“To Manson, helter-skelter meant a war between whites and blacks that the Beatles were in favor of. When the album first came out, in December of ’68, he got a copy, and he came racing back to the ranch all excited and said, “The Beatles are telling it like it is! The shit is coming down!” It was this war that he felt he could ignite by killing white people and blaming black militants, this war called helter-skelter.” — Former Los Angeles Prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, in TIME interview (August 7, 2009)
The Worst Race Riots in U.S. History
If the word “riot” is open to interpretation, the title of “worst” is a clear target for controversy. That said, we’ll work our way up to it, so bear with me through a few charts so I can explain how I made the list. Please note that all the statistics that follow are minimums taken from as many official records as possible.
The first “Top Ten” list is of the deadliest race riots in American history. Deaths typically weren’t recorded if the bodies were buried by family members or dumped into mass graves. Be aware that there is a strong age-to-accuracy ratio here in terms of death records (i.e. older = less accurate).
Riot #1 was probably unknown to most of you. Some estimates from locals go as high as 200-300 deaths. This particular riot took place on the tail end of a very bloody “Red Summer” in 1919, which itself came on the tail end of a very bloody European war. Wartime labor shortages had coaxed half a million black Southerners to the north, and post-war demobilization sent white soldiers home unemployed. This led to many large-scale confrontations over jobs, and the industrial nature of the conflicts is evident as roughly 40-50% of the Red Summer riots occurred outside the less-industrialized American South.
The inclusion of Southern slave uprisings on this list might be debatable. Is a slave uprising a race riot? Wouldn’t early and widespread white violence against slaves or sharecroppers be more accurately classified as a “pogrom?” Nonetheless, I include slave uprisings. The extremely racial nature of their development, the participants, and how (that is, “if”) they unfolded in court demands our attention.
The first and worst was the German Coast Uprising in 1811, a two-day march by hundreds of Louisiana slaves who burned several plantations to the ground and killed people with hand tools. The most notorious slave uprising, though, was the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion in Virginia, which you likely read about in textbooks. It was as deadly as the Colfax Massacre, also in Louisiana, albeit a full 62 years after German Coast.
There is also an intriguing example of intraracial mayhem. The Third Orange Riot (#4) is so named because it was the third and most serious of the New York Orange Riots of 1870-1871. One thing I learned from these riots is that you should never march a controversial parade through a mostly Irish-Catholic neighborhood, especially if you’re outnumbered by them and rubbing a victory in their face.
In this case, the Orange Celebrations of “The Twelfth” of July commemorate the Battle of the Boyne (1690) between two rival claimants to the British crown. The Protestants won, setting in motion the annual fanfare that was unknown in America until 1824 (the First Orange Riot). At the time, whites comprised about 87% of the American population. Most blacks still lived in the South, so mass intraracial violence among northern, urban whites wasn’t that out of the ordinary. As African-Americans filtered north, however, semantical ethnic conflicts among whites declined as white-on-black violence increased.
While deaths are certainly the most serious outcomes of a riot, the number of people injured also highlights the severity of a riot event. Injury statistics weren’t recorded unless they were noted by arresting police officers or victims were treated at a hospital. Sometimes personal diaries could indicate much larger estimates (as with deaths), but the primary sources suggest a lot of exaggeration in this regard.
This time, #1 should look familiar. The Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles came after the acquittal of four LAPD officers (mostly white) who had beaten a black suspect following a high-speed pursuit. Apparently setting the tone for the next generation of bystanders, a video was taken of the beating. The tape was used in the courtroom, then the evening news turned it into a truly viral event. Testimony showed that he was intoxicated, highly aggressive, and had a rap sheet full of felonies (including assault), but when four cops got away with a video-taped beating, Los Angeles responded in kind.
Funny enough, a DUI arrest had precipitated the Watts Riot (#5) less than 30 years earlier. A black man was pulled over for reckless driving by white officers, ruled to be intoxicated, and the arresting process began. Meanwhile, a passenger (his brother) had gone a few houses down to get their mother, who ran to the arresting scene to scold her son for drinking and driving. Her disappointment apparently sparked something in the young man. The argument intensified, the mother got shoved, the driver was hit, a cop pulled a shotgun, and police had to forcefully subdue the driver. A crowd formed and hurled things at the officers as the entire family (even the mom) fought the cops. That night massive unrest began in Watts.
The New York Draft Riots in 1863 are another familiar sight. Standing at #2 in both deaths and those injured, it was one of the worst riots discussed here (as you’ll see from my final list). Eric Foner claimed that these riots were the largest civil insurrection in American history outside the Civil War itself, and what started as a demonstration against the war draft ended up a violent expression of resentment toward blacks (many of whom had fled the South) for clogging the job market.
Some older readers may recognize the other NYC riot on this list, the Blackout Riot, which was caused by lightning strikes that completely darkened the city for a night, providing cover for looters and arsonists. The blackout, combined with a heat wave and financial crisis, came in the wake of the Son of Sam murders, so the literal and figurative climate in July 1977 was ripe for violence. That being said, the Yankees’ championship season was just about the only good thing to happen for New Yorkers in 1977…unless you were a Mets fan.
