Joe Biden visited Tulsa, OK, on June 1st to commemorate the centennial of the savage race massacre that took place there on May 31st thru June 1st, 1921. Mobs of White residents, deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents, destroying homes and businesses, in the historic Greenwood District. Upwards of 6,000 Black residents were interned and an estimated 300 people killed.
Biden declared, “Just because history is silent, it does not mean that it did not take place.” He went on, “hell was unleashed, literal hell was unleashed.” And now, he said, the nation must come to grips with the subsequent sin of denial.” He added: “We can’t just choose what we want to know, and not what we should know. … I come here to help fill the silence, because in silence wounds deepen.”
One year ago, in May 2020, a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, murdered George Floyd. It was yet another unprovoked killing of a Black person by a police officer but, unlike so many others both before and after, it precipitated an estimated 7,750 protests across the country involving 26 million people. Biden would not have visited Tulsa if there had not been the mass protests over Floyd’s killing.
These protests were often denounced as “riots” by local officials, law-enforcement officers and the media, but was something else going on? This is the question at the heart of Yale history professor Elizabeth Hinton’s groundbreaking new study, American on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s.
“Riot” is a provocative term used to denote militant domestic protest involving violence and serves as the corollary to “terrorism” used to denote international nonstate conflicts. Hinton questions the legitimacy of the term as applied to the mass civil unrest that took in the U.S. place between May 1968 to December 1972. She reports that popular outbreaks occurred in 960 Black communities that saw 1,949 separate disturbances, resulting in 40,000 arrests, with more than 10,000 people injured and at least 220 killed.
As Hinton insists, “… what were long assumed to be urban Black ‘riots’ were, in fact, rebellions – political acts carried out in response to an unjust and repressive society.” She adds, “… the tens of thousands of Black Americans who participated in this collective violence were rebelling not just against police brutality. They were rebelling against a broader system that had entrenched unequal conditions and anti-Black violence over generations.”
America was born from the “original sin” of slavery and now, four centuries later, slavery has morphed into systemic racism. Henry Louis Gates identifies five slave rebellions that occurred before the Civil War:
Stono Rebellion of 1739, North Carolina — at which ”about 20 slaves under the led by a man named Jemmy … executed the white owners and placing their victims’ heads on a store’s front steps for all to see.”
New York City Conspiracy of 1741 – Fort George was set afire and, for four days, fires spread through the city, New Jersey and Long Island; “Several white people claimed they had heard slaves bragging about setting the fires and threatened worse.”
Gabriel’s Conspiracy of 1800 – on the Prosser plantation, north of Richmond, VA, a slave named Gabriel, inspired by the French and Saint-Domingue revolutions of 1789, “determined to march to Richmond, take the armory and hold Gov. James Monroe hostage … [was] captured with co-conspirators. Twenty-five African Americans … were hanged together before Gabriel went to the gallows and was executed …”
German Coast Uprising of 1811 – about 40 miles north of New Orleans, Charles Deslondes, a mulatto slave driver on the Andrey plantation “took volatile inspiration from the victory seven years prior in Haiti.” On January 8th, “Deslondes and about 25 slave rose up and attacked the planttion’s owner and family. They hacked to death on of the owner’s sons, but carelessly allowed the master to escape.” “With a combined force about 30 regular U.S. Army soldiers and [local] militia … [they] fought a pitched battle that ended only when the slaves ran out of ammunition … the slaves surrended, about 20 insurgents lay dead, another 50 became prisoners and the remainder fled into the swamps. … By the end of the month, … about 100 survivors were summarily executed, their heads severed and placed along the road to New Orleans.”
Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 – on August 22nd, “Turner and about 70 armed slave and free blacks set off to slaughter the white neighbors who enslaved them. … the rebels had attacked about 15 homes and killed between 55 and 60 whites as they moved toward the religously named county seat of Jeruslam, Va. … Most of the rebels were catured quickly, but Turner eluded authorities for more than a month.” After capture and a trial, he was sentenced to death. “A barbaric scene followed his execution. Enraged whites took his body, skinned it, distributed pars as souvenier and rendered his remains into grease. His head was removed and for time sat in the biology department of Wooster College in Ohio.”
The first “great riot” of the modern era was the Draft Riot of 1863 that took place in New York. Lasting four days, July 13-16, it was a violent white working-class reaction to the imposition of the Civil War draft. White rioters violently attacked African Americans, shooting some, lynching 11 others and throwing stil others into the river to drown. An estimated 120 people were killed and 2,000 injured. Union troops who had fought in the Battle of Gettysburg were called in to finally quell the riot.
Following the Draft Riots, “the Memphis massacre” occurred from May 1 to 3, 1866. Following an altercation between white policemen and Black Union army veterans, mobs of whites and policemen rampaged through Black neighborhoods, engaging in robberies and arsons of Black homes and attacking and killing Black soldiers and civilians. A follow-up U.S. Congressional report found that 46 black and 2 white people were killed, 75 black people injured, over 100 black persons robbed, 5 black women raped, and 91 homes, 4 churches and 8 schools (every black church and school) burned in the black community.
