Recasting the ‘Riots’ of the 1960s as Rebellions by Blacks Under SiegeHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, book reviews, Police, urban history, riots, Kerner Commission, Civil Disorders
AMERICA ON FIRE: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s
By Elizabeth Hinton
America memorializes the civil rights movement’s modern era in sepia-toned images. Through the retrospective lens that valorizes this past even as it obscures essential aspects of it from the present, John Lewis, one of the peaceful demonstrators who faced down horrific violence as a Freedom Rider and on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, was acknowledged by the end of his life as an icon of personal dignity and civic virtue. We rarely, if ever, stop to think that the biggest obstacles that Lewis and millions of Black Americans confronted during the Jim Crow era were not racist demagogues, such as the Alabama governor George Wallace, nor white supremacists, such as the Ku Klux Klan. The biggest threat to the struggle for Black citizenship and dignity in America during this period was, as it remains in ours, the police.
“America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s,” by Elizabeth Hinton, a Yale University professor of law, history and African-American studies, and one of the country’s leading scholars of mass incarceration, offers a groundbreaking, deeply researched and profoundly heart-rending account of the origins of our national crisis of police violence against Black America. Her book reconceptualizes the Black freedom struggle between the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Lives Matter 2.0 demonstrations that galvanized the nation, and much of the world, in 2020.
Through 10 crisply written and lucidly analytical chapters, Hinton reframes the conventional understanding of the long hot summers of the 1960s and their aftermath. She begins by challenging the common use of the term “riot” to describe the civil disturbances that threatened to shatter America at the time. Hinton reminds us that the racial massacres that formed an archipelago of Black suffering and death from Springfield, Ill., in 1908 to Chicago in 1919 and Tulsa, Okla., in 1921, were riots instigated by whites, although they remain unlabeled as such.
Indeed, she argues, the violent clashes, often with the police, that have broken out in Black communities from the 1960s up to the present “can only be properly understood as rebellions” — part of “a sustained insurgency.” “America on Fire” persuasively expands the chronology of these actions from a discrete six- or seven-year period in the ’60s to encompass, in evolving stages, every decade since. By her calculation — she includes a 25-page timeline of dates and locations — between July 1964 and April 2001 nearly 2,000, often violent, urban rebellions erupted in the United States in response to the racially biased policing of housing projects, public schools, parks, neighborhoods and street corners.
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