The American Midwest also makes a strong showing on this list. The 12th Street Riots in Detroit, the Tulsa Race Riot, the East St. Louis Riot, and Chicago’s Red Summer all made the first two lists in one form or another, and both 12th Street and Tulsa made both.
The 12th Street Riot occurred at a fitting time and place: Detroit in the 1960s. As the Civil Rights Movement crested during the “Long Hot Summer” of 1967, racial tensions had peaked across the U.S. and riots broke out in 125+ cities (though, I only counted 16 major riots). This is a huge juxtaposition against the Summer of ’67 of popular memory, which elicits images of the “Summer of Love” to most people.
It’s hard to imagine violence sweeping across the eastern half of the U.S. with so much free love in Haight-Ashbury and the Monterey Pop Festival. The Rockies have a way of dividing more than just American weather, and let’s not forget that Charles Manson was a California hippie who recruited his family in San Francisco in ’67, so West Coast violence merely took a different form at a different time.
The Tulsa Race Riots happened at a time when deaths frequently went unrecorded. While some estimates range up to 300, thirty-nine was the official count by the Oklahoma Department of Vital Statistics. It started in a peculiar and roundabout way – a black boy and white girl apparently had an altercation in an elevator (rumors suggested a scandalous affair), prompting the black boy’s arrest. While many local whites stood up for the boy’s character, radical contingents demanded his release to a lynch mob. When police refused, whites grabbed their guns, black grabbed their guns, shots were exchanged, and two days of rioting ensued that would injure about 800 people.
While Detroit’s 12th St. Riot was by far the worst that summer, 26 people died in Newark’s riot, and 4 people died in Milwaukee. It was the scale of Detroit’s 1967 riot that set it apart from others that summer. Not only does it rank among the deadliest and most injurious race riots in U.S. history, but it also staked a powerful claim in popular memory. When people from Detroit are asked about race riots there, they frequently respond “Which one?,” but 12th St. sticks out in their mind.
Deaths and injuries help quantify the deepest impact of a race riot, but the number of arrests made can tell an interesting story about the overall scale of a street conflict. Arrests are usually recorded, and would be part of municipal records. Sometimes evidence was too thin to make arrests, or the police were too ill-equipped or apathetic to do so, but in general it’s a data point worth tracking.
Once again, the scale of the 1992 L.A. riots cannot go unnoticed. 11,000 is a staggering number of arrests, especially given how cramped Los Angeles jails were already. An interesting caveat to this statistic came in a follow-up study by RAND Corp, which stated that 51% of those arrested in the riots were Latino and only 36% were black.
Youthful aggression also shined through: 30% of all the arrests made were Latinos between 18-24 year of age. These arrest statistics make sense when you consider that 39% of the city was Hispanic and only 13% of the city was black. In fact, across the California prison system today, 41% of inmates are Latino and 29% are black. This racial share of crime in California helps explain the power shifts going on in prisons, and the resulting conflict (Los Angeles in 2006, Chino in 2009, and Tucson in 2013).
The scale of the 12th Street Riot also comes back into focus, with over 7,200 arrests made in 5 days. Two more Summer of ’67 riots saw over 3,000 more arrests, and these three together would represent the only nationwide rioting on the list if not for the MLKJ Assassination Riots a year later.
In many ways, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. did more for black civil rights than the last two years of his life. King had already stepped out of the spotlight that had illuminated him throughout the mid-60s. By his death in 1968, he was five years removed from his “I Have a Dream” Speech, four years removed from Selma, and two years removed from the open housing movement in Chicago. In the last two years, he tackled much larger issues than black rights, such as American poverty and the Vietnam War. These topics were initially popular among his followers, but the media lost interest. King’s stock had plateaued, but his martyrdom cemented his iconic status, and significant civil rights legislation passed a week after his assassination.
To say the black community was furious would be an understatement. Their greatest champion ever had just been shot by a white man. Riots broke out in up to 100 cities across the country by some accounts, with at least 31 dead and 1,200 injured in six major ones. Almost 10,000 arrests were made in those same six alone. While the assassination riots mostly occurred east of the Great Plains, a gang of Black Panthers in Oakland ambushed a team of police officers the same week.
The worst riots of 1968 took place in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. In Washington D.C. a former King disciple who had split with King in 1966 organized blacks and marched around the city demanding that shops close out of respect. The mob eventually grew and became violent, breaking windows and looting. The next day, rioting continued and resulted in several fires (killing those trapped inside), and both bottles and rocks were thrown at the firefighters sent to put them out.
Chicago’s riot wasn’t much different, except that it was allegedly begun under more sinister pretenses than closing shops “out of respect.” Just like in D.C. the rioters broke windows, looted stores, and set abandoned and occupied buildings on fire. Firefighters were attacked, and a curfew was imposed. Cops were given a shoot-to-kill order for arsonists, and a maiming order for looters. Luckily, King himself had interacted with many of the black gangs in Chicago in 1966, and many of those members didn’t participate. Instead, they guarded their neighborhoods from random hoodlums.
