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How the riots changed us
Forty years later, residents of Newark and Detroit still disagree whether the historic July disturbances in their cities should be remembered as “riots” or “rebellions.” Let’s split the difference, I say. Call them “uprisings.”
There were more than 100 similar violent disturbances in various cities that year. But the most remembered were in Detroit, where 43 died in late July, and earlier in the month in Newark, where 26 died. This was two years after the Watts section of Los Angeles went up in flames and less than a year before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. would ignite more cities.
We remember these disturbances mostly as “riots,” but that implies something random and irrational. “Uprising” implies a spontaneous mass action that is more explainable, yet less organized than a “rebellion.”
The disturbances of the 1960s had distinct causes and effects, with which our cities still live. Most were ignited by explosive confrontations with police, but the seeds were sown years earlier in urban “ghettos.” That was the popular term at the time for the densely populated, economically starved urban communities into which black families were segregated by rampant discrimination in jobs, home mortgage and insurance “redlining” and other disinvestment.
What’s most remarkable to me four decades later is how few remarks are being made about the disturbances. Even in Newark and Detroit, civic leaders have been divided over how the tragic events should be commemorated or whether they should be acknowledged at all.
I attribute this reluctance to an admirable American quality: We are a forward-looking people. Like reluctant alumni at a class reunion, we are nervous about dredging up bad memories. Besides, there is the lingering fear in many minds that if we talk about riots, they might start up again. In fact, we should try to learn from past mistakes before we make new ones.
No one was more perplexed by the uprisings, historians say, than President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had laid down considerable political capital to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He even suspected, with the encouragement of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a possible Soviet plot.
He named a commission in 1967 headed by former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner to find the roots of the uprisings. After hundreds of interviews, the commission blamed reasons closer to home than Russia: Racial discrimination had cut African-Americans out of America’s social, political and economic mainstream.
With that in mind, it is instructive to compare the way we were then with where we are now:
Then: The Kerner commission said we were “two societies,” separate, unequal and increasingly angry, fearful, resentful and suspicious of each other.
Now: The economic gap between rich and poor in black America is wider than the one between blacks and whites.
Then: We saw “white flight” to the suburbs.
Today: We see black middle-class flight to suburbs and mostly white “re-gentrification” of revived “hip” inner-city neighborhoods.
Then: Jobs moved to the suburbs.
Now: Jobs move overseas.
Then: There were almost no blacks in local governments, except for the janitors.
Now: We have dozens of black mayors and lots of immigrant janitors, as many native-born Americans pass over entry-level jobs.
Today: We see politicians of both parties offering various versions of a new war on poverty.
Then: Martin Luther King competed with the “black power” movement.
Now: Bill Cosby’s argument for improved black behavior competes with the post-industrialists who blame structural changes in the economy.
In fact, both sides are right. The economy has changed, but too many black Americans also have failed or been unable to take advantage of opportunities that the civil rights movement opened up.
The past teaches us government can help open opportunities for the poor to receive jobs, education and training. But we also need to find ways at the local and community level to calm the quiet riots of crime and poverty that still keep us awake at night, nervous about the past and fearful of the future.
After all, as Whitney Young, another great black leader of the 1960s put it, we may have come here on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.
Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.
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