Digital History

America in Ferment: The Tumultuous 1960s

The Civil Rights Movement Moves North Previous Next
Digital History ID 3332



On August 11, 1965, riots ignited in Watts, a predominantly black section of Los Angeles, after the arrest of a 21-year-old for drunk driving. The riots occurred only five days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. The violence lasted five days and resulted in 34 deaths, 3,900 arrests, and the destruction of over 744 buildings and 200 businesses in a 20-square-mile area. Rioters smashed windows, hurled bricks and bottles from rooftops, and stripped store shelves.

Over the next four summers, the nation's inner cities experienced a wave of violence and rioting. The worst violence occurred during the summer of 1967, when riots occurred in 127 cities. In Newark, 26 persons lost their lives, over 1,500 were injured, and 1,397 were arrested. In Detroit, 43 people died, $500 million in property was destroyed, and 14-square-miles were gutted by fire. The last major wave of violence occurred following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. Violence erupted in 168 cities, leaving 46 dead, 3,500 injured, and $40 million worth of damage. In Washington, D.C., fires burned within three blocks of the White House.

In 1968, President Johnson appointed a commission to examine the causes of the race riots of the preceding three summers. Led by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, the commission attributed racial violence to "white racism" and its heritage of discrimination and exclusion. Joblessness, poverty, a lack of political power, decaying and dilapidated housing, police brutality, and poor schools bred a sense of frustration and rage that had exploded into violence. The commission warned that unless major steps were taken, the United States would inevitably become "two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal."

Until 1964, most white Northerners regarded race as a peculiarly Southern problem that could be solved by extending political and civil rights to Southern blacks. Beginning in 1964, however, the nation learned that discrimination and racial prejudice were nationwide problems and that black Americans were demanding not just desegregation in the South, but equality in all parts of the country. The nation also learned that resistance to black demands for equal rights was not confined to the Deep South, but existed in the North as well.

In the North, African Americans suffered, not from de jure (legal) segregation, but from de facto discrimination in housing, schooling, and employment--discrimination that lacked the overt sanction of law. "De facto segregation," wrote James Baldwin, “means that Negroes are segregated but nobody did it." The most obvious example of de facto segregation was the fact that the overwhelming majority of Northern black schoolchildren attended predominantly black inner-city schools, while most white children attended schools with an overwhelming majority of whites. In 1968--fourteen years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision--federal courts began to order busing as a way to deal with de facto segregation brought about by housing patterns. In April 1971, in the case of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Supreme Court upheld "bus transportation as a tool of school desegregation."

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