so that then presidential candidate Donald Trump remarked, “I think you’d have riots” if he did not receive the Republican party’s 2016 presidential nomination.[1] Violent uprisings are a fundamental cornerstone of this country’s history, mobilized in word and action to pursue any number of agendas. Yet our relationships with, and perceptions of, this tactic are fraught and deeply steeped in our own national mythology. The rebellions, in dialogue with regional, class, gender, and racial analysis, provide a critical lens to understanding not only the Black Freedom Movement but also America as a whole.

While the opening decades of the twenty-first century resurrected the shadow of widespread revolt from unsubstantiated fear to painful reality, it is not the aberrant, wanton, and illegitimate action it is frequently framed as. Violent protest, rather, is an American tradition. A “myth of innocence” dominates America’s conception of their own relationship with violence.[2] In 1968, following the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence to investigate the origins of an exceptionally violent decade. In a supplemental report to the committee, historian Richard Maxwell Brown argued “despite our pious official disclaimers, Americans have always operated with a heavy dependence upon violence in even our highest and most idealistic endeavors.”[3]

Under a lofty national agenda, violence “opened” the frontier through the murder and displacement of the Indigenous people who lived there. Violence maintained systems of racial enslavement and xenophobia both at home and abroad. Violence suppressed labor disputes and terrorized those on gender and sexual margins to maintain patriarchal control. Violence undergirds the most central milestones of an American triumphalist narrative. Yet our nation forgets violence’s omnipresence, “its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history.”[4] When those terrorized by violence employ the very tool wielded against them, shock registers across the nation. The violence commissioners’ 1968 warning still rings true, “If we are wise—if we listen carefully and watch closely—we will realize that violence is a social bellwether: dramatic rises in its level and modifications in its form (as is the case today) tell us that something important is happening in our political and social systems.”[5] So if we listen carefully, what do urban uprisings tells us?

While race is certainly a central issue in moments of social unrest, by considering only this narrow category, the uprisings’ true complexity is lost. Violent revolts represent a microcosm of our communities, capturing the web of intersectional identities in various social hierarchies. An individual’s decision whether to participate and what that participation looks like acutely reflects their regional, gendered, racial, and class identities. Of these factors, region is most frequently overlooked. Hardly an accidental omission, interrogating region gives a keener insight into the preservation of power and the limits of historical memory.

An Overview of Rebellion

Historian Peter Levy estimates that between 1963 and 1972, approximately 750 insurrections occurred in over 500 cities across the United States, “including nearly every one with a black population over 50,000.”[6] While most people identify the 1965 Watts insurrection as the first instance of Black property violence as protest, this moment actually occurred thirty years prior in Harlem. On March 19, 1935, the first “modern” racial uprising took place after store clerks beat an Afro-Latino teenager while rumors of his death by police circulated in the community.[7] As historian Cheryl Greenberg noted “The riot of 1935 demonstrated in a dramatic and frightening way that blacks were unwilling to accept inequality passively. The riot’s destructiveness and the implicit threat of further violence persuaded private citizens and public officials alike to respond to black complaints.”[8] Historically, groups employed communal violence to maintain the American social order. After Harlem erupted, African Americans engaged in collective violence as a direct response to the extant social hierarchy, challenging their second-class status with some success.

Reflecting on the decades of unrest since Harlem, several characteristics regularly occurred in these incidents. In their investigation of nearly two dozen revolts in 1967, the Kerner Commission, another presidential committee established by President Johnson, found twelve commonly held grievances articulated in almost every city surveyed, with policing, employment, and inadequate housing most frequently mentioned. All these issues combined produced “an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere…[creating] a shared reservoir of underlying grievances.”[9] While the revolts are remembered as events dominated by violence against white people, in actuality, participants took their frustrations out against property and symbols of white authority that were specifically chosen for their discriminatory behavior towards Black customers.[10]