Victims later claimed that the riots had been organized by Black Panthers, so Mayor Daley appointed a Chicago Riot Study Committee. In August, that committee determined that there was no sign of organized violence, and that “Some of the rioters may have discussed specific acts of violence, but for the majority of blacks the riot was a spontaneous overflow of pent-up aggressions.” That was the same month a “police riot” occurred at the hugely contentious Democratic National Convention.
1968 in general was a watershed year for violent confrontation worldwide. Pop culture smacked of the apocalypse (Night of the Living Dead, Planet of the Apes, something in Germany). There are entire books written about 1968. However, while most of it was violent in nature, the first interracial kiss on television (Captain Kirk’s little fling with Lt. Uhura) added a new, edgier dimension to race relations. There is also some levity to be gained from the chaos in retrospect, such as when the state of Alabama gave 1.5 votes at the DNC to Coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant. In fact, he got more votes than George Wallace. Roll Tide.
—THE WORST RIOTS—
After going through and weighting each statistic in Excel, I was able to determine a relative value of the scale and severity of each race riot. I then ranked them by that value, and came up with the list below.
I won’t go into formulaic detail, but in general: 1) Deaths got a pretty significant weight, 2) injuries came next, and 3) arrests followed in course. I also assigned values for the length of the riots, since a week long riot with no casualties would still be significant in scale, if not in severity. For all intents and purposes, the relative value is simply a measure of the degree to which each riot event impacted the people involved and its place in the historical record. The weights assigned to each variable are merely an expression of the ripples caused by actions during the event (death, injury, arrests, etc).
In all their bloody glory, your worst American race riots are featured below.
We all knew the Rodney King Riots would be up there somewhere. No matter what the weight of an arrest in my algorithm, 11,000 is sure to make a huge difference in where it places among the others, and rightfully so. Even if I had arrest data for the New York City Draft Riots, I highly doubt they would move above the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, meaning the Top 10 list is extremely accurate given that I’m not missing any other data until arrests in Chicago’s Red Summer (#11).
The only riots we haven’t seen are near the bottom. For instance, the New Orleans Massacre (#18) sits just below one of the deadliest race riots (in Memphis, TN), which occurred the same year (1866). This was a time of tremendous backlash against Northern authority, which was overhauling the racial status quo. I found 34 major Southern race riots from 1866-1899, five of which are in the list above. Louisiana stands out as a hotbed for postbellum malcontent, but Mississippi had at least six in this span, and the year 1876 alone saw at least seven race riots take place in South Carolina.
And that is where I will pick up a brief narrative.
Mass Racial Violence Following the Civil War
The post-Civil War period was the most expensive domestic post-war rebuilding effort, ever. Realizing that the South was too beaten up to start another war, the federal government backed off and cautiously observed Reconstruction from Washington. This allowed the South a shocking degree of autonomy in deciding what rights to award its ex-slaves.
Racial discrimination began to be informally practiced under the auspices of formal laws (i.e. Jim Crow), making life for Southern blacks almost as difficult as it had been during slavery. Whites figured that if they couldn’t enslave blacks, they’d avoid them altogether.
By far, the biggest win for segregationists was in May 1896, when the Supreme Court laid out the popular “separate but equal” clause in Plessy v. Ferguson. This firmly established a state’s right to segregate public facilities, and it continued for years after the Civil War. While some historians point their fingers at the South during this period, it was a federal court that drafted (and consistently upheld) laws allowing this to continue, and the growing popularity of “scientific racism” in the North merely confirmed the national consensus.
The U.S. at the beginning of the 20th Century was sluggish on the race issue, and violence continued to be one-sided. The Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 lasted a week and killed 27 people, a result of anti-black journalism leading up the gubernatorial elections. Three people died in Argenta, AR a month later after a white cop killed a black musician in a bathroom. In 1908, seven people died in Springfield, IL when white people rioted because a black murderer and another suspected rapist weren’t released to them for mob justice (ironically, more white people died in the riot than blacks).
Perhaps the most riotous single day in American history occurred on July 4, 1910 when a black boxer (Jack Johnson) defeated a former white champion (Jim Jeffries) who had come out of retirement to protect his crown. When the fight results were released, ensuing street battles killed at least 21 people and injured at least 81.
Most notably, the Fight Riots were the first time in U.S. history that black people actually started riots en masse. Although some of the 1876 riots in South Carolina could be traced to initial black aggression, this was the first time that urban blacks joined together in groups and escalated isolated incidents into riot events. Six people died in Georgia, four in Louisiana, and two each in Washington D.C., Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. Near the end of the month, 18 more people died in Palestine, TX in an unrelated incident.
Overall, the decade from 1910-1920 was extremely violent. The decade itself is bracketed by the Fight Riots in 1910 and the Red Summer of 1919, two of the deadliest summers in American history. The East St. Louis Riot and Camp Logan Riot of 1917 combined to kill 67 people, and then two riots in Pennsylvania in 1918 tacked on 10 more deaths to the decade.
