The History of the “Riot” Report

tags: racism, civil rights, African American history, social history, Protest

Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard and the host of the podcast “The Last Archive.” Her fourteenth book, “If Then,” will be published in September.

On February 14, 1965, back from a trip to Los Angeles, and a week before he was killed in New York, Malcolm X gave a speech in Detroit. “Brothers and sisters, let me tell you, I spend my time out there in the street with people, all kind of people, listening to what they have to say,” he said. “And they’re dissatisfied, they’re disillusioned, they’re fed up, they’re getting to the point of frustration where they are beginning to feel: What do they have to lose?”

That summer, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. In a ceremony at the Capitol Rotunda attended by Martin Luther King, Jr., Johnson invoked the arrival of enslaved Africans in Jamestown, in 1619: “They came in darkness and they came in chains. And today we strike away the last major shackles of those fierce and ancient bonds.” Five days later, Watts was swept by violence and flames, following a protest against police brutality. The authorities eventually arrested nearly four thousand people; thirty-four people died. “How is it possible, after all we’ve accomplished?” Johnson asked. “How could it be? Is the world topsy-turvy?”

Two years later, after thousands of police officers and National Guard troops blocked off fourteen square miles of Newark and nearly five thousand troops from the 82nd and the 101st Airborne were deployed to Detroit, where seven thousand people were arrested, Johnson convened a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Illinois’s governor, Otto Kerner, Jr., and charged it with answering three questions: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?” Johnson wanted to know why black people were still protesting, after Congress had finally passed landmark legislation, not only the Voting Rights Act but also the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and a raft of anti-poverty programs. Or maybe he really didn’t want to know why. When the Kerner Commission submitted its report, the President refused to acknowledge it.

There’s a limit to the relevance of the so-called race riots of the nineteen-sixties to the protests of the moment. But the tragedy is: they’re not irrelevant. Nor is the history that came before. The language changes, from “insurrection” to “uprising” to the bureaucratic “civil disorder,” terms used to describe everything from organized resistance to mayhem. But, nearly always, they leave a bloody trail in the historical record, in the form of government reports. The Kerner Report followed centuries of official and generally hysterical government inquiries into black rebellion, from the unhinged “A Journal of the proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy formed by some White People, in conjunction with Negro and other Slaves, for burning the City of New-York in America, and murdering the Inhabitants,” in 1744, to the largely fabricated “Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes, charged with an attempt to raise an insurrection in the state of South-Carolina,” in 1822. The white editor of the as-told-to (and highly dubious) “The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va. . . . also, An Authentic Account of the Whole Insurrection, with Lists of the Whites Who Were Murdered . . . ,” in 1831, wrote, “Public curiosity has been on the stretch to understand the origin and progress of this dreadful conspiracy, and the motives which influences its diabolical actors.” What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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