The intersection of class and gender represented equally salient determinants as to why and how local people chose to participate in these events. The Kerner Commission described the “average” uprising participant as better educated than the typical inner-city Black resident and likely “working in a menial or low status job as an unskilled laborer” facing frequent bouts of unemployment.[11] In the uprisings, men temporarily shifted control of normative power structures, and participants, both Black and white, acted to protect their communities. The rebellions, however, should not be interpreted solely as exercises in masculinity. Although frequently erased from the official accounts, women fully engaged in the rebellions. In addition to throwing rocks and looting stores, female participants patched up the injured, provided food and shelter, and from their porches cheered on those engaging in property violence, broadening notions of participation beyond illicit activities.[12]

Urban rebellions constitute political protests not only through participants intent and actions, but also in the State’s response. Even the most conservative views of the rebellion, such as the notorious McCone Commission, acknowledged deeper political causes of the Watts uprising. While Governor Ronald Reagan considered the participants to be “lawbreakers and mad dogs,” the commission conceded that Los Angeles’ political, social, and economic environment “underlay the gathering anger which impelled the rioter.”[13] In each of the cities that the Kerner Commission studied, municipal authorities and protestors negotiated the terms of the peace. In so doing, elected officials gave legitimacy to the participants, placing nontraditional political actors temporarily on parallel footing with the State.

The shared attributes, however, are not how these events are remembered today. The media contributed significantly to the skewed framing of these events. In a Kerner Commission funded study of television, radio, and print media coverage during the uprisings, researchers noted that “We think that, in many crucial respects, they [the media] have failed to provide complex and accurate coverage of racial disorder in our society.” Specifically, they argued that media fundamentally failed to “analyse [sic] and report adequately, on a day to day basis, on race relations in America,” particularly expressions of Black grievances.[14] By highlighting local race issues, media could simultaneously indict municipal leadership while humanizing the rebels. Such actions would legitimate violent protest, affirming its utility to participants and forcing those responsible for the grave disparities between white and Black life to be held accountable. The media framing that occurred, however, allowed the 1960s urban rebellions to be brushed off, dampening their broader transformative potential. By distorting or erasing key elements, including that a significant number of uprisings occurred in the Midwest, the broader implications of misplaced historical memory becomes clear.

Region in the Rebellion

Regional identity plays a significant role in both the cause and misremembering of these events. In the years preceding the urban uprisings, Africans Americans moved from the South hoping to claim their piece of the American Dream. But in the Midwest, economic and race oppression acted as co-conspirators. Nationally, the postwar years had brought significant economic and wage growth across the nation. For African Americans, however, unemployment remained at recession levels and their wages fell substantially short of their white counterparts. Nearly 2.5 million, or 20% of the Black population, lived in poverty in America’s central cities.[15] This dire economic snapshot provides not only a glimpse of the specific economic marginalization that Black America faced, but the beginnings of a regional economic catastrophe.

The great irony of the Midwestern Black experience is that at the very moment most Blacks arrived in the region seeking economic stability, the opportunities they chased began to decline. As historian Tom Sugrue noted, “the cities of America’s industrial heartland were the bellwethers of economic change.”[16] By the 1970s the Midwest had lost more in employment, manufacturing, and population out-migration measures than the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions.[17] As one scholar succinctly noted: “The supposed golden age of Midwestern industry and Big Labor, inaugurated by World War II, had benefitted a single generation of industrial workers.”[18] With the centrality of Midwestern industrial centers waning, jobs for people of color and low-skilled workers became increasingly scarce.[19] As the wartime economy collapsed, companies laid off surplus workers and over the next twenty years African Americans remained the last hired and the first fired.