The Interwar Period
The 1920s started promisingly for black Americans. Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association was gaining members, a pro-Civil Rights Republican was elected President, and an anti-lynching bill was making its way through Congress.
Alas, Garvey came under scrutiny for mail fraud and was eventually deported, Harding died a year into office, and the anti-lynching bill was filibustered. Even so, the decade doesn’t stand out as particularly violent in terms of race riots. This period saw an uptick in attacks on Asian immigrants (especially Filipinos) on the West Coast, but Americans were generally riding high until the stock market crashed in October 1929.
So began the Great Depression, the economically stagnate decade characterized by dust storms, massive unemployment, and a daily menu that would turn your stomach. If there’s one thing people misunderstand about the American South, it’s that whites and blacks there have always had one thing in common: Poverty.
There’s a certain fraternal understanding that comes from living in squalor together, and the 1930s brought most of the nation down to that level. Although the decade had at least one interesting racial narrative in the South (the Scottsboro Case of 1931-37), it was relatively quiet in terms of mass racial violence. The Harlem Riot of 1935 was the only major race riot I came across during this time, and any riot during this period suspected of being racial in nature must be reexamined through the lens of labor and unions.
If the Great Depression reprioritized class and race, the death toll of World War II was the great equalizer of both. The defeat of Nazi Germany shook the world’s view of racial superiority to its core, and as victorious troops came home to new jobs and a booming economy a new era of prosperity began. The summer of 1945 didn’t resemble the Red Summer of 1919 at all, but that’s not to say that racial inequality simply disappeared. On the contrary, it was about to come to the forefront of domestic policy as America positioned itself as the democratic example for aspiring capitalists worldwide.
Not everyone was as eager as blacks to put racial discrimination behind them. Even following the joyous end of the longest race war ever fought, inequality attempted to reinstate itself in traditional ways. For example, Chicago housing was a major race issue near the end of the decade, and it caused riots in West Elsdon in 1946, Fernwood in 1947, Englewood in 1949, and Cicero in 1951. Despite black gains made at the federal level (such as Executive Order 9981 – July 26, 1948), and even the local level in the American South (Journey of Reconciliation – April 9-23, 1947), it appeared that discrimination and segregation had reestablished itself in the American conscience.
That is, until the Supreme Court finally stood its ground.
In just four years, the U.S. Supreme Court attacked the very framework of racial segregation, particularly the brandname of Jim Crow itself. In November 1953, a mundane interstate bus travel incident turned into the first explicit rejection of Plessy v. Ferguson. Although not technically an act of the courts, this rejection of Plessy by a federal agency undermined its authority in a powerful way.
Momentum carried into the next year when the Supreme Court finally smashed “separate but equal” with the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education in May 1954. While it immediately applied only to public education, Brown destroyed the foundation of Plessy and completely overturned Cumming v. Richmond County BOE. Two years later, segregated busing in Alabama ended with Browder v. Gayle, which was upheld in a December 1956 appeal. A year later, Congress passed the first Civil Rights legislation in almost a century with the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (Sept 9, 1957).
This was the beginning of the end for the racial status quo, and whites seemed to know it. Tensions mounted as de facto white supremacy deteriorated. Just before CRA 1957, Little Rock Central High School had experienced one of the first integration fiascoes. Bloodshed was only avoided when President Eisenhower federalized National Guard troops to keep them out of the hands of the Governor, who had already ordered his state militia to the scene to support the anti-integrationists. In 1958, a KKK rally went sideways when a local Native American tribe chased them off. Somewhat poetically, the last “classic lynching” by most accounts took place a year later (Poplarville, MS).
The Civil Rights Movement
The 1960s continued what the mid-50s had started. In May 1960, another Civil Rights Act came out, this one protecting voter rights. It passed during the Greensboro sit-ins of February to July, which rattled Jim Crow in North Carolina and marked a shift in race relations there.
In Lexington, NC three years later, blacks rioted when they were refused service in a white-owned establishment. One person died, and another was injured. This was the first time since the Fight of the Century Riots in 1910 (and outside two riots in Harlem in ’35 and ’43) that blacks initiated mass racial violence in groups without being attacked by whites first.
Most race riots near the turn of the decade appear to have occurred in the American South, and integration faced huge challenges in the Deep South. In April 1960, a black man who had been kicked out of a ‘white’ beach in Biloxi challenged the segregation law cited in doing so. A group of blacks planned to come back a year later under the leadership of the same man who’d been kicked out, but he was the only one to show up. In an amusing act of rebellion, he swam anyway and was arrested for it. This shocked his erstwhile comrades into organizing a demonstration, and 100 blacks showed up at the beach. They were told to leave by whites, who eventually attacked them.
The university protests of the 1960s are remembered primarily for their anti-war message, but what happened at the University of Mississippi in 1962 was anything but peaceful. James Meredith, the university’s first black student, was threatened and told not to show up to the first day of class. He was escorted to class by U.S. Marshals, but white students were furious and began tearing the campus apart. President Kennedy sent troops to quell the violence. Meredith attended class the next day, but 2 people were left dead and 188 injured.
