2. 1 K: Urban Race Riots

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2.1 K: Urban Race Riots

  • Race Riots—By the mid-1960s, many northern-city residents felt that the protest marches and sit-ins in the South had led to little improvement in conditions in the North, especially among poor African Americans. Between 1964 and 1967, spontaneous violence among angry urban residents and fearful police forces broke out in approximately 58 cities across the United Sates. The first large-scale race riot erupted in Watts, a black ghetto of Los Angeles. There, a minor traffic violation dispute erupted into six days of looting, burning, and violence in August 1965. Violent outbursts spread to other major cities such as Detroit, San Francisco, Harlem, and Cleveland, and by the end of the summer two years later, 141 people had been killed and 4,552 injured. Most of the dead were African Americans who were killed by local police, National Guardsmen, and the US Army. In the worst riot of the decade, the city of Detroit was on fire for seven days, and 43 people died.

  • The Kerner Commission---President Johnson created a commission to investigate the causes for urban race riots. Contrary to whites’ popular opinion that blacks were responsible for the violence, the Kerner Commission’s published report concluded that white racism, especially through local police, was to blame for more than half of the riots. The commission found no evidence supporting some whites’ theory that black nationalists had organized the riots; rather, they said that African-American communities had spontaneously vented their anger against racial injustice. The Kerner Report warned that the United States was composed of “two societies, separate and unequal.” However, blacks were disappointed that the report failed to offer solutions to white racism; instead of federal programs to focus on whites’ prejudice, the report recommended financial relief for urban blacks. In the late 1960s, many African Americans lost confidence in the government’s ability to actively improve race relations.

  • King is Assassinated—Toward the end of the decade, Martin Luther King Jr. increased his call for militant protest against the government’s lukewarm stance on social justice. King was in the middle of organizing a massive Poor People’s Campaign on Washington when he was shot and killed in Tennessee by white assassin James Earl Ray. King died committed to a moral battle of nonviolent protest, but his death sparked off violence in 125 US cities as both blacks and whites entered a more angry and turbulent state of protest and resistance.


  1. Race riots occurred in 58 cities. Which riot of those was the worst and why?

  1. What did the Kerner Commission conclude about the cause of the racial violence?

  1. Who killed Martin Luther King, Jr., and how did citizen respond to his death?

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