Powder Keg Instead of Melting Pot

OPD 23 August 2014

Edited by Gillian Palmer, proof in progress SF

For 150 years, America’s cities have been shaken over and over by serious race riots. Some are occasioned by competition for work and living space, others by police despotism.

Whoever takes the subway in Washington, D.C. and gets out at the Columbia Heights stop finds himself in the middle of a thriving urban district again. In the wine bar D’Vines, one can buy quality Austrian wine at stiff prices. A French bakery informs its devoted customers of its freshly-baked baguettes over Twitter. The rents in the renovated apartment buildings have climbed unceasingly for years.

One hardly wants to believe that in April 1968 in exactly this spot, where today office workers and students enter the subway station, many people were killed in the bloodiest race riots in the history of the American capitol city. Entire streets of houses fell victim to a firestorm then. Not until the intervention of the National Guard, the Army and the Marine Corps did the D.C. riots end.

They began a few blocks farther into town, on the corner of 14th Street and U Street. After the murder of civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King, Jr. by a white racist in Memphis, Stokely Carmichael, a 26-year-old hot-headed black student leader, organized an assembly on this street corner. Carmichael called upon the local businesspeople to close their shops out of respect for the murdered Nobel Peace Prize winner. Rapidly, control of the crowd slipped away from him. As soon as the first window display broke into shards, the mob went wild. After four days of looting, arson and street battles, 12 people were dead, more than 1,000 were wounded, and over 6,000 imprisoned, and more than 1,200 buildings burned down. Columbia Heights, until then a prospering district of the black middle class, who, drawn by the many jobs in the federal government, made Washington into a city with an African American majority, was ruined. Decades of neglect were first ended when the city opened the subway station mentioned in the introduction in 1999.

100 Years of Frustration

The violent death of the luminary Martin Luther King, Jr. ignited race riots in 110 American cities. However, the assassination in Memphis was only the spark that brought a social and political demolition charge to detonation. In the 100 years after the end of the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery achieved by it, the view had taken root in black youth that nonviolent resistance against the racist oppression in many areas of the country and the peaceful struggle for equal civil rights and economic opportunity were useless. Serfdom was passé; however, African American youths in the large cities were largely shut out from the economic boom. Discrimination on the basis of skin color was forbidden, yet wily building codes and tacit preventative cartels of white real estate agents saw to it that black people continued to live in only the worst areas and were able to gain ownership of their homes much less often than white people. The Vietnam War finally showed young black men that the fulfillment of the hardest civic duty — to go to war — brought them no corresponding claim to respectful treatment on their return from Indochina.

The white elites in politics, research and journalism did not recognize these fermenting social crises. Detroit, for example, was held up as an example for racial coexistence up until July 23, 1967. Then a police operation in an illegal bar where a good 100 black people celebrated the return of two soldiers from Vietnam got out of control. Forty-three people and entire districts of the flourishing industrial metropolis fell victim to the following riots. White Detroiters accelerated their flight out of the city into the suburbs. The city became a symbol of urban decay and, in 2013, became the largest case of municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

All the well-meaning politicians, scholars and journalists seemed to have forgotten then that black and white people in Detroit had competed for decades for work and housing. This was a consequence of slavery, which had not been overcome, and the entry of the U.S. into World War I. After the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from the southern states in 1877, the short era of black political participation ended.

In the next three decades, the former white slave owners did away with all the civil rights progress of those that were once exploited by them. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved thereupon to the industrial centers of the North. This Great Migration intensified as President Woodrow Wilson roped U.S. industry into enormous production of equipment and machines for use in the battlefields of Europe — and then again, as hundreds of thousands of black troops, equipped with new self-assurance as citizen-soldiers, returned to the U.S. after disarmament. Their modest economic success aroused in Midwestern cities like Detroit, but also Tulsa (Oklahoma) and East St. Louis (Ohio), the envy of a white proletariat which itself migrated out of the deeply racist South in the search for work. It is no wonder that the Ku Klux Klan had an especially strong influx in cities like these.

Ford Plays the Race Card

The Klan was also largely responsible for the riots in Detroit in 1943, when a white mob attempted to prevent black families from moving into new public housing. The industrialist Henry Ford in turn then consciously played the unionized Polish immigrants against black people, who were prepared to do any work, however low the pay might be. Ford introduced African Americans as strikebreakers; this is one of the reasons why the American labor movement was long apathetic toward the black struggle for equal rights.

In comparison to the first race riots in 1863, when white people in New York murdered their black fellow citizens and set fire to an orphanage out of frustration over the draft of U.S. troops, the latest riots in the small city of Ferguson were insignificant. Yet just like then, many of the affected ask themselves the same question that Rodney King spoke into a microphone in 1992 in Los Angeles, during riots with 53 dead, after he had recovered from skull fractures that police officers had inflicted on him with batons and kicks: “Can we all get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?”

Riots in Pop Culture

Watts, 1965. The soul musician Marvin Gaye was deeply moved by the riots in Los Angeles in the district of Watts: “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” In 1971 he released his most successful album, whose title track “What’s Going On?” could also be heard these days in Ferguson.

Draft Riots, 1863. The film “Gangs of New York” (2002), with Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day Lewis, depicted a white mob’s acts of violence against black citizens.

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