To this point, Alabama had avoided the more gruesome side of racial violence. There had been a few riots across the state during the Red Summer, and one in Mobile during WWII, but the state hadn’t experienced a truly deadly riot since seven people died in the Eufala Election Riot in 1874. However, “the most segregated city in the U.S.” became a bulls-eye for Martin Luther King, Jr. and, in early May 1963, a children’s march got the nation’s attention when fire hoses and police dogs were used on the participants.
This encouraged some city leaders to offer an olive branch to black residents. A gradual integration process was orchestrated behind closed doors following the marches, which satisfied both the city’s top leaders and King. However, some in the city (including police chief, Bull Connor) resisted this “Truce Agreement,” and when word got around that a bombing might take place in response, nothing was done to stop it.
King had already left for Atlanta by the time the first bomb exploded outside his brother’s window, and by the time a second bomb exploded outside the window of his now-vacated motel room, rumors circulated that the white police force was behind it. This sparked black riots across the city, and things got so bad over the next eight days that Kennedy placed the Alabama National Guard on standby. Military retaliation was never needed, but 50 people were injured over the week.
The next month, on June 11, 1963, Gov. George Wallace tried to one-up Orval Faubus by barring the door to the University of Alabama himself. In response, Kennedy delivered his famous “Civil Rights Address” on radio and television. Broadcasting from the Oval Office, he proposed another Civil Rights Act (of 1964), and by most accounts turned civil rights from a legal issue into a moral one. King called President Kennedy’s address “the most sweeping and forthright ever presented by an American president.”
Alabama solidified its place in Civil Rights history throughout 1963. A month after King’s March on Washington (where he made his famous “I Have A Dream Speech” to 300,000 people) on August 28, another bomb exploded outside a church in Birmingham, this time killing four little black girls. This monstrous act didn’t have the intended effect. Instead, it deepened the ‘moral argument’ and helped pass Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act through a hostile Congress, even in the face of a 54 day filibuster.
The irony, of course, is that Kennedy wasn’t even around to see his bill pass. In fact, it was his assassination in November 1963 that would ultimately push it through under the shrewd legislative navigation of his vice-president and successor. Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan by birth, would end up signing the most progressive Civil Rights legislation into law. It would also be under Johnson that the conflict in Vietnam would escalate. This seemed inevitable before he even took over the Presidency, since Ngô Đình Diệm had been assassinated just weeks before Kennedy and chaos had ensued there immediately. At home, though, it seemed that blacks were finally on their way toward racial equality, even in the American South.
1963 As the Turning Point in Racial Violence
The tumultuous year of 1963 was a turning point in American history. The Kennedy assassination alone would signal a major shift in both domestic legislation and the war in Vietnam, but for the purposes of this study the significance of 1963 runs much deeper.
Consider this: Only 10% of the major race riots that occurred before 1963 can be traced to the escalation of mass violence by groups of blacks.
That’s probably an unpleasant realization for white apologists quick to blame African-Americans for starting riots throughout U.S. history. In fact, what my research demonstrated to me was that white people before the Civil Rights Movement were easily the most aggressive race when it came to group racial violence.
Southern and mid-western whites in particular were committed to mob justice. If police didn’t release black prisoners to them, whites would head over to the black section of town and vent frustrations there. In all, what emerges from an investigation of pre-1963 mass racial violence is an image of whites as pouty, quick to anger, and fearful of black collectivism despite a clear numerical advantage (89% racial market share) over black people.
From 1963 on, however, the history of American mass racial violence takes a dramatic turn the other direction. Of the major race riots that have taken place since 1963, black escalation of mass violence occurred in 78% of them.
The influx of Hispanics in the last half-century has also changed the way we need to look at racial conflict. For instance, 16% of those post-’63 riots were wholly or partially instigated by groups of Latinos. Only 9% of major race riots since 1963 can be wholly or partially attributed to whites, and that includes riots escalated by police action in largely white departments.
A graphic illustration of race riot “blame” looks like this:
Many of you will question how I assigned “blame,” so let me clarify. I blame-tagged the race of people who used group violence to escalate any ethnic confrontation into a riot event. Remember, I’m studying riots, not murders, so while history books focus on a minute event like a murder, rape, or police brutality as the catalyst for confrontation, I’m more focused on the group of people who took it to the next level and started burning houses, looting stores, and beating people in the street.
Anyone doubting 1963 as the turning point for mass racial violence should look no further than the years that followed. Seven major race riots occurred in 1964, killing 5 and injuring 876. The violent escalation of every single one of those riot events can be traced to black participants. The violence had also shifted back north again, and all these took place in large industrialized areas in the Northeast (2 in NY, 3 in NJ, 1 in PA) and Midwest (Chicago).
1965 opened with another assassination, this time of Malcolm X in New York City. He had been the edgier uncle figure to King’s paternal role in the Civil Rights movement, and X was actually of the mind that whites and blacks shouldn’t even mix. However, splitting from the Nation of Islam in favor of Sunni exposed him to the danger he helped create. His own former disciples shot him (on stage) in front of his new ones.
