Urban rebellions and social change

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explains how the urban revolts of the 1960s injected urgency about the conditions of Black America into the political discourse of the time.

The History of Black America

THE REBELLION ripping across Britain in the last week was only the latest example of how the working class and the poor will not quietly accept austerity as the "solution" to the economic crisis. From Cairo to Lisbon, to Santiago, to Madison, and now to the streets of London, there is a growing global revolt against a resurgent neoliberal agenda that advocates the destruction of the remnants of a weakened public sector.

The London revolt has also shown how the brunt of the cuts and austerity have fallen disproportionately on Black and brown youth--prompting even more savage behavior by police to keep those communities contained.

Figures across the political spectrum have condemned the rebellion as "mindless criminality," and the media handpick interviewees who complain about violence, looting and general chaos. They inevitability raise the question of why people "burn down their own communities?"

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THESE CHARGES always arise in the wake of political upheaval and rebellion. In the U.S. during middle part of the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of African Americans participated in urban rebellions to protest and confront racism, police brutality and injustice. In those years, it's estimated that more than 500,000 African Americans participated in some form or another in these uprisings--almost the same number of American troops in Vietnam.

In cities as disparate as Detroit, Tampa, Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Prattville, Ala., the rebellions raised basic questions about American democracy and American society in general.

In fact, it was the widespread and continuous nature of the riots that turned them from episodic outbreaks of discontent into a force that transformed U.S. politics. The issues that defined the urban crisis--poor housing, police brutality, poor schools and unemployment, among others--went from being politically peripheral to what President Lyndon Johnson termed "the nation's most urgent task."

Thus, the urban rebellions of the 1960s arguably constituted the most important political events of the decade. Over the course of the 1960s, public spending on housing and other urban issues went from $600 million at the beginning of the decade to more than $3 billion by the decade's end--and the federal government created the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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From this increase in spending to the spreading discussion about urban conditions during the 1960s, it's difficult to believe that any of this would have unfolded if not for the rebellions that made public the horrid conditions in which Black families struggled to survive.

The actions of the hundreds of thousands of Blacks who took part in the uprisings created the urgency for political figures to act, and provided the language they used to promote important urban legislation. Johnson, for example, invoked the imagery of rats attacking children when he tried to motivate a slow-moving Congress to pass his urban agenda, including a "rat control" bill.

Johnson said at a press conference, "Every year, thousands of these children, many of them babies, are bitten by rats in their homes and tenements. Some are killed. The amount of money needed to fight this national shame is small, but the stakes--like the health of our children--and of every city dweller--are very great."

Not to be outdone, Vice President Hubert Humphrey directly connected the lack of aggressive congressional action on the rat control bill with growing alienation in urban areas. After the explosive riot in Newark, N.J., in the summer of 1967--and just days before the most deadly and destructive riot of the 1960s, in Detroit--Humphrey made a statement that shocked the political establishment. He said that without greater attention to the housing crisis in the U.S.:

We will have open violence in every major city and county in America...It is time for government officials to recognize that the National Guard is no answer to the problems of slums...People will not live like animals, nor should they live in some of the filthy rotten housing that make up urban ghettoes.

I'd hate to be stuck on a forth floor of a tenement with rats nibbling on the kids' toes--and they do--with garbage uncollected--and it is--with the streets filthy, with no swimming pools, with little or no recreation. I think you'd have more trouble than you have had already, because I've got enough speak left in me to lead a mighty good revolt under those conditions...

You have to make a choice whether you want all your low-rent housing to be federally owned, whether you want subsidies so that the poor can own their own homes, or whether you want violence in America.

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DESPITE THEIR measurable success in promoting a legislative agenda that helped urban America, the "riots" have been largely eulogized as tragic events that cemented a long slide into urban decline and turmoil. Journalist Clay Risen, in A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination, echoed this sentiment when he argued:

[T]he riots destroyed a vast swath of [Washington, D.C.'s] working-class section...It sent a message to potential investors and residents alike that Washington was pathologically disturbed, and thus no place to relocate. And by scaring off middle-class residents for decades, the riots arguably rendered it impossible for the city to get back on its feet.

A letter to the Detroit Free Press in 2007 on the 40th anniversary of the Detroit rebellion echoed such claims:

Forty years have passed since the long, hot summer of 1967, yet the fallout from that week continues. The white flight that had already begun became a flood, resulting in Detroit being the most segregated city in the U.S. Add to this the fact that many of the homes and businesses torched during the riot remained as stark reminders of the riot for years. Today, most of these have been demolished; the land, however, remains vacant.

In both cases, the contemporary conditions of poverty and blight and many urban areas are linked to the uprisings of the 1960s--willfully ignoring the 40 years of public policy and shrinking public spending that encouraged urban decline in the years that followed.

