Posted by: distributorcap | July 24, 2009

60’s Thursday – Hot Town, Summer in the City

Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head

John Sebastian, Lovin’ Spoonful 1966

We may have elected the first black President, but the United States is far from a racially harmonious society. In fact, the election of Barack Obama has brought out some of the most racially charged and ugly language seen in over 40 years – the same type of language that led to one of the most violent periods in American history. 42 years ago today – America burned like never before.

The decade of the 1960’s was a period of painful transition for American society. The era, which began with the election of a young and energetic President exploded into a violent and divisive period soon after the assassination of President Kennedy. The two biggest forces that threatened to tear the country apart were the war in Vietnam and the march toward civil rights.

So powerful and polarizing were both those events, family turned against family, neighbor turned against neighbor and citizen turned against citizen – producing the most bloodshed on American soil since the Civil War. In many cases, the government was forced to mobilize National Guard troops against its own citizens to stop the violence from spreading.

For the civil rights movement, the mid-60’s saw President Johnson, state governments and the courts beginning to implement statutes and policies to enforce racial equality under the law. While the government could legislate equality – it could not exorcise discrimination from the minds of its citizens. Tensions between the races exploded into deadly violence in many parts of the country. Several cities experienced riots and disorder, leading to the beginning of “white flight” from urban areas. Some of the more notable events were:

Philadelphia, August 1964

The African-American community of North Philadelphia was very leery of police brutality. On the night of August 28, a black woman got into an argument with two white policeman over her stalled car. When the officers tried to remove her from the vehicle, an argument erupted. She was arrested.

Rumors spread that a pregnant black woman was beaten to death by the police. Mobs looted and burned white business in North Philadelphia. There were hundreds of injuries and 225 buildings were torched.

Watts, Los Angeles, August 1965

The mostly African-American neighborhood of Watts in South Central Los Angeles was a hotbed of racial tension throughout the early 1960’s.

On hot August 11 evening, a black man was pulled over for driving while intoxicated by the LAPD. When tensions arose between the driver and the police, a crowd of onlookers began to show their disdain for the police by throwing rocks and shouting obscenities. Shortly thereafter, literally “all hell broke loose.”

For the next few hours, Watts was essentially a war zone. There was looting, mob violence, vandalism and other forms of civil disorder that put the city on high security alert. Motorists were dragged from cars and beaten, stores set on fire and blockades set up against the fire fighters. LAPD Chief of Police, William Parker added fuel to the already tense atmosphere when he called the rioters “monkeys in a zoo.”

For five days, Los Angeles was on the edge. As the mayhem continued, Parker called for the California National Guard. On Saturday August 14, there were fires all over the business district. Nearly 14,000 Guard troops were deployed to quell the violence and a curfew was imposed. On Sunday, the rioting began to subside as churches and community groups began to give out food and medical care. By Monday, order had been restored, but the damage was done. 34 people were killed, thousands injured and nearly 1,000 businesses and buildings had been burned and damaged.

The aftermath of Watts was as confusing as the riots themselves. Stories vary wildly as to the direct cause of the violence. The final government analysis was nothing more than a watered down summary with no answers – it read as a timeline of the events. Despite the lack of “official report” stating the cause – the fact that the blacks in Watts lived with poor schools, abject poverty, joblessness and discrimination made the Watts riots almost inevitable.

Today Watts remains a Black enclave and a neighborhood facing crime, poverty and poor schools.

Omaha, July 1966

July 4, 1966 was more than just Independence Day in Omaha, Nebraska. When a group of black men refused to disperse after being ordered by the police, fights broke out. Shortly afterwards, a crowd began to attack businesses in North Omaha. Firebombs were thrown into storefronts. The National Guard was called to help quell the violence. For three days Omaha burned, until calm was restored. Three weeks later – rioting again erupted after a white policeman shot a black teenager during a burglary.

Newark, July 1967

Newark, New Jersey was one of the few cities in America whose population was more than 50% black (Washington DC was another). The white mayor, Hugh Addonizio, kept African-Americans out of city leadership positions, especially in the Police Dept. Despite having a majority in the city, blacks comprised only 11% of the police force.

The riots were set off when the police arrested a black man for a moving violation on July 12. When a rumor began to circulate that the man was killed while in police custody, violence broke out. Six days of destruction left millions of dollars in damage and 26 deade. The city of Plainfield, New Jersey, just 20 miles to the south, also saw rioting a few days of after Newark.

The Newark riots were a major factor in the flight of business and population out of the city to nearby suburbs. What the flight left behind in Newark was a mostly poor and immigrant population with no business for a economic and tax base. 40 years later Newark still struggles economically and sociologically. Unemployment, crime and poor education still plague the inner city of Newark. There has not been a white mayor since 1967.

Detroit, July 1967

The most infamous and destructive urban riots in American history (to the point in time) occurred in Detroit from July 23-27, 1967, barely 5 days after Newark. The violence began when the police raided an illegal speakeasy in West Detroit. The confrontation between the police and customers spilled into the streets and ultimately led to riots all over the city. In the end 43 people were killed and over 2,000 buildings were burned.

The American auto industry at that time was booming and prosperous. Needing a large pool of laborers, many blacks migrated to Detroit looking for steady work and good pay. This led to the growth of a large black middle class in Detroit. Detroit was known for liberal politics and the advancement of minorities into leadership roles. The city singled out as place for harmony and redevelopment. Detroit received millions of dollars in federal funding to rebuild schools and housing. Glowing articles about race relations in the city had been published in leading news journals like the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. White mayor Jerome Cavanaugh consistently received high praise for his work mending race relations.