The legislative front was quiet until “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, AL, the first of three marches intended to go all the way to Montgomery. Eventually, King and his followers made it to the state capital in mid-March of ’65, but not before white police beat up enough people to make the papers and evening news again. This helped push through the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in August, which to this day is considered by the U.S. Department of Justice to be “the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.” Four days later, the Watts section of L.A. exploded in week-long violence, an odd response to being guaranteed voting rights by the American government.
1966 gave us our first major Latin riot (the Division Street Riots), when a cop in Chicago shot someone after a Puerto Rican parade. The Hough Riots (pronounced “Huff”) in Cleveland were the most serious that year, when a bar owner refused to serve a black man and 50 of his comrades proceeded to throw bricks and fire guns all over the place (killing four). On the other side of the state in Dayton, a black man was shot while sweeping his sidewalk, prompting rioting all over the black section of town.
The riotous years of 1967 and 1968 have been mentioned already, but it didn’t end there. 1969 saw two major riots in Omaha, NE and York, PA. Four riots broke out in 1970, the deadliest taking place in Augusta, GA following the jail killing of a mentally-challenged black teen by other prisoners. Four more broke out in 1971, the worst being the Camden Riots, another Hispanic affair.
Mass racial violence dissipated through the 1970s, and while there are bursts of it here and there (New York in 1977, Miami in 1980, L.A. in 1992), we don’t see anything near the quantity of 1910, 1919, or 1967-68. You can thank an increasingly militarized police force for that, since any racial group attempting to escalate violence after 1968 would be met by riot squads with tear gas, rubber bullets, and tasers (if not tanks and snipers).
The fact that nobody died during the 17 days of unrest in Ferguson in 2014 is remarkable when you consider the mayhem that police forces have managed to cause in a single day at events such as Tompkins Square Park (New York, 1988), the Democratic National Convention in (Chicago, 1968), Texas Southern University (1967), Bloody Sunday (Selma, Al, 1965), Red Summer: Bisbee (Arizona, 1919), and the Haymarket Riots (Chicago, 1886).
Altogether, the history of American race riots isn’t one of consistent violence year in and year out. Any broader survey of American mass racial violence will inevitably need to focus on various spikes throughout the last two centuries, most notably those in 1910, 1919, and 1967-68. Decennial studies could highlight the 1870s, the 1910s, and the 1960s, but the biggest takeaway from the timeline below is that a remarkable share of American race riots have taken place in short spans of time.
Population, Regionalism, and Mother Nature’s Role in Race Rioting
Take a look at the U.S. race riot map below.
The map overlays riot events with population density (highlighted in blue), and it shows that urban areas have easily been the most popular stage for mass racial violence, accounting for over 70% of American race riots.
Urbanization is the crucial ingredient for race riots. Simply put, rural areas don’t have the population needed to start a riot, and even the “rural” race riots in my data set usually took place in county seats (small compared to NYC, but still a population center). The only truly rural race riots were slave rebellions, manhunts, and unrest taking place in small mining towns.
The regionalism of American race riots is hard to ignore in the map above. The most riotous area of the country has been the Greater American South (TX, AR, LA, MS, LA, AL, GA, SC, NC, VA, KY), which holds a 36% share of all American race riots. The Black Belt alone (aka Deep South – LA, MS, AL, GA, SC) accounts for 22% of race riots in the U.S. Most of these, especially the rural ones, took place during Jim Crow. I left Florida out of these calculations, because Florida is so demographically schizophrenic. If you’re curious, Florida alone accounts for 4%.
This is not to say that other regions are less rambunctious. In fact, there have been far more riots per square mile in the American Northeast (MD, DE, PA, NJ, NY, CT, MA, RI) than anywhere else in the country. 29% of American race riots have taken place across the megalopolis from D.C. to Boston, which is a fraction of the Greater American South’s surface area.
While the Greater American Midwest (OH, IN, MI, IL, WI, MO, OK, NE, KS, IA, MN) only contributes to 19% of all mass racial violence in the US, the Rust Belt (the crumbling former industrial areas straddling the Midwest/Northeast line) hosted 23%. Pennsylvania is responsible for that little statistical anomaly (i.e. more riots in four less states).
This regionalistic view also shows a mere 7% of American race riots occurring on the West Coast. This could be because of its relatively recent settlement compared to the original colonies, but I think it’s still worth noting that while two of the worst riots in memory took place in Los Angeles, a third of the worst race riots in U.S. history have taken place in the American Northeast.
There’s another thing the riot plot map shows, and that is an overlap with the most humid regions of the United States. Anyone who has experienced intense, East Coast humidity will appreciate the following data.
Take another look at the riot plot map above, and then look at this one below.
What you’ll notice is a clear overlap of the most riotous half of the U.S. with the most humid half of the country. Humidity makes the heat index in the American South downright oppressive. It frequently creeps north along the coast into urbanized areas from Washington, D.C. (which is built on a swamp) to New York City, and it extends as far northwest as Nebraska. Wealth gaps are wide in cities, but class divisions are frequently only a street apart. Being cramped and hot makes city life all the more miserable, and mass racial violence is a common response.