The urban rebellions are also blamed on two other issues.

First, the rebellions are seen as the dysfunctional cousin to the peaceful and nonviolent Southern civil rights movement. Thus, while the civil rights movement is universally lauded as successful because of its strategic emphasis on nonviolence, the riots are universally condemned because of the violence inherent in them. Moreover, they are also blamed for alienating white allies and supporters, and are widely viewed as the origins of white "backlash politics."

A New York Times editorial, written only a few weeks after the riots in Detroit in 1967, captured this argument: "The riots, rather than developing a clamor for great social progress to wipe out poverty, to a large extent have had the reverse effect and have increased the crises for use of police force and criminal law."

Yet that perspective didn't appear to correspond with a number of polls taken 10 days later that showed massive support for the expansion of social programs aimed at mitigating the material deprivation that many connected with the spreading violence.

In a poll of both African Americans and whites, strong majorities supported anti-poverty programs. As a Washington Post headline summarized, "Races agree on ghetto abolition and the need for a WPA [the federal Works Projects Administration]-style program." Some 69 percent of Americans supported federal efforts to create a jobs program, and 65 percent believed in tearing down ghettos. Another 60 percent supported a federal program to eliminate rats, and 57 percent supported summer camp programs for Black youth.

The point isn't to deny the rise of "backlash politics" as one response to the rising threat of Black militancy. Rather, it is to recognize that there were multiple responses, including an awareness of the need to develop programs and devote funding for attacking the terrible conditions of ghetto life.

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DEMOCRATIC PARTY leaders like Johnson and Humphrey weren't the only ones attuned to the crisis unfolding among their urban base. So were Republican Party figures. Indeed, at the 1968 Republican National Convention, the Republicans included a plank in their party platform specifically addressing urban issues.

The party pledged new efforts to solve urban problems, ranging from housing to mass transit, and unemployment to air and water pollution. The plank also called for a new partnership between government and industry to "solve the crisis of the cities." Finally, liberal Republicans won an amendment calling for a "just society that would eliminate the causes of violence."

Even Richard Nixon, who won the Republican nomination and the tumultuous presidential election of 1968, conceded, "We must move with both compassion and conviction to bring the American Dream to the ghetto." This is hardly the language of "backlash politics"--it is a recognition that the conditions brought to light by the ghetto rebellions had to be engaged and resolved.

Corporate America, in spite of its history of red-lining and excluding African American communities, also recognized that it had to engage urban areas in a different way or risk destruction.

As the president of Illinois Bell Telephone put it about housing demonstrators in Chicago in 1966, "The demonstrators had the power to disrupt, even to destroy...more than 75 percent of the company's investment of roughly $2.5 billion within 35 or 40 miles of our downtown headquarters building. Unlike many other businesses, we cannot pull stakes and move away." As a result, Illinois Bell joined with other companies to form a corporate coalition aimed at creating more housing for Blacks in Chicago.

Many of these public and private endeavors to "solve" urban poverty ultimately failed--but that's a separate question, and shouldn't change our understanding of the effects the urban rebellions had on politics.

The question of whether the urban rebellions of the 1960s were "good" or "bad" misses both the dynamism and urgency that the revolts injected into the political discourse of their time. And it never deals with the question of why they exploded in the first place. Why did the Black freedom struggle of the 1960s shift from tactics of nonviolence to the explosive violence of the Black Power era?

As a young student returning to his home in South Central Los Angeles after studying in Europe, Stanley Sanders eloquently explained this political transformation for Ebony magazine:

[T]he unrelenting civil rights movement has brought domestic advances in the Negro's broad social position, in addition to moral advantages acquired through a sympathetic world opinion. As a result, he is learning about the rewards of bargaining in the American way of life.

But the favorable shifts in the Negro's position have given him only a taste of the tangy flavor of power. Wielding its weapons--the vote, boycotts and nonviolent demonstrations--he glimpses an even larger arsenal of possible weapons. These alternate weapons and strategies increase his bargaining position. If he can make violence work as an alternative to peaceful demonstration, he seems willing to try it.

The riots, in effect, were the "forcible entry" of the Black masses into political discussions that usually treated them and their communities as invisible or irrelevant. Black poverty, deprivation and racism in urban areas went from being political non-issues to one of the most important issues of the decade.

Consider this about Britain today: When was the last time there was a discussion about racism and poverty in Britain outside of left-wing publications? In the aftermath of the London Rebellion, there is a global discussion about these issues--something inconceivable even weeks ago.

Rebellions, of course, don't go on forever. They eventually run into the power of the state, and the rebels become fatigued once the adrenaline of feeling politically alive subsides. To bring about the substantial changes needed to really transform the lives of workers and the poor, something more is needed: strategies, politics and organization.

First published at SocialistWorker.org on August 12, 2011.