But underneath the surface tensions were brewing between the various communities. Only 5% of the police force was black. Many in the African-American community claimed the police department was biased against blacks. Raiding after hours drinking clubs (dominated by blacks) was also seen as being discriminatory against minorities.

After the raid, the violence intensified and quickly spread to other parts of the city. The media initially avoided reporting so as to prevent copycat actions.

Politics entered the fray, as President Johnson refused to send federal troops, citing it was illegal unless Governor Romney declared a “state of insurrection.” The next day, the violence got even worse and looting became widespread. Black and white businesses were attacked. The rioters even attacked firemen who were dousing flames. Representative John Conyers tried to calm the mobs by speaking to them directly. His car was pelted with bottles.

Using a little known, back-end law from 1795, President Johnson sent Federal troops to calm the crowds. Within 48 hours, the rioting was over. After Detroit, disturbances were reported in other Michigan cities – Flint, Pontiac, Grand Rapids and Saginaw

Within in 3 years – nearly 200,000 people moved out of Detroit. The city has never recovered.

April 1968

After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4th – riots broke out in Baltimore, Washington, Louisville, Pittsburgh and over 50 other cities. Robert F. Kennedy gives one of the most famous speeches in civil rights history that night in Indianapolis. That city remains calm.

I hate to sound cliche – but the more things change, the more they remain the same. Based on the behavior of certain TV pundits and fat drug addicted radio hosts – we haven’t learned a thing.


  1. How well I remember those days.. we had our own problems in Kansas City. National Guard was called in but really no trouble.. It was a scary time.. my friends had family in KC and we worried together what was going to happen.. I was dating a guy in the Guard and he didn't want to be put in that position. That's why I worry so now.. I see so many parallels, all because there is a black man in the White House.. Such stupidity. As you said, it seems we haven't learned a thing in 40 years.

  2. I was a bit too young to be aware of the riots. I wonder if or when they will happen again. But now, if they do happen, will it be white folks with guns fighting against the people "who want to take away their guns?" That worries me.

  3. Man, I remember, was in Chicago as a kid part of that time. Detroit still hasn't recovered, and probably never will. Thanks again for another powerful post.

  4. Hi Cap;Didn't experience those things back then but was in LA during the Rodney King riots and it left you wondering.You are right, the racism is still there, muted perhaps, as racism is not politically correct right now.We humanoids don't change much from one generation to another.I'm waiting for the next eruption.They call that optimism 🙂

  5. The lunatics on the radical right have taken up the cause today but not through control of the police but by whack job campaigns to discredit African Americans like President Obama claiming he isn't an American citizen because he was born in a slum or a hospital (take your pick) in Mombasa, Kenya and not in Honolulu, HI.The so-called "Birthers" have made quite a name for themselves in recent weeks culling from all the usual suspects who include G. Gordon Liddy, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michelle Malkin, Liz Cheney and Glen Beck. I have no problem with disagreeing with the president on issues of policy or on his slow pace to repeal DOMA and DADT but, these fringe efforts to use cable and AM radio to bring him down is nothing short of an electronic pit bull attack.

  6. The RFK speech can be heard and seen on You Tube still brings tears to my eyes to view and hear it.

  7. I see racist behavior almost every day at my workplace, especially back during the election. People would just say obviously (to me, anyway) racist generalizations etc. and not even blink (or notice my gaping mouth and my gasp).

  8. I remember '68. I was 15 that summer and went from being a 'printer's assistant' at a small newspaper to writing the obits, and accident reports and sports when the National Guard was called out and the office front staff was depleted. I remember bunches.I usually do not find anything to disagree with your views…// but the more things change, the more they remain the same.//…but we have come a long way…we have…."What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black." RFK Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968..Now we add, 'whether they be white or black or gay or Hispanic or Asian' (or a middle aged beer-sotted white dude)….. and we still have so much further to go. The road still goes on. And we still travel it, but there are so many more brothers and sisters walking it together. I'll keep walking.have a good weekend. it was a good write.

  9. Oh, we've learned at least one thing: how to hide our faults and fuckups through the judicious application of linguistic bullshit. It's a goddamn art form.

  10. Great post. Sad to see this repeated in Los Angeles in the 1990s. Not much has changed, unfortunately. I have fears that the economic crisis will lead to more desperation and another match could easily cause more riots.

  11. Hi toujoursdan;They blamed the LA riots on the black and white thing but from what I saw it was mostly a socio economic thing and that always leads to the racial divide.The have nots against the haves.And we know that certain minorities seem to be a majority in the have not arena.Much will depend on the heat and frustration this year and with California and other states drastically cutting funding to survive, I too think that the kettle is warming a little too much

  12. I remember the day King was murdered. My family lived in Lincoln Park, which was just starting to gentrify. A block south was a black neighborhood, a block west Puerto Rican. I remember our teachers walking us home. My family moved out of the neighborhood later that month.

  13. I lived in L.A. during the Watts riots. It was some seriously frightening stuff.To this day, Watts is a ghetto without much beyond liquor stores, crack and gangs.I'd love to put Rush Limbaugh in a pair of tighty whiteys with hundred dollar bills stapled all over them and a T-Shirt that said, "Yo, I fucked yo' Mama, Punk" and drop him off one midnight in the middle of Watts.

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