There is one exception: The 1936 North American heat wave is widely considered the most severe in the modern history of North America. It is reported to have caused 5,000 heat-related deaths, and given the state of the U.S. economy at the time, life for urban Americans in particular probably couldn’t have gotten much worse. Life was so bad that even civil unrest took a break. Under such apocalyptic conditions throughout the 1930s, one might expect more than three major race riots, but it seems America was too depressed to be angry.
The same cannot be said for other periods. Look at the “Long Hot Summer of 1967.” I’ve mentioned the rioting in passages above, but in terms of the weather that gave it such a name, it’s worth noting here.
The heat wasn’t just bad in the East. Seattle’s hottest month on record was August 1967. Martha and the Vandellas probably set the soundtrack for Detroit’s 1967 summer a few years too early, but what the group didn’t do was write a song about the deep freeze that would come in Detroit just months before it. It’s little wonder that the The Motor City erupted in violence that year.
A full 73% of American race riots have occurred between May 1 and September 30, and over a third of all American race riots have taken place in the month of July.
Urbanization and summer heat clearly impact the likelihood of rioting, but I also wanted to see if full moons had any effect on riot activity. The reason for this was purely anecdotal, and more for fun than anything.
Police departments staff-up for full moons, especially if they fall on a weekend. There was a case in Montreal where small riots and stabbings citywide were blamed by officials on a full moon in 1983. A year later, a study was done analyzing the frequency of crime reported in three dissimilar cities to see if any spikes occurred during a full moon. The results indicated there was a correlation, and the authors suggested that the higher incidence of crimes on full moon days may be due to “human tidal waves” caused by the gravitational pull of the moon. Apparently, that was just one of more than 40 studies by the late-80s that tried to make the lunar effect connection.
There is a full moon every month, so there is ~3% chance that a riot will start on a full moon night. I expanded my survey to the full riot length (start to finish) and any full moon nights within at least one day of those events. Using these parameters, I found that 15% of major American race riots took place during or within one day of a full moon, which does exceed that 3% probability. I’m not sure what this actually proves, since some of the full moons counted occurred after the rioting events, but in most full moon studies the entire full moon week is measured. This means the association between full moons and riot events could actually be stronger than what I found.
A few instances stood out to me. The first was in 1966, where there was a period of three full moons in a row (Aug 1, Aug 31, and Sept 29) that saw race riots in Omaha, Dayton, and San Francisco, respectively. Another thing I noticed was in April 1968, a time of widespread civil unrest near a total lunar eclipse (Apr 13). The July 21, 1967 full moon occurred during three of the Long Hot Summer riots.
I also looked closely at 1919, and I did see a strong indicator for that July 13 full moon. I don’t have a lot of end dates for the 1919 riots, but of the 34 I have that are part of the Red Summer, 19 of them took place in July and 8 of those took place the week of the full moon. Two of the June 1919 riots started on a full moon (June 13). If you’re wondering if the 2014 Ferguson riots took place during a full moon, they did (Aug 10).
A Few Final Observations On…
Police action in all of these riots would require a study unto itself. Of the 114 riots where I was actually able to track it, only 11 of them didn’t see large scale police action (meaning 90% did). This number should actually be larger since I’m investigating major race riots, and the term “major” would imply that it was big enough for local police to intervene. There were certainly times when police did not intervene, but if you assume that troop intervention (which I also tried to track) was preceded by large-scale police action, the frequency of police action jumps slightly to 92%.
Intervention wasn’t the sole nature of police operations. I also saw a lot of police activity that caused mobs to gather (shootings, beatings, arrests, etc). These jostling crowds provided the setting for a racial group to escalate things. To be fair, though, the nature of the police activity that brought the crowd wasn’t always negative.
For instance, in many cases in the late-19th Century, whites went rampaging through towns solely because local authorities upheld law and order by not allowing a lynch mob access to black prisoners. You’d be surprised at how often this happened, and it’s important to understand that white cops were putting their very lives at risk for black prisoners who, more often than not, ended up being guilty (albeit under dubious judicial circumstances).
White Americans have rioted against nearly every foreign racial group, even themselves (see Orange Riots). East Coast “Nativism” became a formality with the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), and continued in practice all the way through the mid-19th Century.
Anti-Catholicism was fairly common in the early American Northeast, especially when Irish immigrants were involved. The span from 1842-1844 saw at least three Nativist riots in Philadelphia alone. As for the West Coast, the first race riots in California were anti-Chinese in nature. There were also a few notable anti-Filipino riots from Washington to California in the 1920s, and a few cases of violence against other groups (Germans, Jews, Slavs, Arabs, East Indians, etc).
Italians drew particular hatred from locals when they started showing up, and Louisianans seemed to have a harder time coping with their presence. In 1891, nine Italians were lynched in New Orleans after they were accused of murdering the city’s police chief. The lynchings were followed by mass arrests of Italian immigrants throughout New Orleans, and another five years later three more Italians were hung just outside of New Orleans in Hahnville. In 1899, five more were lynched in Tallulah, LA. What stands out about anti-Italian violence isn’t so much the fact that they were suffering the same fate as people of a much darker complexion, but that when it was all over the United States government tended to quickly notify the Italian consulate if the murdered individual(s) had not been naturalized.
