Magazine June 22, 2020, Issue

Rioting, Again

Detroit, 1967 / Boston, 2020 (Detroit: Ullstein Bild via Getty; Boston: Matthew J. Lee/Boston Globe via Getty)
‘The primary issue in Minneapolis is not the jobs, or the police or housing or anything like this’

In 1968, there were riots around the country following the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., with major episodes of political violence in Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, Louisville, New York City, Pittsburgh, Trenton, Washington, and Wilmington. The 1968 riots followed the summertime riots of 1967, which saw 43 dead and more than 1,000 injured in Detroit and 26 dead in Newark, and slightly less dramatic violence in Atlanta, Birmingham, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Britain, New York City, Plainfield, Rochester, and Toledo — a total of 159 race riots in all. These followed still more years of earlier riots beginning in the middle 1960s in cities from New York City to Los Angeles. There were more riots in 1969 and on into the 1970s.

Some of those riots followed specific provocations — the assassination of King or the NYPD’s shooting of black teenager James Powell. The 1966 Omaha riots were in part an anti-Jewish pogrom, in which Jewish landlords were blamed for poor housing conditions and Jewish-owned businesses were firebombed. But the endless parade of white papers and governor’s commissions of the time (the 1960s were mad for a committee) told similar stories in most of the cities affected by major riots: white flight and the rapidly changing racial composition of urban cores, low black employment and wages, high rates of black incarceration worsening unemployment. “There are very few of those called Negro in this area who can become mature without being arrested for something, you see,” union representative and anti-poverty organizer Eugene Purnell told the governor’s committee investigating the riots in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1965. Governor Pat Brown insisted that “joblessness was the root cause of the riots in Los Angeles,” while his blue-ribbon report cited such contemporary-sounding concerns as “workers displaced by automation, cybernation, and new technology.”

If the complaints were familiar, so were the cures on offer. Witnesses testifying in the Watts-riots hearings recommended free school lunches and government health-care programs, along with job training, educational improvements, and investments in urban redevelopment.

The conventional wisdom of the time was that the cities were being neglected because of white flight. That was certainly true, with both white Protestants and members of white-ethnic immigrant communities moving to the suburbs. In 1950, there were about 1.5 million whites living in Detroit; by 2010, that number had declined to about 75,000. In the early 1930s, the great majority (about 70 percent) of the Jews of Minneapolis lived in a handful of neighborhoods on the north side; that number had fallen below 40 percent by the end of the Eisenhower years and continued declining, journalist Nancy Rosenbaum of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

“White People Blamed for Plymouth Rioting,” a Minneapolis Star headline put it at the time. But it wasn’t only whites moving to the suburbs — the median family income of black households in Detroit tanked in the 1970s not because of a sudden uptick in unemployment but because much of the black middle class left the city as fast as it could. The riots, of course, hastened the departure of both black and white residents: The South Bronx lost more than a third of its population in the 1970s. Godfrey Hodgson of the Guardian reported that 100,000 African Americans left Chicago for the suburbs during the same period, more than 100,000 in Atlanta, and 224,000 in Washington. Chicago’s largely black Woodlawn neighborhood went from 80,000 residents (in 1960) and 800 commercial establishments (in 1950) to 24,000 residents and about 100 commercial establishments in 1990.

If the riots of the 1960s were protests against the conditions in largely black cities, they were among the most counterproductive demonstrations in history. The New York Times reports that in the cities with major riots, median black family income fell by about 9 percent from 1960 to 1970 when compared with the income of black families in similar cities that did not have riots. And from 1960 to 1980, male employment fell about 7 percentage points in the cities that had had riots, and the median value of black-owned homes dropped by as much as 20 percent. Many of Detroit’s problems from the 1970s forward were related to the city’s inability to collect sufficient tax revenue — difficult to do when there are few businesses and property values are in a crater.

But maybe it wasn’t about economic development after all. Minneapolis historian Kirsten Delegard, writing in 2015, provides some evidence to the contrary in the words of civil-rights leader John S. Hampton, who said after the 1967 riots: “The primary issue in Minneapolis is not the jobs, or the police or housing or anything like this. It’s simply the hostility, the fear, frustration and the feeling of powerlessness which black people feel in an alien white society. . . . People start feeling like they’re living in an occupied country.” Delegard continues:

Three years earlier, the city’s first Jewish mayor had come into office pledging to address yawning racial disparities. “A fire of protest against indignity and denial is burning here,” Arthur Naftalin declared in his inaugural speech. Much like our current mayor Betsy Hodges, Naftalin made racial justice central to his political agenda, allying himself with a national coalition of politicians determined to advance the cause of civil rights in northern cities.

Yet when Naftalin took office, Minneapolis was certainly not known as a hotbed for civil rights activism, though many of its residents had participated in the freedom struggle in the south. The city perceived itself as a[n] oasis of racial harmony in a troubled nation, a community that had worked hard to ensure equal opportunity. It was a “city where civil rights ferment had largely been confined to the moderate climate of committee rooms,” according to Gerald Vizenor, a Native American writer and keen observer of the city’s racial climate. A city commission later concluded that “many people in Minneapolis feel that our ‘negro or slum problem’ is not serious.”

This civic ideal was fundamentally challenged by the unrest on Plymouth Avenue.

If the riots we are seeing now are meant to effect positive change for African Americans in Minneapolis and other cities, they are unlikely to succeed. Governor Brown’s free school lunches are not going to get it done. In Minneapolis, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington, etc., Democrats and progressives have had something very close to an unbroken monopoly on political power for decades. Minneapolis hasn’t had a Republican mayor since the Eisenhower years. There are no Republicans on the Minneapolis city council, and there hasn’t been one in decades. Democrats have unimpeded political power in Minneapolis and many other cities, and it shows. They may have added free breakfasts to the free lunches, but the blood on the streets suggests that progressivism isn’t getting it done.

If the riots are not about poverty and police procedures — if John S. Hampton had it right back in 1967 — then they should be understood mainly as expressive. If there is a cure for the “powerlessness which black people feel in an alien white society,” it is not to be found in legislation or in more-generous health-insurance subsidies. How much worse are the rioters willing to make things for — if not themselves, exactly, then the communities they purport to represent? The answer in the 1960s was: a lot worse. Detroit and Newark were more or less ruined and have never really recovered. New York City was essentially bankrupt and literally powerless (the looting of 1977 was occasioned by a blackout) and foundered for years until the administration of Rudolph Giuliani, who used to be known as a successful mayor before he signed on as Donald Trump’s very dull hatchet man. Reducing Minneapolis to a smoking ruin is not going to improve the life of a single black family — but if it makes some college kids feel better . . .

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