Posted June 24, 2020:
Though it is often overshadowed by the earlier 1965 Watts riots and the 1968 riots, “The Long Hot Summer of 1967” has many similarities with today’s Black Lives Matter protests. Both respond to endemic police violence against people of color, and in both instances police and armed forces responded with violence. The media’s claims regarding “outside agitators” today also look much like the media’s descriptions of “militant blacks” then. This research comes out of an article I have forthcoming in which I argue that Night of the Living Dead was responding to newscasts about these riots. While this article won’t be published until Fall 2021, you can view that manuscript HERE. The brief excerpt that follows doesn’t discuss the thesis of this article, but rather presents some of the archival work and research I discovered which I thought was particularly relevant now and wanted to share with you.
Figure 1. In this newscast from West Palm Beach Florida, the white man at right is not wearing a police uniform, yet has a pistol tucked into his waistband, in Civil Disturbance (www.floridamemory.com/items/show/252951).
In June and July of 1967, riots were reported in 164 mostly northern American cities, as African Americans expressed their anger against police brutality and a larger culture of racialized suppression. I use the term “riot” in my discussion here because the news invoked this term, though contemporary scholars also use “upheaval” and “rebellion” (Coleman 160). “The Long Hot Summer of 1967” began on June 11 with rioting in Tampa after police shot an unarmed African-American teen in the back (Jones). The next day riots began in Cincinnati after police arrested an African-American man for demonstrating. 700 National Guardsmen were called in, one person was killed, and 404 people were arrested (Curnutte). In response to national issues of police brutality, and fueled in part by news coverage, riots spread across the urban eastern third of the nation. In Newark, authorities fired more than 12,000 rounds, 26 people died, and 1,465 people were arrested. In Detroit, the National Guard alone fired over 155,000 rounds, 43 people died, and 7,231 people were arrested (McGuire 176). Ten times as many African Americans were arrested in Detroit as whites (Lincoln 130). Similar incidents occurred across America in large cities like Atlanta, Buffalo, and Milwaukee, as well as small towns like West Palm Beach, Florida after local police attempted to arrest two African-American men at a bar. Ultimately, 45 people were arrested and a lumberyard burned down (See Fig. 1).
The news largely depicted the rioters as dangerous threats. Referring to Black rioters as “terrorists,” a New York Times article describes police and National Guard spraying machine gun fire at buildings thought to hold snipers (Bigart). Those involved, however, had a different story to tell. Interviews with 500 prisoners arrested during the Detroit riots found that the most common cause of rioting was police brutality, and prisoners referred to specific occasions of beatings and physical violence (Manpower Administration, 9). The responses of the police and National Guard to the riots were also particularly brutal. The Detroit police executed three unarmed African-American men at the Algiers Motel, killed people for looting groceries, and shot fleeing unarmed African Americans in the back (McGuire 177). Similarly, a news article on the Newark riots reports that “[a] lull in the shooting had lasted until early afternoon when the looter was killed instantly by a shotgun blast. The police said he had taken a case of beer from a liquor store and was running across the street with it” (Bigart).
Figure 2. A white female driver in Detroit prominently displays a pistol during the 1967 riots, in news footage from Detroit Riot (https://vimeo.com/5337314).
Rather than acknowledging that rioters had real grievances, the news claimed “militant blacks” were fomenting the discord. As Casandra Ulbrich points out in her discussion of the media’s framing of the riots, “‘Negroes’ were often described as the aggressors. Whether they were portrayed as rioters, looters, or snipers, one thing that was presented as fact was that most were black. Whites were often described as the victims of the uprising, with black aggression being focused on white business owners as the main target. One particular group emerged as an opportune scapegoat: the ‘militant blacks’” (283). What’s more, the news defaulted to an us vs. them narrative that construed America as being at war with urban African Americans. An ABC reporter embedded with the National Guard commented that “[t]his is a battle zone. These are troops. It’s like war with one difference—the enemy was captured and he’ll have his day in court” (Detroit Riot). This prejudicial coverage fomented white Americans’ fears of a race war, who responded with overt threats of violence (See Fig. 2). In Newark and Detroit, for instance, white vigilantes drove through neighborhoods prominently displaying rebel flags, machetes, and automatic weapons (Blackmer, Aldridge Jr 232). After the riots, gun sales shot up in Detroit and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover established the Cointelpro-Black Hate program to disrupt the actions of Black nationalists (Winkel 267, McLaughlin 155).
Aldridge Jr,, Rev. Daniel W. “The First Time I’ve Ever Seen Justice.” In Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University, 2017.
Bigart, Homer. “Newark Riot Deaths at 21 As Negro Sniping Widens; Hughes May Seek U.S. Aid.” New York Times, July 16, 1967.
Blackmer, Peter. “Police used the myth of black snipers to justify brutality in the Long Hot Summer of 1967.” Timeline. August 11, 2017. https://timeline.com/myth-black-snipers-1967-c8602defde13.
Civil Disturbance. The State Archives of Florida. 1967. www.floridamemory.com/items/show/252951.
Coleman, Ken. “Rebellion, Revolution, or Riot: The Debate Continues.” In Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University, 2017.
Curnutte, Mark. “Avondale riots 50 years later: ‘It’s never been the same.’” The Enquirer, June 10, 2017. https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2017/06/09/avondale-riots-50-years-later-its-never-been-same/379214001/.
Detroit Riot. The Archives of Michigan, RG 91-320. 1967. https://vimeo.com/5337314.
Jones, Jae. “Riots Erupt in Tampa, Florida, After Police Shoot Unarmed Black Teen in the Back (1967).” Blackthen, September 22, 2017. https://blackthen.com/riots-erupt-tampa-fl-police-shoot-unharmed-black-teen-back-1967/.
Lincoln, James. The Anatomy of a Riot: A Detroit Judge’s Report. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968.
Manpower Administration (Department of Labor). The Detroit Riot: A Profile of 500 Prisoners. Washington DC, 1968.
Mazzola, Jessica, and Karen Yi. “50 years ago Newark burned.” NJ Advance Media, July 13, 2017.
McGuire, Danielle. “Murder at the Algiers Motel.” In Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University, 2017.
McLaughlin, Malcom. The Long Hot Summer of 1967: Urban Rebellion in America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Ulbrich, Casandra. “The Shift in Media Framing.” In Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University, 2017.
Winkel, William. “In the Uprising’s Wake: Reaction in the White Community.” In Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies, 266; McLaughlin, The Long Hot Summer of 1967.