The Unknown History of Black UprisingsHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, book reviews, Police, urban history, Elizabeth Hinton, Urban Crisis
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a contributing writer at The New Yorker. She is a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and the author of several books, including Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, which was a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for history.
Since the declaration of Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s birthday as a federal holiday, our country has celebrated the civil-rights movement, valorizing its tactics of nonviolence as part of our national narrative of progress toward a more perfect union. Yet we rarely ask about the short life span of those tactics. By 1964, nonviolence seemed to have run its course, as Harlem and Philadelphia ignited in flames to protest police brutality, poverty, and exclusion, in what were denounced as riots. Even larger and more destructive uprisings followed, in Los Angeles and Detroit, and, after the assassination of King, in 1968, across the country: a fiery tumult that came to be seen as emblematic of Black urban violence and poverty. The violent turn in Black protest was condemned in its own time and continues to be lamented as a tragic retreat from the noble objectives and demeanor of the church-based Southern movement.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, in August, 2013, then President Barack Obama crystallized this historical rendering when he said, “And then, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that, during the course of fifty years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination.” That, Obama said, “is how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remained divided.”
This perception of riots as the decline of the nonviolent movement has marginalized the study of them within the field of history. As a result, our conventional wisdom about “the riots” of the sixties vastly underestimates the scale of Black insurgency and its political meaning. In her new book, “America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s,” the Yale historian Elizabeth Hinton recovers a much longer and more intense period of Black rebellion, which continued into the nineteen-seventies. In doing so, she challenges the dismissal of what she describes as the “violent turn” in Black protest, forging new ground in our understanding of the tactics employed by African-Americans in response to the extralegal violence of white police and residents and the unresolved issues of racial and economic inequality.
Using data compiled by the Senate Committee on Government Operations and the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence, Hinton compiles a breathtaking list of more than a thousand uprisings, far beyond those with which we are most familiar. We have vastly underestimated the degree to which America was literally on fire from 1968 to 1972, years that Hinton compellingly describes as the “crucible period of rebellion.” Indeed, there were more than six hundred rebellions in 1970 alone. Hinton also makes the key finding that almost all of these rebellions came in response to escalating police interventions, intimidation, and harassment. She writes, “The history of Black rebellion across regions and decades demonstrates a fundamental reality: police violence precipitates community violence.”
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