While the South’s visible markers of intolerance created a national scapegoat, the Midwest carefully hid its racism although it infected every institution. Rosalind Baker, who previously resided in Kentucky and West Virginia before moving to Milwaukee, WI, explained this measured discrimination:

It’s a different kind of racism in the South than it is in the North. The northern white people [are] phony. They say one thing and they are really doing something else. They’re really feeling some other kind of feelings, and with white people down South, we knew. They’d let you know, without a doubt, that you had a certain place and they had a certain place…and that’s how they treated you.[20]

In citing their own virtue in comparison to other regions, white Midwesterners ignored the subtle yet powerful ways discrimination stalled Black progress. White Midwesterners built their collective self-image as industrious, resilient bootstrappers by “blaming Blacks for their [own] poverty and unemployment.”[21] They buttressed this superior self-image by the frequent citation of proactive, though ineffective, measures in race relations culminating in human relations boards, civil rights committees, and groups of concerned businessmen prior to the uprisings. Like the myth of innocence, the Midwest held their heads high, embracing liberal reforms whilst ignoring the very real physical and structural violence that undergirded Black life.

Politicians frequently gestured to the region, employing coded language such as “Heartland” as proxy for American values. Painting the Midwest as a pastoral white meritocracy ignores the contributions and very existence of the people of color who built this region. But as historian Brent Campney argues, this regional depiction is not “antithetical to the systemic racist practices and anti-black violence.” Rather the Midwest maintains its homogeneity through exclusion and racial terror.[22] Despite the frequent boasts of their own racial progressivism, the Midwest engaged in, and often developed, the same racist practices the South became notorious for.

While Black Midwesterners possessed the legal right to vote, political, economic, and legal mechanisms locked out working-class African Americans in many important ways. The State’s use of gerrymandering and ineffective human relations commissions severely limited African Americans’ access to mechanisms for redress. When Black citizens protested these conditions, either verbally or through nonviolent direct action, State agents ignored, threatened, or jailed activists. The Midwestern economic, social, and political context made violent protest an attractive, necessary, and viable option.

It should be no surprise then, that some of the most important flashpoints for civil unrest took place in this region, including nearly 36% of the 1967 urban rebellions.[23] These uprisings were not limited to major metropolis like Chicago or Detroit either, but smaller cities such as Benton Harbor, MI; Cairo, IL; and Des Moines, IA, also exploded. That major recent street protests grew from Midwestern soil demonstrates the continued pattern of economic and political disenfranchisement in the new millennium. While Midwestern cities continue to be ranked as “best places to live,” the Black-white disparity in every meaningful quality of life measurement grows larger each year. As historian Colin Gordon noted in one particular index of racial inequality “the twelve states of the Midwest census region claimed eight of the bottom ten slots and swept the bottom five.”[24] In each of these places a seeming liberal commitment to racial progress and an excellent quality of life occurs simultaneously with a deep practice of bolstering racist institutions harming Black and brown people. This myth animates not only the uprisings in the Black Freedom Movement era but also the ongoing 2020 protests. By falsely framing the Midwest as an exclusively white place without race problems, there is no issue to be managed. Resisting constant regional erasure, uprisings make Black grievances impossible to ignore.

Conclusion

While there are notable parallels to early violent uprisings and those in 2020, the current events represent an entirely new era in American protest. The sheer scope of these uprisings renders them completely different, as does their multiracial and global character. Born from the intersectional and comprehensive approach of the Black Lives Matter movement, the recent protests utilize an entirely different framework to understand the protection of Black life and the dismantling of structural violence. The current street activists are working towards an entirely different end game. As such, the tone and trajectory of the ongoing protest movement is far more expansive than that of the 1960s. We are witnessing not only a call to end police murder, but also a fight to end “quiet violence,” the hidden systemic and environmental violence which snakes through Black communities. That George Floyd contracted COVID-19 or that Korryn Gaines and Freddie Gray both had lead poisoning speaks to these larger structural issues.[25] Yes, each of these people died at the hands of law enforcement, but other, quieter factors were also working to hasten Black death.

To remember the wide spectrum of American violence we are forced to critically assess from whom the bellwether tolls. If violence can be lauded as a shining moment when it benefits those in power, why is it demonized when employed as a political tactic? As Milwaukee activist and folklorist Tejumola Ologboni offers, “The only way to speak to a person and have them understand it, is to speak their language. And the only language America speaks is violence.”[26] When we are forced to remember who violence most frequently serves in this country; we are forced to act.