Riots during the 20th century cluster in two phases — during the first half and during the second half of the century. The riots of the first half of the 20th century follow the pattern of the Draft Riot and Memphis massacre in which whites (including many policemen) attacked African Americans. These riots peaked between 1917 to 1921, in what was known as the “Red Summer,” and culminated in the Tulsa race massacre. These race riots reflected the social dislocation precipitated by industrialization, the Great Migration and World War I.
The second wave started during the Great Depression and peaked between 1964 and 1972, the period of Hinton’s study. The Harlem Riot of 1935 began on the afternoon of March 19th when Lino Rivera, a 16-year-old black Puerto Rican youth, was caught stealing a 10-cent penknife from the Kress nickle-&-dime store on 125th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in Harlem. Police arrested him.
As Jervis Anderson observes in his informative study, This Was Harlem, 1900-1950, “It  was the first major riot in the history of black Harlem, and it would not be the last.” However, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., offered a different interpretation: “It was not a riot; it was an open, unorganized protest against empty stomachs, overcrowded tenements, filthy sanitation, rotten foodstuffs, chiseling landlords and merchants, discrimination on relief, disfranchisement, and against a disinterested administration.” He insisted, “It was not caused by Communists.”
Three decades later, in July 1964, a riot began inauspiciously in New York with a standoff between James Powell, an African American teenager, and Thomas Gilligan, a police lieutenant. After a chase, the youth “reportedly” pulled a knife and slashed the officer who, in turn, pulled his revolver, shot and killed Powell. The incident took place on East 70th Street and fueled a riot that last six days; it saw rebels throw Molotov cocktails and police firing more than 2,000 shots. Remarkably, only one person died.
Hinton provides carefully researched case studies of nearly a dozen mass urban uprisings during the 1964-’72 period. Among the cities examined are Cairo (IL), Peoria (IL), York (PA), Inkster (MI), Alexandria (VA), Harrisburg (PA), Burlington (NC), Miami (FA) and Cincinnati (OH).
While the ‘60s rebellions peaked in ’72, riots persisted. One that Hinton does not discuss took place in August 1991 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY, between Hasidic Jews and blacks (both African American and Caribbean) following a car crash. The car was driven by a Hasidic resident and resulted in the death of two black children. In the three-day riot that followed, a black resident stabbed and killed a Hasid male while some 40 civilians and 150 officers were injured.
That same year, Los Angeles police officers beat Rodney King and the incident was captured on videotape and repeatedly aired on television. In ’92, an all-white jury acquitted the police officers that precipitated six days of mass protest in predominately African American areas of Los Angeles, leading to widespread lootings and standoffs with police. Thousands were arrested and 50 died; property damage was estimated at $1 billion.
America on Fire combines a series of well-researched case studies of individual popular Black uprisings with a careful analysis of the social conditions (e.g., unemployment, poverty, mass incarceration) and governmental actions (e.g., Kerner Commission, War on Crime, War on Poverty). It provides a well-rounded and rigorously account of the complexity a unique episode in American history often dismissed under the misleading notion of “riots.” As Hinton reveals, much more was at stake.
Finally, Hinton provides an invaluable appendix, “Timeline of Black Rebellion,” that details every uprising between 1968-72 and beyond.
Today, a half-century later, police killings of unarmed African Americans like George Floyd persist. But instead of provoking 1960’s rebellions, they have ignited mass social movements represented by Black Lives Matter (BLM) that may – “may” – have more lasting and meaningful social outcomes that finally address the systemic racism that has so long defined American life.
BLM was launched in 2013 by Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the February 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. It gained momentum in the wake of two police killings in 2014 — of Michael Brown in Ferguson (MO) and Eric Garner in New York (NY). BLM’s organizing set the stage for the protests in the U.S. and around the world that followed the killing of George Floyd which CBS calls “the largest racial justice protests in the United States since the Civil Rights Movement.”
However, as Hinton found, while there was an initial rebellous riot in Minneapolis following Floyd’s killing, with a police station was set abaze and “thirty-eight demonstations resulted in significant damage” to Confederate monuments across the country, “the wave of protests in the summer of 2020 diverged in critical ways from the rebellions of the late 1960s and early 1970s ….” BLM successfully morphed into a political movement supporting Biden’s election.
And now its up to Biden – and the numerous other elected Democratic office holders around the country – to deliver on the promises made or implied in the 2020 election. Its one thing to have blocked Donald Trump from a second term, however significant that was. It another thing to address the structural problems associated with systemic racism that has deformed the U.S. since the first indigenous people were slaughtered and the first slaves imported. Whether police killings of African Americans or unequal employment, housing, education or health care, the social challenge persists.
Failure to address structural racism this time around may find the U.S. back in the good-old Civil Rights days of the mid-1960s before Martin Luther King was assassinated. Sadly, a well-placed spark may set the nation on fire.