I didn’t see this happening for any other racial group. I wasn’t really looking. It just seemed odd to me that the Feds would go out of their way to notify Italian ambassadors of a murder, but not the ambassadors of all the other first and second generation immigrants being attacked all over America. I’d be interested to see if there were any Italian treaties at risk, considering America’s imperialistic moves near the turn of the century.
White people usually had a clear target for their anger when they rioted. The numbers are hard to calculate, but in general it appears that only 4% of race riots instigated by whites victimized whites of the same ethnicity. While it seems that there was a lot of intraracial white violence in the 19th Century, it usually had a subtle ethnic theme (e.g. Irish-Catholics vs. Irish-Protestants).
When it comes to white-on-black rioting (which accounts for 71% of riots blamed on white people), whites usually headed directly for black neighborhoods to cause trouble. They didn’t go to loot, and I only saw one or two instances of white-on-black rape during a riot event. What I did see a lot of was white people burning black sections of town so that blacks were forced to leave town or start all over from scratch.
On the other hand, blacks demonstrated indiscriminate violence in 50% of their riots, and a further 12% of black riots were directed specifically at their own racial groups. This basically means that black people tear up their own neighborhoods in as many as 62% of the riots that they start. While some might call this an irrational expression of rage, 32% of black riots have been directed specifically at white people, and some of the indiscriminate cases included violence against whites as well (see Reginald Denny), so blacks are obviously capable of focusing their rage at another racial group.
–The Effect of Rumors–
It’s amazing how much death and destruction can flow out of the rumor mill. Detroit’s 1943 riot escalated with a rumor that a mob of whites had thrown an African-American mother and her baby into the Detroit River. Another false rumor the same day swept white neighborhoods that blacks had raped and murdered a white woman on the Belle Isle Bridge. By the end of the whole ordeal, 34 people were dead, 700 were injured, and 1,800 had been arrested, making it the 8th worst race riot in American history
The mid-1960s saw a lot of riots that were started and fueled by hearsay. Rumors about police violence kindled the 1964 riot in Rochester when cops responded to a call about a drunk, aggressive black man. Most notable about that incident is that the cops were on pretty good terms with the black wards they were called to (even the kids who lived there), and outside agitation was blamed for spreading the rumors that started the riot.
The same year, riots started in Dixmoor when it was erroneously suggested that a black woman had been beaten by the store owner who had caught her stealing liquor. In Newark (1967), a black man was moved to a local hospital following a messy arrest, but it got around that he had been killed while in police custody. Outraged rioters began destroying buildings and confronting/attacking police. The MLKJ riot in Cincinnati in 1968 worsened when a black man killed his wife and people heard that a white cop did it. A year later in Camden, unfounded rumors spread that a young black girl had been beaten by a white police officer.
Pregnant women have been used as riot bait in two notable instances. Rumors spread throughout North Philadelphia in August 1964 that a pregnant black woman had been beaten to death by white police officers. In truth, the woman had gotten into an argument with two police officers (one black, one white) after her car stalled. The argument went on, a large crowd assembled in the area, another man attacked the police officers at the scene, and both he and the woman were arrested. In Watts a year later, everyone thought two pregnant black women had been “roughed up” by police, but neither was pregnant or roughed up.
Rape has also been used as riot bait numerous times. Trumped-up rape charges against a black man sparked the 1863 Detroit race riot. The Omaha race riot in 1891 happened under the suspicion that a black man had raped a white child. Three separate incidents in 1906 (Chattanooga, Greensburg, and Brownsville) were about rape. A series of rapes fueled the 1919 Omaha riot (yes, another Red Summer riot). In Rosewood, FL in 1923 everyone thought a white woman had been raped by a black man, so they lynched him. Rioting followed when blacks retaliated as a group. Shipworkers in Beaumont in 1943 rioted when rumors got around that a black man had raped a white girl. Some of these were rumors, and others we’ll never know because white mob justice prevented any trial from taking place.
While I certainly didn’t cover all American race riots, I feel that I covered enough to highlight significant trends. Those trends, while they are likely controversial and debatable, were calculated through a straightforward analysis of the relevant data, and my methods benefit from the fact that I came into this project with no real goals, just aggressive curiosity. I merely graphically interpreted and narrated the histories as they stand today.
Plenty of well-meaning, straightforward analyses have come under fire from multiple camps for appearing biased and insensitive to various racial groups. The one that springs to mind is The Bell Curve (1994), a massive tome that examined genetic predispositions for intelligence. A barrage of pedantic criticisms were hurled its way, none of them sufficiently overturning the findings, but all of them hoping to tarnish the academic reputation of the authors.
In works of social science, there will always be another interpretation of the data, which is why being first is so important. This is the first race riot study of its kind, so if you want to disprove it, go right ahead. If you’re a scholar interested in expanding on this work, I’ll even provide you my extensive data set.
After all of this, my only regret is that Andy Warhol’s misnomered Race Riot recently sold for $62,885,000. I mean, what the hell…
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