Author

Ashley Howard is an assistant professor of African American History at the University of Iowa. She is completing her manuscript which analyzes the 1960s urban rebellions in the Midwest, grounded in the way race, class, gender, and region played critical and overlapping roles in defining resistance to racialized oppression.

Notes

[1]Nick Gass and Eliza Collins, “Trump Warns of 'Riots' If He Isn't GOP Nominee,” POLITICO, March 16, 2016.

[2]Ira M. Leonard and Christopher C. Leonard, “The Historiography of American Violence,” Homicide Studies, 7 (no. 2, 2003), p. 104.

[3]Richard Maxwell Brown, “Historical Patterns of Violence in America,” in Violence in America: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, ed. Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, 76 (1969), p. 56.

[4]Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace, American Violence: A Documentary History (1970), p. 7.

[5]The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, To Establish Justice, To Insure Domestic Tranquility, by Milton S. Eisenhower (1969), p. 3.

[6]Peter B. Levy, The Great Uprising: Race Riots in Urban America during the 1960s (2018), p. 1.

[7]Allen D. Grimshaw, Racial Violence in the United States (1969), p. 117-119.

[8]Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, Or Does it Explode?: Black Harlem in the Great Depression (1991), p. 221.

[9]The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, by Otto Kerner (1968), p. 6. Hereafter referred to as the Kerner Report.

[10]Ibid., 67.

[11]Ibid., 73.

[12]Elaine Davis of Cincinnati, interview by author, June 19, 2013, Cincinnati, digital recording, Interviewee’s home, Cincinnati. Pauline E. of Cincinnati, interview by author, June 22, 2013, Cincinnati, digital recording, by telephone, Cincinnati.

[13]Robert Fikes Jr., ed. Racist and Sexist Quotations: Some of the Most Outrageous Things Ever Said, (1992), p. 83. Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, McCone Commission Report: Complete and Unabridged Report by the Governor’s Commission in the Los Angeles Riot: Plus One Hundred Four Shocking Photographs of the Most Terrifying Riot in History (1965), p. 4.

[14]Sol Chaneles, “News Media Study: Special Preliminary Report of Finding for Selected Cities” NACCD/Series 12, Johnson Presidential Library, p. 17-18.

[15]Kerner Report, p. 123-4.

[16]Thomas J. Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (2005), p. 6.

[17]Ann R. Markusen and Virginia Carlson, “Deindustrialization in the American Midwest: causes and responses,” in Deindustrialization and Regional Economic Transformation: The Experience of the United States, eds. Lloyd Rodwin and Hidehiko Sazanami (1989), p. 30.

[18]Daniel Nelson, Farm and Factory: Workers in the Midwest 1880-1990 (1995), p. 193.

[19]George C. Galster, Reality and Research: Social Science and U.S. Urban Policy since 1960 (1995), p. 19.

[20]Rosalind Baker of Milwaukee, interview by author, Aug. 20, 2014, Milwaukee digital recording, Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Museum, Milwaukee.

[21]Andrew R. L. Cayton and Susan E. Gray, Identity of the American Midwest: Essays on Regional History (2007), p. 24-25.

[22]Brent M.S. Campney, Hostile Heartland: Racism, Repression, and Resistance in the Midwest (2019), p. 2.

[23]Kerner Report, p. 66, 324.

[24]Colin Gordon, Race in the Midwest: Equity, Opportunity, and Public Policy in the Midwest (2019), p. iv.

[25]Scott Neuman, “Medical Examiner's Autopsy Reveals George Floyd Had Positive Test For Coronavirus,” NPR, June 4, 2020. Baynard Woods, “Korryn Gaines: Police Killing Highlights Baltimore's Lead Poisoning Crisis,” The Guardian, Aug. 5, 2016.

[26]Tejumola Ologboni of Milwaukee, interview by author, Aug. 19, 2014, Milwaukee, digital recording, interviewee’s home, Milwaukee.